Last week I was tasked with giving a talk on: “Bravery and a can do attitude” at the Somerset County Council’s Staff Awards. The premise being that with all the cutbacks in central government funding, these are hard times for councils.
It is a subject matter that is close to my heart and something that is sadly lacking not just in the public sector, but in a fair number of those in the private sector that serve the public sector and their paymasters in the private sector. We all bemoan the paucity of decent design in the vast majority of the new housing estates that have been built in the past 4 decades or so. How many times do we have to sit in a miserable hospital waiting room or feel deflated at how uninspiring that sheltered housing scheme is where a beloved relation is living out their final years? How many times do we look at some new public landscape and think what a bleedin’ waste of money?
Just about all of those crappy buildings, public spaces and interiors will have had significant input from architects and designers all of whom (assuming they have any understanding of good design) have lacked bravery in debating and standing up to a client that doesn’t understand the value of good design and will have lacked a can do attitude in being creative with tight budgets. What is the point of being a designer if all you are doing is earning a wage and you don’t care about the outcome? At HemingwayDesign we have a firm philosophy that “design is about improving things that matter in life” and it is this mantra that continues to ensure that we are brave and we “can do” and that drives a very healthy bottom line.
Gerardine (wife of 32 years and design partner for 34) were brave in moving from our native Lancashire when we were teenagers with no plans other than to see what “that there London” could offer. Without staff, without a factory to make her clothes, Gerardine was extremely brave to take a very large order from Macy’s New York for her first collection that up to then she been sewing herself whilst sat behind her portable sewing machine in her stall in Kensington Market in the early 80s. To grow Red or Dead into a fashion brand with shops all around the world without backing, with a team of young unqualified enthusiastic can doers was a hoot as well as being brave. We have since been fortunate to have been involved in a number of schemes that echo the attributes that enabled us to build our brand and then sell it for such a healthy sum!
The first that comes to mind is Bournemouth Councils bravery in commissioning for the run down district of Boscombe, the world’s second only surf reef and employing designers (including HemingwayDesign) to bring back to life the mid-century overstrand and pier. Cries of waste of money went up from the media and the usual suspects. The surf reef was untested technology lo and behold the surf reef failed to generate decent waves, then broke and the New Zealand construction company went bust. But, you know what in the meantime the investment paid off, Boscombe seafront is nothing less than transformed and the coolest and arguably the liveliest bit of beach in the area, read more here. The surf reef is about to be fixed as well!
From the bravery of Freebridge Housing standing up to the naysayers of Kings Lynn who said that their Hillington Square housing scheme should be demolished (the sustainable reimagining that we have led on is now loved by the town) to the project that we are most proud of, The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead, it is clear that bravery and a can do attitude can turn a sows ear into a silk purse.
The early years in the development of the Staiths were full of debate and arguments over “secured by design”, “homezones”, “communal barbeques”, “the table tennis tables in the streets”, “shared pocket parks”, “cycle routes” and “restrictions on car ownership”. We really were questioning accepted practice and Gerardine and I were also being questioned by many architects and planners as to our suitability for the project. “Q. What could a couple of fashion designers know about housing? A. We have bloomin’ well lived in them for 4 decades each and we care about the quality of life!”
We didn’t let any of the flak get to us, we proved the police wrong in their belief that we were designing crime “in” rather than designing crime “out” by placing all the parking down gable ends rather than in view of residents houses. We proved the council wrong by getting rid of all wheelie bins and forcing residents to communally dispose of waste (no, the development has not become covered in litter) and no, the local youth haven’t barbecued the neighbour’s cat on the communal barbeques.
Our current, most challenging and most exciting project is Dreamland Margate and if there is a braver regeneration project in the UK with so many can do folk involved then please point me in the right direction. From Heritage Lottery, to Thanet Council, to The Dreamland Trust and the Margate community that support it to Sands Heritage Ltd who will run the park everyone is taking risks and going with flow and all for the public good.
It is this can do attitude from creative minds that have taken The Mitte District in Berlin, Williamsburg and now wider Brooklyn in New York, Hackney Wick and are transforming the Baltic Quarter in Liverpool and the old town in Margate and making them such hot spots (if these are examples of gentrification then bring gentrification on please).
And the councils that have allowed pianos and table tennis tables to populate our public spaces: well I salute you for your bravery and supporting those who say “try this”.