It’s never been done before. Meet the creative trailblazers opening their doors on Lower Stable Street at Coal Drops Yard — the only place where a magazine has curated an entire avenue of experimental stores. Sophie Harris goes underground to meet them…
Tucked under the gigantic, swan-like wings of Coal Drops Yard, something very special is happening.
It’s not immediately obvious — you have to go looking for it, or at the very least, be taking a flâneur-style stroll through the area. But subterranean arts hub Lower Stable Street is a crucial part of the creative and commercial regeneration of King’s Cross.
Lower Stable Street is made up of the Victorian horse-stalls that run beneath Coal Drops Yard, and there is a sense in which the creative energy generated by its tenants will be bubbling up from this secret space into the huge, open areas above it. This defiantly human way of thinking is a remarkable approach to planning a massive, essentially commercial development; its singularity is entirely appropriate for such a storied part of London.
Maverick creative James Bowthorpe, together with the developers, were tasked with choosing the unusual, design-based businesses that operate on the street, based on the units that were originally designed by Heatherwick Studios. He’s the editor-in-chief of Kiosk magazine, a chic KX-based publication inspired by Bowthorpe’s love of Parisian side-streets — which, by pleasing coincidence, was the idea that drove Heatherwick’s plan. Bowthorpe sees Lower Stable Street as a kind of layer between its neighbours, Central Saint Martins art school — famous for its spirit of experimentation — and the high-end retail spaces of Coal Drops Yard. A softly-spoken mover and shaker, Bowthorpe has an intriguing portfolio; besides overseeing a magazine, he’s designed and built furniture, directed music videos, collaborated on art projects and even modelled in Japan. This gives him a unique insight into the workings of Lower Stable Street’s tenants — each of whom operates an array of offshoot projects from their main business. Suffice to say, when it comes to meeting the tenants themselves, they’re almost comically busy.
“It’s total mayhem here!” says Laura Houseley, laughing. She’s the editor of Modern Design Review, and besides setting up her Lower Stable Street space, she’s in the process of finishing the latest issue of the magazine and curating two exhibitions for the London Design Festival. “I think we’re all slightly mental here to be honest,” she says, of her commitment to overseeing all the aspects of the company she started from scratch. “Modern Design Review was born out of a certain amount of frustration,” she explains. “The design world is so creative and effervescent, and at the time I started the magazine, design publishing wasn’t affording it the same creativity that it deserved — I felt it was important to try to match it.” Accordingly, Houseley’s focus is on up-and-coming designers, rather than established names; the magazine reads like a breath of fresh air. “I really enjoy working with people who are on the fringes of the design world,” she says. The layout, too, is far from by-the-book. “I wanted the magazine to be a piece of design in and of itself,” says Houseley, “and I really hoped that our attitude towards photography and image-making would appeal to a wider audience.”
At the same time, Houseley always had a vision of a real-life physical space. Just as the magazine was set up as a way of moving publishing out of the digital world and onto the (beautiful) printed page, she wanted to push it further still into three dimensions. So, Modern Design Review began showing as a gallery, representing the designers featured on the pages of the magazine — and that’s when Lower Stable Street got in touch. It was serendipitous timing. “I could see there’d be an opportunity to present more shows with real editorial substance, by creating a theme around the pieces we’re presenting and bringing a story to the forefront,” says Houseley.
STORE Projects is driven by wanting to improve lives; specifically, those of talented kids from trickier backgrounds who might otherwise be denied the chance of a career in design. Founded by artist and teacher Kevin Green, the organisation grew very organically from its earliest incarnations as a coffee shop in Bloomsbury that offered lectures and shows. A decade in, the emphasis is now on education — via workshops, summer schools and after-school clubs. Green has worked with teens in local areas such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and all over the world. He recalls a programme STORE ran in Warsaw, where he worked with refugees. “Whenever you feel like a student is a bit low on confidence but is clearly motivated and capable — to give them a bit more support so they can think about applying to university, that’s a fun I Youthing.”
Similarly, a turning point of sorts presented itself at a London summer school where the children were designing furniture, which included banana rocking chairs made in plywood. “They were really beautiful,” says Green, “they just needed a little bit of up-engineering. And I think ever since then we have been discussing how could we empower young students and even find a way that royalties could go into the schools or help buy new equipment.”
The STORE unit on Lower Stable Street will feature young students’ designs. This Christmas, look out for children’s toys, the beautifully-crafted result of STORE workshops teaching kids about the history of toys — including critical aspects, such as gendered toys. Green will be in the space often, and is happy to talk about every aspect of the design and manufacture process. “It really is kind of incredible that it’s all come about so quickly,” he says.
Fleur Paterson, of I You All, agrees; the realisation of Lower Stable Street, from early discussions to its opening, has happened with remarkable swiftness. Indeed, talking with creatives like Paterson, there does seem to be a rightness to the way a company unfolds when its direction is clear and its integrity is intact. “When these opportunities are put in front of you, you have to take them if you can,” she says.
What’s so gratifying about the development as a whole is that all its participants are excited about Lower Stable Street’s unwritten future. King’s Cross is something of a transitional space in and of itself, with a huge flow of people traveling to and from the station, and this sense of movement is entirely in keeping with the dynamism that drives Lower Stable Street. “Things will constantly change, which is exciting!” says Paterson. Houseley agrees. “It’s unusual to have such an eclectic mix of people, all with these unusual business models, all gathered together,” she says. “I’m as curious as everybody else is, as to what people will present in their spaces.” For Bowthorpe, Lower Stable Street is about enabling collaborations between the most diverse groups he can find: “The best things, for me, happen when different people, organisations and brands come together and try something new.”
This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross.