PROJECT

A Civic Leg

Wealdstone

29 October 2018

Since the beginning of 2018, London newspaper headlines have carried a consistently grisly theme. Acts of youth crime – murder, gang violence and stabbing among victims as young as 11 – have been reported with chilling regularity in the city. The tragedies have brought to the surface a problem rooted in austerity measures put in place by the UK government following the 2008 recession. The issue is complex, but many blame deep cuts to policing and youth services for a situation in which an entire generation – as well as larger swathes of society – has been left behind.

In January 2017, a report by London Assembly member Sian Berry warned that cuts in youth services have a devastating effect on crime prevention, removing vital support to teenagers susceptible to joining gangs or turning to criminal or anti-social behaviour. It found that at least £22m has been slashed from youth-service budgets across London since 2011, with the
average council reducing spending by 36 per cent.

Wealdstone, north-west London, is one part of the city where such cuts are keenly felt. The former industrial area is 10.5 miles from the capital’s centre. Large local employers, such as the Kodak factory, have been in decline, with 6,000 jobs lost locally since 1981. In early May, a 15-year-old boy was shot on the local high street, with a 13-year-old gunned down minutes later nearby. The incidents happened in a 24-hour period that saw five shootings in London. The local police station in Wealdstone closed a few years ago and remains boarded up. “It’s pretty bleak,” says Matt Weston, director of the regeneration agency Spacemakers. “Young people dealing drugs and going into gangs at 13 or 14. Knife crime, shootings: that’s the press story.”

Spacemakers, together with architects We Made That and graphic designers Europa, won a contract from Harrow Council to create a new public space for Wealdstone in late 2016. Regeneration is a contentious issue in the UK capital. For decades, the market has dictated the shape of the city. In poorer boroughs, the standard approach is to slap a hasty re-brand on forgotten areas to push up land values and drive growth. Little consideration is given to the desires of existing residents, who frequently feel alienated by the process. Spacemakers (formed in 2009 after its part in the revival of a covered market in Brixton, south London) has a history of using design to engage with regeneration in more delicate and imaginative ways, however. It published a fanzine for Tottenham to give locals a voice after the 2011 London riots, established a temporary “university” in Kilburn to help the community re-imagine what its ailing high street could be, and created a mobile town square to start new conversations about civic space in Cricklewood.

Getting to grips with Wealdstone’s problems required a similarly unusual approach. An opportunity to work on its 3,700sqm town square arose when the council’s civic centre relocated to the locality from Harrow, a wealthier area just a mile away. As well as the new council premises, the plans include includes 1,000 new homes. The ambition is for the public space to be a cohesive element for the communities that will co-exist in Wealdstone. The project’s funding comes from a £1.5m pot awarded to Harrow from the Greater London Authority, under the London Regeneration Fund. A much larger £1.75bn programme, Building a Better Harrow, is aimed at transforming Harrow and Wealdstone town centres with new housing, schools and jobs. Weston says the influx of funding is welcome, but the investment nonetheless needs careful handling: “There’s the risk of Botox-y regeneration: nice paving, sexy bins. Communities won’t just come together by building a square. You have to change the dynamics.”

Time spent in Wealdstone, for instance, revealed a lack of places for people to gather, especially in the evening. Talking to neighbours and local businesses, Spacemakers found that groups of youths were consistently perceived as the area’s main problem. To address the negative stigma head on, the agency identified that young people should be part of the solution and involved in planning the new space. Weston says: “[We asked:] is there a project where we can re-direct some of this money into the pockets of young people? Is there something short-term we can do to affect a few young lives?” Spacemakers spotted an opportunity that could be gained by re-allocating £30,000 of the regeneration budget set aside for temporary street furniture. Instead of choosing off-the-shelf items, they proposed using the money to fund a youth workshop to design bespoke pieces instead. A sum of £10,000 was set aside to commission an established designer-maker to lead the project, and £15,000 was made available for the materials and essentials, and to pay the participants. A further £5,000 was earmarked for the graphic designer Karolina Cialkaite, who grew up in Wealdstone, to support the project locally.

Selling the idea of the Wealdstone Youth Workshop to a normally risk-averse council was the next challenge. Weston proposed it as a “circular transaction” rather than a one-way expenditure without return to the community: “We were telling them this is a process rather than a product. And that’s a hard thing for a council to say yes to.” Three successful precedents were used to bolster the cause. The first was Cucula,1 a Berlin-based project that trains refugees to make wooden furniture from designer Enzo Mari’s 1974 Autoprogettazione manual. Product designer Sebastian Däschle trialled the first workshop with five West African refugees in 2013, aiming to empower and equip them with professional skills. After an initial crowdfunding campaign, and with the help of supporters, the company now trains eight refugees at a time and has begun developing a furniture collection designed by the project’s trainees under the tutelage of Jerszy Seymour.

The second example was Assemble’s work in Granby Street, a blighted area of Liverpool in which the community had been gradually eroded by various regeneration projects. In 2015, Assemble launched Granby Workshop, a series of ceramics workshops with residents that became a model of local designer-led manufacturing. The London-based collective guided the work, leading to a range of products and fittings that community members could then produce on-site in small batches. The first items were a series of fixtures and fittings made for 10 homes saved from demolition by local residents in 2011. The workshop continues to operate (with help from crowdfunding) and now has a wider product range that it uses to fulfil individual orders and commissions beyond the area.

Martino Gamper’s Arnold Circus stool was the third source of inspiration, showing how a single distinctive product could serve as a symbol of local pride. Designed in 2006, the distinctive, rotation-moulded piece has a tear-shaped seat, comes in a range of bright colours, and is stackable and lightweight. It was developed as the official seating for public events in Arnold Circus, a historic bandstand and garden at the centre of the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, east London. In 2004, the bandstand was in a state of disrepair, attracting anti-social behaviour. Lack of council support inspired a local resident group to tackle the regeneration and establish a programme of annual events to activate the space. The stool has now become a successful product in its own right.

These three cases set a precedent for engaging local communities in design and manufacture, but Wealdstone Youth Workshop was the first attempt to work with such a young local group – all the participants were aged 17 to 18. Local design, rather than manufacture, was the focus, but the solution still had to be low-cost, simple to develop and a point of distinction for the area. In finding a designer-maker to lead the project, Spacemakers sought a studio that had the agility to work with unknowns, and the generosity to lead a genuine collaboration with the young participants. It was vital that they were listened to and encouraged to develop design skills. “We were worried about the designer-maker doing all the work, but that’s not really what happened,” Weston says. “The challenge was really about giving young people agency.”

Silo Studio, founded by designers Oscar Lessing and Attua Aparicio Torinos, were chosen to lead the workshop. Their brief was to carry out eight sessions and three public events with the group, working towards an outdoor seating solution for 50 people. The seats would need to last five years, be used for temporary events in the square, and be stored in a small kiosk when not in use. “We were excited about the project,” says Lessing. “More than a proposal, we put together a mission statement about what we thought was an important agenda.” Despite a timeframe of just six months from initial workshop to first product, Silo proposed a programme that could respond to the participants’ direction. They opened their mission statement with a Charles Eames quote: “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

The east London-based designers are adept at embracing risk. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art seven years ago, they have consistently challenged norms with unusual works. Projects include textile-moulded glassware in candy colours that appears to bulge despite being empty; floppy profiles of part-expanded polystyrene that bend and knot together to create furniture; and serving trays made by squeezing plastic out of a thin nozzle and pressing it into shape. The work is idiosyncratic but purposeful, revealing something unknown about a material or process that has so far escaped mainstream industry. Although Silo’s characterful (and often colourful) works look like good fun, their wow effect is hard-won. For every eureka moment and happy accident in the factory, there is a catalogue of trial and error. “Despite how ridiculous our stuff looks, honesty and authenticity are important to us. We’re really just trying to show what the material is about,” Aparicio Torinos and Lessing explain.

Silo’s work traditionally develops out of exploration of a material or methodology, but the workshops presented Aparicio Torinos and Lessing with the challenge of beginning from the young people themselves. “We like to let a material do things and see what’s possible. That’s often what gives us direction,” says Aparicio. “In this case it was the group. It was about exposing them to things and seeing their reaction.” Fifteen young people initially applied to take part, encouraged through schools, adverts, posters and Cialkaite’s work in spreading the word. Eight local participants aged 17 and 18 were chosen. Two dropped out of the process early, but the final six – Esther Calinawan, Kayleigh Littlemore, Leo Harrison, Marina Marbella, Marius Dinu and Tanya Galia – continued to the end.

A spirit of collaboration was encouraged from the start. In the selection interview, each participant would work on a design with model-making materials for a set time and then pass it on to another. “The goal was to make them not so precious about what they do. And [show] it’s not like a competition where someone’s idea wins,” says Aparicio Torinos. It was also a chance to observe the young people’s attitude to making. Those who responded well to collaboration were chosen, with the overall mix having complementary skills. Littlemore, who lives in Harrow Weald and is studying history at university, was at first daunted by the creative aspect of the process. “Drawing isn’t something I do very often, but something I found I really loved,” she says, while her strong analytical skills made her a valuable part of the team. “Silo really brought out the best in each of us, learning from each other what each of us could do.”

The first sessions took place in a local café and later the council found space to host the group in one of its car parks. Though not part of the brief, the designers made the most of the unusual situation by building an enclosed temporary classroom on the footprint of a few parking spaces. Despite the dingy surroundings, the ad-hoc base meant that the group could return to its work every Saturday without interruption. Silo began each day with a starter presentation – initially on a piece of history, material, person, thing or place. As well as images of public spaces, the group were shown design examples such as Curro Claret’s La Pieza (2012), a low-cost laser-cut metal bracket aimed at joining various found elements together to make simple furniture. The furniture was made in collaboration with the Arrels Foundation, a group dedicated to helping the homeless in Barcelona. The sessions ended with debates about how best to move forward. Early workshops included observations of Wealdstone to find a vernacular language, cutting and CNC engraving shapes into wood, and a public event to test the idea of self-assembly furniture – allowing seating arrangements to be put together flexibly.

In the fourth session, the idea for a component rather than a complete chair began to crystallise. The deciding factors were space-saving (the chairs must stack or fold to fit in a small on-site storage kiosk); economy (the budget would stretch much further by making a repeatable component); and a desire to go beyond the council’s limited brief. In particular, Aparicio Torinos taught the group: “As a designer, one thing is what they expect from you, and another is what you want to do.” The production of a component – later titled the Wealdstone Leg – would also provide an opportunity for a small-scale production business beyond the project at hand. “We could choose to make 50 iconic chairs, or we could choose to make more with the same money,” says Dinu, who studies architecture and product design at Harrow College. For the young participants, the project was a first taste of making something fit for the real world and the impact of economics on decision-making. “We wanted them to understand the bigger picture of it: what it would really be like to be a product designer,” says Lessing. “On process and materials, they were involved in every aspect.”

The group eventually selected injection-moulding as the best production method for the leg, having weighed up the pros and cons of rotation moulding, CNC tube bending and laminated plywood. The biggest investment was the steel die, which took three weeks to machine. Bibby Engineers, a Cornwall-based toolmaking and moulding firm, made the die and the first batch of 500 legs. Silo had worked with them in 2013 for PPPPP, its range of pressed polypropylene and paper pulp trays. Building on knowledge from that project, Silo turned to the same material for the leg: a composite of 60 per cent polypropylene and 40 per cent paper pulp. While structural plastics are more commonly reinforced with glass fibres for strength (the same technology that gives the thrilling S-shape of the Panton chair), sustainably sourced paper pulp has the advantage of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in production.

The form of the leg is mostly functional: an L-shaped structural section that provides strength using minimal material. A dose of personality comes by way of its rainbow palette of colours, and the mottled appearance given by clumps of paper fibres. Dying the raw material before moulding also makes the product a “through-colour” solution. Rather than painting or applying a finish to a basic leg, which would require treating and maintaining over time, the legs come off the production line in their own inherent shade and need little finishing. A characterful quirk – testament to Silo’s love of the factory error – is the marbled mix of colours in some of the pieces, where the dye has been switched over during the production process. “It had to be loud enough, but not so much that it’s screaming,” says Lessing.

The group are clearly pleased with the economy of their invention, as well as its punk aesthetic. “We couldn’t injection-mould a whole chair, but we could do a leg. We thought: ‘if you can do a leg, what else can you do with it?’” says Harrison, who lives in Wealdstone and hopes to study engineering. As well as legs for stools, chairs and tables, the component can be used as a shelf bracket, arm or support for a bench back. At £10 a go, it’s also good value for money. Multipurpose products have marketing advantages too. “If it does more than one thing, you can sell it as more than one thing,” says Littlemore. Interested customers can buy whole pieces or singlelegs to adapt to their own designs. To keep it cheap, standard lengths of plywood will be used to complete the range of seating for the square. The students will receive a royalty from each sale, on top of their £500 stipend for taking part in the project. The group stretched the budget further to make a retail website (w-y-w.co.uk). The leg debuted with a temporary showcase in the Barbican shop. “Something we designed on display somewhere like [the Barbican] – it’s not something I thought I’d ever see,” says Harrison. “It’s a really big thing,” Dinu agrees. “To have a website, to be selling products made by us – to think that without us this wouldn’t have happened.”

Many designers have the ambition to work on social projects, but special determination and tact are needed to achieve meaningful collaborations. Silo’s energy seems to have kept the youths engaged, while at the same time, patience has helped give the group self-belief. “We were navigators and they made the decisions,” says Lessing. “It was clear that they had to decide what they wanted to get from the project.” From the outside, it’s hard to know how the collaboration truly worked, however. Looking at the professionalism of the outcome, you might think Silo’s expertise is largely at play, but hearing the participants speak, it’s clear they feel genuinely invested in the product too. To pull off the trick that the Arnold Circus stool managed – making the leg fit the dual purpose of local and consumer interest – is not an easy feat. “We want the furniture to be iconic, beautiful and stand-out,” says Lessing. “Something that’s accepted by as many people as possible but acknowledged by the design community as well.” If you knew nothing about the Wealdstone Leg, it would hold up as a good piece of design – it does an effective job of being seen, but has a surprising velvety touch too, thanks to its paper fibres. As a product, it’s light and playful – not just because of its pop colours, but because of encouraging self creativity and playing with the rules of what furniture should be.

Wealdstone may get its icon when the square opens, but a few of its young people now have the opportunity to go on producing. The funding for the workshop has ended, but it still owns the die and a day in the factory is enough time to produce 200 legs. “The risk is out of the project now, so it should be very easy for the council or Mayor of London to find the cash to do more,” says Weston. He adds that furniture for the town hall, due to complete in 2020, is another potential commission. What’s more, the experience has changed its participants. Most got involved because they want to go on to study a design discipline. They’ve enjoyed an unrivalled taster in the fundamentals of research, structure, aesthetics, materials and economics – and in a form that hasn’t been oversimplified. There have been other benefits too. “I think this project is a big step for Wealdstone,” says Dinu. “We actually showed that it is possible. Students around here are able to create this kind of stuff. And they don’t need a huge amount of money.”

Speaking to the group, it’s clear that they are motivated. They’re bright and curious and it’s hard to imagine them getting caught up in the same headlines as others their age. The chemistry of this cohort has made the workshop a success; it’s problematic to think that scaling the model would improve more lives. The workshop was conceived as a response to a specific set of problems based on local research and engagement. A one-size-fits-all approach to other troubled areas wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect. Weston says the aim was to change perceptions and inspire belief where there was little. “Right now, we’ve done what we needed to do and it’s created a new narrative for those young people. This is an idea that was created in response to Wealdstone. We haven’t got the intention to start setting up youth workshops all over London.”

Wealdstone Youth Workshop is a positive story in a sea of bad news. But to task the project with solving the uncomfortable issues London has with crime, inequality and regeneration would be impossible. It’s in a design context that the initiative can offer greater lessons. After its community-led precedents, Wealdstone has proved furniture design can be a tool for inspiring local enterprise. For all its theory, design can operate as a practical base on which to build a common language. Everyone knows what a chair is. This project gives new meaning to what it can do.