The Community Store

In the middle of sleek Coal Drops Yard, Sophie Harris discovers STORE studio, home to a plucky design collective inspiring more than just the creativity-starved grown-ups who attend their weekend workshops

Given how cold and dark it is outside, it’s pretty remarkable how perky and pleased people are looking right now, at the end of an afternoon workshop at the STORE studio in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross. The ten or so attendees here are lining up the pieces they’ve made on a ledge by the wall to be photographed for ‘Insta-posterity’. You might be feeling chuffed, too, if you’d just sculpted a flower vase out of recyclable plastic (the kind usually found in paracetamol capsules or surgical stitches) which melts in hot water. The vases are multi-coloured, and, honestly, pretty weird-looking, yet strangely cool. Furthermore, they can also be melted right back down again and transformed into some new object. Pretty nifty.

“The material infinitely repolymerises,” says Peter Marigold, today’s tutor and the creator of FORMcard — credit card-sized pieces of plastic that the students have been working with today. “It’s made from potato skin starch and corn starch, so it composts, and it also saves other plastics from going into the bin,” he explains.

STORE Store making a saddle cover workshop, Coal Drops Yard, King's Cross

The attendees here are equally effusive. Eric works as a designer, and talks about the plastic having a will of its own: “You can have an instant idea and then develop it in conversation with the material,” he says. Tom nods in agreement. He’s an architect, and tells me he enjoys getting a bit more hands-on here than his work usually allows. “It’s very playful,” he says, “and the fact that the plastic melts in hot water means if you mess something up, you just remelt it and start again.”

Indeed, the idea of playfully exploring the creative process — and being open to making a mess or mistake — seems very much at the heart of the STORE ethos. This most unusual creative, education-orientated collective has its origins in a one-off art performance venture six years ago — at least, it was supposed to be a one-off. Architecture graduates Kevin Green and Freddy Tuppen conceived a project for London’s Bloomsbury Festivalon Store Street, based around the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. A group of artists and designers naturally came together to collaborate on the event, and soon the collective was putting on lectures, installations and workshops, “Not with any idea of it being anything other than one project,” says Green, “we were just doing things for the love of it.”

STORE Store clay workshop, King's Cross

Soon after, Green and Tuppen were asked to teach a summer school in Warsaw, helping students get into UK universities to study design. Seeing how skilled and motivated the kids were proved to be an inspiring experience for Green, who now teaches at UCL and helps co-ordinate STORE’s own educational projects, including running the shop with STORE associate James Shaw. But if you find yourself feeling less than inspired by the homework-y phrase, “educational projects,” you might be surprised. In fact, the STORE approach to designing, learning and selling is fascinating and thrilling. Why? With the STORE model, everybody wins.

Here’s how it works: If you drop in on the STORE space in Coal Drops Yard, you can browse a selection of unique, hand-made, brilliantly designed objects. Today, for instance, you could purchase a pair of headphones with cowrie shells for earpieces, enabling you to hear the sound of the sea, rather than merely plugging into your iPod. Or you could buy a beautiful hand-woven mat made from recycled materials, or some rope that’s been fashioned from spun human hair (“These are really nice!” says Green cheerfully, pointing to the hair-ropes, which look, well… hairy).

All the objects here are designed by London-based makers who will also go on to teach afternoon workshops at Coal Drops Yard, which are open to the public at weekends. The profits from the public workshops are then ploughed into funding after-school clubs for local state school kids with an interest in design. The objects that are designed and prototyped by the kids will then be sold in the shop, with royalties going to a cause of the students’ choice. It’s brilliantly effective, and given the STORE modus, its location in a high-end shopping area is a quietly radical move.

It’s also a model that’s arisen out of a certain necessity. STORE seeks to address the imbalance in access to design and art education. “There is less funding now in design and technology departments and art departments than there was maybe three or four years ago,” says Green. “We can see it, and we hear it from the teachers we work with.” This means, of course, that kids from less privileged backgrounds have a harder time accessing this kind of education. “Anything in the arts is going to be almost exclusively for those who can afford to take the risk of financial insecurity, post-university. Even if it’s a free course. So, that does make art and design almost exclusively for a certain group of people.”

Children, Workshop, King's Cross

How, then, does one tackle this kind of imbalance? Say there’s a student with no intention of going to university, who is low on confidence and has very few aspirations? “I think in that case, we can come in, run a workshop or a summer school and help give them that confidence in their ability to come up with an idea, work out how to make it, present it live to a public and enjoy the reception to the things that they make.”

The STORE summer schools started out being pretty intense, says Green. On the second half of a two-week course, for example, classes would kick off at 9am and finish around 2am, with staff and students trying to get the projects wrapped up before the end of the course. A balance has been struck now, though there’s still a real buzz about getting things done.

In terms of lasting benefit to the kids, the reach of the summer school extends beyond the course itself. Green says that STORE can act like a Gumtree of sorts, where students can email the collective with a question and receive tips and connections in response. They’ve also had students who have attended the summer school, then returned years later to join the teaching staff. “I hope the experience of doing something with us is broader than just a design or art education,” says Green. “What we’re really doing is confidence-building and helping kids to understand their own worth.”

STORE may have been founded in a spirit of free-wheeling collective adventure, but there’s a sense now of things gearing up a notch. “I think, maybe, we’ve historically been a bit too fun,” says Green. Is such a thing possible? “I think you can quite easily make a real mess,” he says, “and we’re sort of founded on failure in some way.” Most of the things that STORE has tried have not worked in terms of longevity, cost, or balancing the books, Green explains. But, he says, “We’re quite good at going out there, making a mess, experimenting with stuff, maybe learning from the things we’ve done. Yet also carving out a little space for ourselves which isn’t about finish, but which is about process. Nothing’s really finished, and nothing’s quite there, and that’s leant itself perfectly to teaching. Process is the important thing for young people. Finish is something they’ll learn later if they want to.” Accordingly, STORE is now starting to become a little bit more refined. Green looks around the studio — empty now, with little scraps of plastic from the workshop still strewn around and R&B playing over a little bluetooth speaker. “This is polished for us; it’s much better than what we’re used to,” he says, smiling. “This is us trying to be as professional as we can be. We’re learning as we go, which is important for us, so we can lead more ambitious projects in the future and have a bigger impact.”

On the immediate agenda, STORE students attending workshops in March are scheduled to design and make sunglasses. Will Londoners really be up for donning shades in chilly March? “Well, then we’ve got spring around the corner,” says Green cheerfully, “and hopefully people will buy sunglasses. We’ll find out.” Who wants predictability anyway?