October 2018

Horatia Harrod October 19 2018 Financial Times
Thomas Heatherwick is a man for a crisis. On a grey morning in King’s Cross, the designer has
been touring the construction site of his latest, £100m architectural project — Coal Drops Yard,
two Victorian industrial sheds united by a vast sweep of a roof, creating London’s newest shopping
street. It will be Heatherwick’s most ambitious retail project, adding to a spectacular CV that
includes the flaming cauldron that lit up the 2012 London Olympics, and Cape Town’s massive new
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
“We went this morning to less scaffolding than ever, and no mud, for the first time,” says the 48-year-old brightly. “It’s exciting to be here.”
This is not the obvious moment to be opening a 100,000 sq ft shopping destination. The day we
meet, news breaks that UK landlords are struggling to offload some £2.5bn of retail properties,
part of the deepening crisis in bricks-and-mortar retail. But Heatherwick, his face lit up by an acid
yellow scarf, seems unfazed. He has weathered disaster before — the discontinuation of his
reimagined Routemaster bus, the implosion of his Thames Garden Bridge project— and emerged
unscathed.
“The exciting bit about the ‘crisis’ in retail is that you come back to an eternal truth of humanity,”
he says, eyes widening. “The more human somewhere can be — those are the places that will
survive. Shopping’s the excuse for us to invent a space. That’s what we’re trying to do, and I think
that’s why these amazing people have agreed to be part of it.”
He gestures towards the two people sitting either side of him. Tom Dixon, the tall, sardonic
creative director of his eponymous homewares brand, opened a new headquarters overlooking Coal
Drops Yard earlier this year. His design studio is here, as well as a shop, a workshop and Coal
Office, the restaurant in which we are sitting. Sir Paul Smith, meanwhile, will be one of the first to
open a store in the complex. His neighbours will be a mix of big brands and independent shops —
everything from Australian skincare brand Aesop to London-based glasses manufacturer Cubitts
and the H&M-owned Cos.
Between the three of them, Heatherwick, Dixon and Smith have sold an idea of high-end British
design to the world — from Dixon’s elegant sculptural S chair and globular copper pendant lights (a
staple in fashionable bars around the world), to Smith’s subversively embellished tailoring and
Heatherwick’s flamboyant, mould-breaking buildings.
Both Dixon and Smith were sceptical about coming to King’s Cross. “All around the world, lovely
old buildings are being turned into new ‘shopping experiences’ through a rubber-stamped
formula,” says Smith. “But knowing that Thomas was involved, I didn’t think it was going to be
rubber-stamped.”
Dixon has bought into the concept wholesale, moving
his entire operation here from west London. “Being in
the same place for so long, I realised I was getting
lazy, too much in my comfort zone,” he says. He
dreamt of moving to a “big, white, open warehouse
We’ve tried to make a space
that’s interesting and alive.
“ Every retailer’s got to work a space”. Somehow, he sighs, he has ended up in a
Victorian building bordering Regent’s Canal —
exactly the same set-up as at his former HQ in
Ladbroke Grove.
Heatherwick describes the two warehouses at Coal Drops Yard as “two broken KitKat fingers,
sitting at the wrong distance from each other in conventional thinking”. Built in 1850, they were
repositories for the coal that arrived in London from the north, but fell into disuse in the following
century. “For their time, these were like Ikea sheds, so we didn’t need to treat this like it was the
Acropolis,” says Heatherwick.
The wider redevelopment of King’s Cross, kick-started at the turn of the millennium, has attracted
a diverse crowd — commuters, art and fashion students from nearby Central Saint Martins,
families splashing around in the fountains in Granary Square on the weekends. “We sell half to
professionals, interior designers and so on, and half to the public,” says Dixon of his clients. “It’s
quite hard to find a place in London where you can expect both those kinds of people to turn up.
And the art school was a defining attraction, because it meant there was a non-commercial heart to
the whole thing. Every morning you get this amazing fashion parade happening here on the yard.”
 
Each designer has built a business on an idiosyncratic, founder-led model. “All three of us are kind
of unqualified for what we do,” says Heatherwick, who never studied architecture. Smith took
evening classes in tailoring, while Dixon taught himself to weld, making his first roughly hewn
lot harder now out of scrap metal. “I didn’t call myself a designer and still don’t particularly,” says Dixon.
“The thing that legitimised whatever I was making was people buying it. My studio was the size of
this table, so if I didn’t sell something, I didn’t have space to make anything else.”
Smith likes to say how “illogical” his business decisions have been. Yet he mastered the art of
experiential retail long before ecommerce became a threat. “I always used to think, if you want a
shirt, why would you not be interested in a funny old poster from France or some ceramics?” he
says.
In addition to his design studio, Smith employs architects, interior designers and furniture makers
who help to outfit his stores, which can be found in 73 countries. “It’s ridiculous, financially,
because it’s very self-indulgent,” he says, “but at least it means that wherever you go in the world,
the shops are worth going to.” A room in his shop at 9 Albemarle Street is tiled floor-to-ceiling in
dominoes; this one will feature 90,000 Japanese coins glued to the wall.
If Smith is a born salesman, Dixon is something of an accidental businessman. “I never wanted a
furniture shop, frankly,” he says. “It’s a dusty old business, not like fashion, which refreshes itself
three or four times a year. So we’ve tried to make a space that’s interesting and alive. Trying to add
smells and tastes and events and the rest of it. Every retailer’s got to work a lot harder now to
attract people’s attention.”
Over the summer Dixon opened up his workshop for members of the public to make ceramics,
which were then fired in the kilns at Central Saint Martins. “Demonstrating how we make things
will maybe give people an understanding of what the value of something is,” he says. “Local
production might be all we’ve got left after Brexit anyway. We might have to get back to our sewing
and pottery wheels to survive.”
“Luckily we can all still do that,” says Smith. “And weld!”
“That’s obviously a slight fantasy,” continues Dixon, “but with the pound having dropped 15 per
cent at the vote, and then with a messy Brexit, we might be forced back into making things here in
London.”
Characteristically, Heatherwick is optimistic about the possibilities for British design and
manufacturing in the years to come. “Britain has incredible people who are still based here, who I
haven’t heard are leaving,” he says. “We have to hold our nerve. It’s not the way I voted, but if it’s
happening, we need to hunker down and be better than ever.” If anyone knows the value of making
unconventional choices, it’s these three.
Nash Bond are leasing agents