Changing times

17 Jan 2012 5min read

I was sad as I left the old Central Saint Martins college building at Southampton Row for the last time (after attending the alumni party shortly before the closure of the site last year). I guess mainly driven by nostalgia of happy days back in the early nineties when I spent three years there studying Product Design. But also driven by a feeling that maybe it wasn’t ‘right’ to move from a building with such history that saw so many influential designers and artists pass through it, to what I was concerned may be just another generic new facility in a cheaper part of town. One of the strongest memories I have of the old building was the feeling of pride I felt the first day I walked through the heavy old wooden doors and climbed the staircase with its brass handrail and marble steps polished by years of hurrying students late for lectures. Pride that I was studying at such an established institution, no doubt evoked by the architecture and history which surrounded me. ‘How could this possibly be emulated in a new building?

On Tuesday evening I was invited to the new site in Kings Cross which I can sum-up in one word… WOW!


From the ‘super cool’ airstream caravan café, to the exposed brickwork and wooden joists of the old 19th century Warehouse and transit sheds. It manages to retain a sense of history and nostalgia helped by the inclusion of a few curiosities around the place that I remember from Southampton Row, like the old shop front signage in the reception area and the fact that they’ve retained the name of the Letherby gallery.

‘Huge’ open spaces intersected with modern glass and concrete detailing bring it into the 21st century and make it a more usable space, but what I believe is more important is the fact that so many creative talents are thrown together under one roof. Sir William Letherby had this same vision when he created the former Central School of Art building in 1896, 100 years later when I studied there we were still free to roam between the various studios mixing with jewellery and ceramic designers, print makers and stained-glass designers. Benefiting from the experience and approaches of each discipline and the creative sparks that it encouraged. The school as a whole though had become more fragmented, since its merger with Saint Martins in 1989 and was spread across several sites.The whole college is now housed in the same facility and therefore students can truly benefit from the eclecticism of all the different subjects.

At Team we have a similar approach. In our 13th century barn just outside Cambridge, industrial designers, mechanical, electronics and software engineers and human factors specialists are mixed up in the open-plan environment which encourages open communication and collaboration. We have the ability to put people in project or discipline focused groups when needed, but we firmly believe that mixing disciplines encourages creativity and helps remove barriers that could otherwise develop. To have the ability as a designer to lean across your desk and ask an experienced analytical engineer whether a 20mm diameter aluminium tube can carry the weight of a person or what the battery life will be if we use a colour touchscreen rather than an LED display can save days of work and open up a new opportunities that might have not otherwise been pursued. Similarly I’m sure mixing fashion designers and fine artists, with graphic and industrial designers will lead to new ideas and approaches in design process and will help Central Saint Martins retain its reputation as one of the world’s finest educational institutions for art and design.

The world of design has changed dramatically in the fifteen years since I graduated, with opportunities created by advances in computer software and rapid prototyping technologies, a world of design research information now available at our fingertips in the form of the internet and new challenges introduced with a move from local manufacture to off-shore. The role design plays in our world will continue to develop and it’s important that design education moves with it, to best prepare the next generation of thinkers for the changing needs of our society. This new building, I believe, is a sign that even some of the oldest establishments are ready to embrace change and I look forward to seeing what it brings.

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