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August 08 2012

Bluewater thrives by not alarming shoppers with anything new or strange | Owen Hatherley

The expanding mall is a kind of undemocratic city, with levels of planning and security that almost guarantee 'no riots here'

Bluewater, the enormous north Kent shopping mall, is planning an extension. About 1,500 "private sector jobs" will arrive in a deindustrialising area, as if to answer the coalition's increasingly desperate prayers, but the continued success and expansion of a shopping centre during a double-dip recession might seem unexpected. Its co-owner, Lend Lease, has recently been better known for closing down high-profile projects – as in the chaos of its redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, or the demise of the Tithebarn "mall without walls" in Preston. Somehow, Bluewater endures and grows. How can an out-of-town mall manage to become more successful during an apparent decline in retail spending? Why are people going there to nose around chain stores, when we're all apparently buying on Amazon or going to farmers' markets and niche high street shops? What exactly is Bluewater's secret?

The first thing you need to know about Bluewater is that it's not merely a shopping mall, but something much more ambitious. I know the place very well, having regular appointments at the nearby, contiguous PFI-built Darent Valley hospital. As the crow flies, the two are about a quarter of a mile apart, but you couldn't walk it – buses have to loop for some time around the massively over-engineered motorways that feed the mall. But when you finally do arrive, the entrance is exceptionally well defined. Neoclassical gateways and signs make the distinction from straggling north Kent subtopia apparent. Even the flyovers here have their concrete decorated to make it clear you're somewhere different. There is a reason for this – a reason for everything in Bluewater.

According to its architect Eric Kuhne, head designer at the multinational firm CivicArts, Bluewater is "a city rather than a retail destination". Its design and planning are intended, he said in a 2008 interview, to "dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids".

What this means in practice is that Bluewater is not solely a retail hangar, in the vein that runs from the Arndale Centres to Westfields. It's the same typology, a heavily patrolled and surveilled series of shops and restaurants in a big enclosed box, but it takes some of those spaces' innovations much further. Not just private security, but an entire code of conduct for entry, not to mention a dress code. No hoods, no baseball caps, no swearing, even.

If Bluewater is a city, then it's obviously not a democratic one. Kuhne wouldn't have it any other way – in the same interview, he pointed out that "democracy has a pretty poor track record of building great cities. The great cities of the world that we travel to see were built by benevolent despots".

Like any other city, Bluewater has its periphery. Ebbsfleet, the exurban new "town" that boasts its own line to Paris, is effectively its suburb. Its cul-de-sacs and wood-clad flats abut wide motorways and retail parks, discouraging any civic or public life in anything but the mall itself. The Thames Gateway, the unofficial eastward expansion of London, has no centre, no real public space – for that it has Bluewater, and its older, gawkier north-of-the-river cousin Lakeside. Also, like a city, it has its slums. Nearby towns such as Chatham or Northfleet are as stricken as Barrow-in-Furness or Merthyr Tydfil. Their former centres are practically decimated by Bluewater.

Yet to discover Bluewater's secret you have to go inside. Its architecture is so didactic it sometimes evokes Stalin's pet projects, like the Moscow Metro or the Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Sculptures and slogans urging jollity, exhorting commerce, singing the beauty of nature and stressing historical continuity are in every corner. Many depict the trades that people once practised in north Kent, appropriately for this mall scraped out of a chalk quarry. Cutlers, Tanners, Fletchers, Bowyers, Chandlers, Glaziers and others are all immortalised by little statues in niches on the mall's upper levels.

From a distance, the big box's glass extrusions resemble Kentish oasthouses. Bluewater tears the heart out of older towns, and replaces – partially and inadequately – older jobs, but it immortalises them as it does so. It is, in Kodwo Eshun's phrase, a "future shock absorber", a new and destructive landscape that strains every sinew to reassure, to make the shopper feel secure and at ease, to eliminate anything alarming or obviously new and strange. It boasts levels of planning and security that practically guarantee "no riots here".

Bluewater's architects are right – its success is not merely about shopping, but about the production of a particular kind of place. The successful city, as represented by Bluewater, is clean, corporate, homogeneous, authoritarian, and, should anything unexpected occur, easily sealed off. The worse things get, the more it will thrive.


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July 30 2012

Letters: No room in the Olympic family for genuine sports fans

My 12-year-old daughter, a member of three sports clubs in Newham, started saving Christmas and birthday money to buy Olympics tick ets. Two weeks at home in the Olympic borough would replace an annual holiday. We spent hours trying  to make a purchase. Our saving and time spent clicking were rewarded with not a single ticket.

This frustration was compounded when we saw rows of empty seats just half a mile from our home and then discovered that at least a fifth of seats are reserved for the Olympic family and their corporate friends (Army brought in to fill seats, 30 July) . The ticketing process is seriously flawed and designed to ensure that those who make a profit through encouraging obesity prevail over those who want to see and learn from their role models. So much for the commitment to "inspire a generation" and "create step change in sporting participation".
Simon Shaw
Stratford, London

• Empty seats filled by soldiers, teachers and schoolkids? Potemkin seats?
Mick Furey
Maltby, Rotherham

• Against a fall in sales pre-Olympics of 6.5% year-on-year, the last two weeks has seen a drop of 26% and last week a drop of almost 38%. Other shops have experienced a similar collapse in sales. Warnings of congestion in central London have made the area a ghost town. How many shops will survive until the end of the Paralympics on 9 September?
Nigel Kemp
London

• One reason that the opening ceremony delighted so many (Letters, 30 July) is that, in an age shaped and limited by politicians and marketing people, this was the vision of an artist.
Nigel Richardson
London

• Was Commander Bond employed to guard the Queen before G4S was found wanting, or was he part of the troops brought in to make up the shortfall.
David Walker
Dudley, West Midlands

• We deplore the article by Ai Weiwei (China excluded its people from the Olympics. London is different, 25 July). People around the world have strong memories of Beijing four years ago. The Games were more successful than many expected. They have left a profound legacy for China. The huge contribution to the international Olympic movement is globally recognised. China's careful preparations and high efficiency won applause from across the world, including the IOC.

The entire Chinese nation showed enormous enthusiasm and interest. They actively participated: 1.7 million volunteers busied themselves. Their smiles were sincere, their participation spontaneous, their hard work selfless. Ai's opinions by no means reflect the true feeling of China's 1.3 billion people. We wish the London Olympics a great success. At the same time, we will not let the Beijing Olympics be diminished or China be falsely accused.
He Rulong
Chinese embassy, London

• I keep getting confused between the main paper and your Olympics supplement.
Chris Faux
London 


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May 21 2012

The toon turns out for Tyne's big fashion bash

Sales and footfall success of last year's debut event has promoted a nine-day extravaganza in Newcastle and Gateshead this time round

Something is stirring in Newcastle city centre. Northumberland Street has been transformed into a city-sized runway for the style savvy and the fashion police are patrolling - cameras poised for those dressed to kill.

Yes, we're coming up to Newcastle Fashion Week organised by NE1 and the hunt is on for the city's sleekest citizens via a 'Newcastle's Most Stylish' street-style competition. Hot on the heels of last year's success, the Geordie take on London and Paris is back with a whey aye – and it's set to be bigger and better than before. The fashion 'week' actually stretches over nine days from this Saturday 26 May and promises 'focused fashion fun with one major milestone event on each day'.

With practically the whole city involved, there's something for everyone – from 'Fashion Freaks and Film Geeks' night at the Tyneside Cinema to an eBay workshop at the city library and a lecture by veteran editor Elizabeth Walker at Newcastle University - fashionista or not, you won't be left out.

This year, the event will focus on more live action fashion with at least one catwalk show each day. Highlights include 'Frock and Roll' at Northumbria University, combining four top high street brands with four fantastic live music acts, a Tudor fashion show in the city library with costume designer Julia Soares McCormick, a charity shop chic show in St. Nicholas' Cathedral and 'Fashion's Day Out' in Eldon Square – an afternoon packed with catwalk shows and demonstrations.

Organiser Sandra Tang says:

We've tried to create the buzz of a major Fashion Week by staging a fast-paced timetable of catwalk shows at stores across Eldon Square. The idea is for people to hot foot it around the centre to catch the catwalk action throughout the day.

Newcastle's emerging talent will also be showcasing work, with Northumbria University's fashion design graduates presenting end-of-year collections at the Baltic, scene of last year's Turner Prize, and Newcastle College students showing off their designs at Grey's Monument.

For vintage-lovers and bargain hunters there's a 'Summer Swish' and a 'Make and Mend Market' fashion special in the Grainger Market – full of homemade retro treasures. There will also be a suit amnesty throughout the week where unwanted suits, belts, ties, shoes and general workwear can be donated to help homeless job seekers.

The week draws to a close with Gosforth-born former Burberry model Donna Air presenting the award for 'Newcastle's most stylish' to the coolest people spotted by the week's roving photographers. Fashion TV hosts the closing party at Tup Tup Palace.

Sandra describes Newcastle-Gateshead style as "eclectic" and says:

The fashion vibe belies the place's size – it may not be the largest city but it's got a wide range of street styles, well-serviced by an array of different retailers. There are designer names such as Vivienne Westwood and the brands stocked in Cruise and Fenwick through to vintage lovers and indie chic who are well catered-for by thriving independent boutiques and vintage stores across the city.

The high street is also well-represented and can provide fashion fodder for a wide range of street styles. It all helps to fuel a vibrant and very diverse fashion scene in the city.

Last year's debut fashion week was a major success, with an average footfall increase of 24% and average sales increase of 39% for companies involved. This year, NE1 have set the bar even higher with exclusive t-shirts designed by South Shields-based fashion house Barbour and necklaces from Lovebullets jewellery which caters to celebrities such as another local lass, Cheryl Cole.

In the midst of the economic downturn, the retail sector needs all the help it can get and Newcastle Fashion Week also helps to raise awareness of all the creativity on our doorstep. With many events free of charge or very reasonable, there's no excuse not to get involved and support our region's business community. Al info is here and on Facebook here and Twitter here.


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March 26 2012

Towns clamour to become a Portas pilot

Hundreds of towns are bidding for the funding that will help regenerate their high streets

Large numbers of towns, including many in the north, are vying to become Portas pilots to help rejuvenate struggling high streets.

The 12 chosen towns will share more than £1m of funding and receive advice from the retail guru Mary Portas. It is expected that hundreds of applications will be received before Friday's deadline.

The government said the high streets and town centres are facing "serious challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and the internet."

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of town stores fell by almost 15,000 and there have been further losses since then.

The government argues that high streets are recognised as important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of local jobs. They're a visible indicator of how well, or how badly, a local economy is doing.

The Portas Review, published in December, set out what she thought had led to the decline of the high street and made 28 recommendations about what could be done "to breathe life back into them." She said many high streets had reached crisis point.

Among the recommendations are "town teams" to champion local high streets, business rate concessions for entrepreneurs and penalties for negligent landlords. Portas also urged that betting shops have their own planning classification so their numbers could be monitored more closely.

Among the bidders for the Portas Pilot funding are Lincoln and Market Rasen in Lincolnshire and Rawtenstall north of Manchester and Altrincham south of the city.

On the Wirral, Hoylake is among the bidders along with the seaside town of Crosby in Merseyside, where Antony Gormley's Another Place statues gaze across the sands.

Further north and east, Morpeth in Northumberland is one of the towns that is putting in a bid for the funding.

During a recent visit to Rawtenstall, minister for housing and local government Grant Shapps praised it for its 'unique' high street.

Events have been held, supported by the Association of Town Centre Management, to help towns prepare bids.

Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the ATCM, told The Grocer the government also wanted to ensure those who missed out on pilot funding were not left behind.

"I can't remember anything like it," he said of the level of response. "But of those 300, only 12 are going to get funding and we don't want the other 288 left alienated."

Bids in Cumbria have come from Penrith and Whitehaven. Alan Blacklock, the Whitehaven Chamber of Trade secretary said in an interview with the Whitehaven News: "I would like to think we could get into the top 12, but there are so many other towns in the same boat as us it will no doubt be very competitive." He added that their aim is for Whitehaven to become a better place to visit and shop.

Preston, too, which is celebrating its Guild this year with a programme of cultural events, has joined the bidders.

Mick Lovatt, environment director at the city council in Preston said it had already drawn up plans for further improvement to the city centre which a successful bid could kick-start.

"If we can get this funding," he told the Lancashire Evening Post, "it will allow us to do a lot of the things we want to do with the city centre." He said they are already looking at ways they can work with landlords to dress some of the empty shop units and improve the look of the main shopping areas.

In Lancashire, Chorley, Kirkham and Morecambe have also applied for the pilot status.


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July 16 2011

Half a century at the forefront of British design

He's not a household name himself, but many of the products he has designed are

At his elegant home in Hampstead in north London – golden parquet floors, Eames lounge chair and ottoman, covetable rosewood sideboard by English designer Robert Heritage – Kenneth Grange, sleek in his black T-shirt, describes to me his latest work: the creation of a chair for the elderly for British manufacturer Hitch Mylius. "It's my first chair," he says, with almost boyish enthusiasm. (He is, though you'd never know it, 82.) "What's interesting is that it's almost a contradiction in modern furniture terms to attempt to make something that is overtly comfortable." He nods in the direction of the aforementioned Eames. "I mean, that's an absolute icon. But it's not comfortable, is it? You need a cushion. Modern furniture is almost always too low and getting off it is a bugger. It's really only designed to make the space look brilliant." Is his own chair comfortable? "Yes, it's bloody comfortable!"

Once you know who Kenneth Grange is – once you've learned a little about his remarkable 50-year career and your eye is in – you see his work everywhere: on streets and stations, in your kitchen, your cupboards and your desk drawer. If the tube had let me down this morning, I might even have travelled here in one of his designs (the London taxi cab, which he remodelled in 1997). Such visual omnipotence, though, is starkly at odds with his personality, which is not grand at all. Grange, modest to a fault, is apt to attribute even his greatest hits – the InterCity 125 train, for instance, which was introduced in 1976 and which is still going strong – to hard work and serendipity rather than his own genius.

The retrospective of his career that is shortly to be staged at the Design Museum is certainly pleasing, but he hopes, too, that it won't cause people to think that he is no longer working. "Because I am – surprise, surprise. Why would I stop? I mean, if a bloke can play the piano, you don't stop him playing it, do you?" It's his wife the unstoppable Grange feels sorry for. "It's a bugger living with a designer, you know. We keep sticking our noses in. She can't buy a tea towel without me having an opinion."

Grange, founding partner of renowned international design consultancy Pentagram, and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, grew up in London's East End. His father was a policeman, his mother worked in a factory. The family home was, he says, "a good old-fashioned house, a bacon and eggs kind of house": plenty of brown, a three-piece suite, flowery curtains. "And I was rather a compliant little boy, too, so it was very much against character for me to put up my hand when they asked at school if anybody wanted to try for a scholarship to art school."

Once there, though – he enrolled at Willesden School of Art at the age of 14 – life was made simple by the fact that one could either study fine art or commercial art, end of story. "I chose commercial art; we were taught to do things like hand-drawn lettering. Design, though, was not a word we knew." So how did he get interested? Who informed his taste? "Well, I got lucky," he says. "I did my national service – I worked as a technical illustrator – and then I did a series of jobs working as an assistant to architects. And all my taste, all my ideology, came from them."

It was an exciting period to be young and a designer. Postwar Britain might have been austere, but it was optimistic, too. Things needed to be rebuilt and rethought. "It was a buoyant time, and that's the truth," says Grange. "The manufacturers had come back from the war to rebuild their firms and they needed help to do this. So the Council of Industrial Design [now the Design Council] was established by the Labour government as a kind of broking service. Manufacturers would come to them and the council would supply them with the names of designers. The council was very classy, it was run by people of substance. The top echelons were all servicemen. They'd had a tough time, they knew all about loyalties and ethics and they were scrupulously fair. But I also think I was probably the cheapest and quickest designer on their list."

The first commission he landed via this route (in 1958) was a parking meter for Venner. "I took [the project] on my honeymoon. It was the very first parking meter in Britain. Westminster Council had gone to America and contracted a company there to produce its meters, but when they showed them to the council, which had to approve all street furniture, they didn't like it. So they were stuck! They needed me to make it look pretty."

Soon after, he landed two rather heftier clients. First, there was Kenwood, for whom he restyled the Kenwood Chef in just three days. Then there was Kodak. "I couldn't yet make a living from product design, so I was working doing the displays for the Kodak pavilion at the World Trade Fair. I was arranging the products on the stand and someone overheard me say, 'It's a shame these are so ugly; I could make this really good if they weren't.' The next day, the phone rang. It was the head of development at Kodak, and he said, 'I understand you're going to design a camera for us.' It was thrilling, but I was scared, too, because I didn't know cameras. But again, there was an element of luck involved. I just happened to be in the right place at the moment when Kodak decided to start selling cameras for profit. Up until this point, their cameras were sold at a loss in order to shift film."

In 1959, Grange designed the Kodak 44A, in 1968, the Instamatic, and in 1972 the Pocket Instamatic, the first in a new generation of portable cameras. These were good years. He drove an E-Type Jaguar, and hung out on the King's Road.

His subsequent successes included irons for Morphy Richards, pens for Parker, the Adshel bus shelters of 1993, the "rural post box" for the Royal Mail in 1996… the list is long and varied. It is, however, the InterCity 125 of which he remains most proud. "Because it's big, and I use it almost weekly, to come up from my place in Devon," he says. "I was only supposed to redesign the paintwork. But, for my amusement, I decided to have a go at the shape, too. I did work on the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing. I showed it to them with some trepidation. It was a bloody nerve, to be honest. If I'd been on the British Rail board, I'd have told me to piss off. But they weren't difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound: the design made the train more efficient."

So what about design in Britain in 2011? Are things more or less beautiful-looking? "Well, there's a lot of it [design] about, to be honest, and it's utterly disposable, most of it. You can go to a factory in China where they make toasters for every company you can possibly think of, and they will show you 20 new designs you can take away that morning, and you will leave with four for your own company, and you will return in a year for another four. It's an awful thing to say, but the poorer we are [as a nation], the more chance there is of us being more disciplined about what we buy.

"I'd like people to pay much more and keep things for ever. These things [he points to my digital tape recorder] are little miracles and it's a travesty of morality to throw them away. It offends me. As for the look of things, well, Apple is enjoying a reputation as the maker of the sleekest things. But they're a bit up their own arse, to be honest. Their things are overdesigned. I've got a Mac mini upstairs and every morning I try and fail to find the button on the back."

Is there anything Grange wishes he had designed? What makes him envious? "Well, the Scandinavians still take some beating. I've got a lamp called the Artichoke [by Poul Henningsen] and it's bloody brilliant." As for a piece of design he would like to own, he "wouldn't mind" an Aston Martin.

"Probably one of the later ones. They're as good a piece of motor styling as you can get, a piece of sculpture, really. That's why the place for them is indoors. It's amusing to go fast, but it's not important. The look is the thing. Actually, I used to know a wonderful, cranky pair of artists and they had a Morris Minor they loved and it was in their living room." Really? He laughs. "Yes, really. They had to take the house apart to get it in, but that's where they kept it, I promise you."

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, London SE1


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July 05 2011

Habitat's identikit crisis

The retailer lost its identity in a crowded British high street of mass-produced, generic design. It's not too late to change

There has been hand-wringing aplenty since the announcement 10 days ago that Habitat has called in the administrators. With the dismantling of the UK's venerable high-street design chain and the potential loss of 750 jobs, it's no wonder the media has been quick to hover its magnifying glass over "British design". Yesterday, the Radio 4 programme You and Yours asked, "Has the demise of Habitat damaged Britain's design image?" Fear not: British design is alive and well. But British retail – that's another matter.

This is not the death of Habitat. The brand will survive – although what direction it will take is not clear, as there is an association with Homebase on the cards – as will three central London stores. But it is a precipitous fall for the company that, until the arrival of Ikea, had done more than any other to modernise the homes of the British middle class. In its 1960s heyday it was quite the glamorous hangout, before broadening its appeal into a multi-billion pound business that floated on the stock exchange in 1981 and turned its founder, Terence Conran, into the UK's designer-in-chief. Yet it was not Conran's originality that made Habitat a household name, but the opposite: his talent for tweaking European and American modernist designs for temperate British tastes.

There have been dips in this success story before now. In 1992 when Habitat was sold to Ikano Group (the owners of Ikea) there was much wailing and hair-pulling about the sale of a great British brand to a Swedish flat-pack giant. Some people wrote it off even then, but they will have had to wait 19 years for their "I told you so" moment. So where did it all go wrong?

There is no simple answer. Certainly it is true that, as in the fashion industry, the middle of the market is the most treacherous channel to steer, with all the profits being scooped up by the Ikeas and the H&Ms at the bottom, or the luxury brands at the top. In such a competitive global marketplace, Conran's original vision of high-quality design at affordable prices is increasingly hard to pull off. In a recession, why buy solid oak from Habitat when you can have oak veneer from Ikea for a third of the price? But this is not just about the consumer's bottom line. Somewhere along the way, Habitat lost the unique brand identity that enabled it to stand out in an increasingly crowded high street.

Habitat is best known for marketable versions of Scandinavian-infused mid-century modernism – lots of wooden furniture and paper light shades – with touches of contemporary innovation sprinkled here and there. Classics include the Days Forum sofa, designed by Robin Day in Habitat's founding year, 1964, and still sold today. More recent bestsellers include Tord Boontje's laser-cut metal Garland lamp shade and Claire Norcross's Aperture pendant light, an origami paper creation that you'll find hanging in every EAT franchise. Lighting, along with flatware and bed linen, is what most people head to Habitat for.

But these days it's hard to see what's unique about Habitat. I paid a visit to the Tottenham Court Road store the other day, and the furniture on offer was more generic than I remembered. The shop floor was cluttered with choices, none of them standing out. And there's a reason for that. The pressure to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible means that high-street furniture brands now manufacture most of their products through the same conglomerate sourcing agents. In other words, Habitat uses the same Asian factories as the likes of John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Next and B&Q. And while the in-house design team will create certain signature products, many are simply bought off the shelf from these factories. So the curse of the identikit British high street is not just about the same brands – it's the same stuff.

Are Habitat's problems symptomatic of a broader malaise in the design market? Partly. The problem of generic merchandise is exacerbated in this country by the onerous price of high-street rents and a perpetual sale culture forcing prices down, and the retail experience with them.

But to see this state of affairs as a failure of British design is like blaming the Atlantic for sinking the Titanic. The UK is a global design hothouse, with companies from all over the world dropping in to cherry-pick the best talent. The fact that there are so few outlets for that talent within these shores is simply a side-effect of an economy focused on services – such as design – rather than products. With so few connections to industry, it's understandable that more and more young designers are turning their back on industry altogether and designing products in small editions made by craftsmen or even by themselves. And in that reality lies a clue to the future of a company like Habitat.

The chain's predicament suggests that the strategy of selling mass-produced, generic design has reached its sell-by date (unless, like Ikea, you have the muscle to force everyone along the supply chain to play by your rules). The middle of the market will have to diversify. It would be too simplistic to argue that we should manufacture furniture in the UK again – it's far too expensive – but bringing Asian manufacturing back to Europe is less far-fetched.

Now that it has only three stores (owned by Home Retail Group, the UK's fourth largest retailer), Habitat should commission local talent to design products that distinguish it from its rivals. In other words, it's back where it started in the 1960s, with the same core values but a new mission. That's not such a bad place to be.


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October 12 2010

Pop-up culture

Temporary shops and restaurants were once a way for artists to subvert empty urban spaces. Now, they're just as likely to be part of a corporate marketing strategy

In a dark, dank nightclub beneath some railway arches, with the clatter and chug of trains overhead, I am having a minor Proustian moment. This London club was last open in the late 1990s, and its smell sends me straight back to that era, my student days: to Britpop and Blur, late-teenage clinches, 70p for a vodka and Coke. The aroma is strong, sour, specific, but it won't linger here for very much longer.

Over the last few weeks this long-abandoned club has been taken over by a group of young event organisers for an ambitious, 99-day pop-up project called Counter Culture. The programme will deliver photographers and DJs, comedians and poets, art exhibitions and parties, a different lineup each night, spiriting this sprawling, downtrodden building straight into the 21st century. One of the four organisers, 23-year-old Lee Denny, meets me at the door, apologises for his moustache ("I'm not trying to look cool, I promise") and shows me around the venue he first discovered when he came to an underground party here.

Denny has some experience of pop-ups: five years ago, he started his own small music festival, LeeFest, in his back garden, and he still runs it each summer, albeit from a larger venue. He leads me into the smaller of the club's two main rooms, kitted out with old, over-stuffed sofas and a much more expertly stuffed fox head. The artist responsible for the fox only works with roadkill, says Denny, and he's particularly excited about a live taxidermy workshop she's going to be running.

We move on through a small changing room, where a pair of grubby grey y-fronts hangs from a high ledge, and out to the main stage. On the opening night, in late September, the club filled up with 980 people, "and musicians kept arriving," says Denny, "people who remembered the place, and had heard about what we were doing. There was Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, and Suggs from Madness. He said 'Have you got a trombone?' and then he got up on stage and was like," he holds one hand to his mouth and slides a fist deliberately through the air, "rum-pa-pum-pum-pum."

Counter Culture is just one of thousands of pop-up events that have opened in the UK and beyond over the last few years – ranging from the small to the large, the cool to the rubbish, the sublime to the ridiculous. There have been pop-up shops, restaurants and gardens; pop-up galleries– one in an abandoned Woolworths in Leytonstone – and cinemas – Tilda Swinton even carted one around the Scottish Highlands. There have been pop-up gigs in launderettes; restaurants in front rooms; films projected in disused petrol stations or on to hay bales in fields.

Those are the more guerrilla projects, the grassroots events, often put together on a wing, a prayer and a stiflingly small bank loan. But alongside these are the corporate-backed pop-ups, the temporary shops and bars and restaurants that appear with increasing regularity, often hosted by well-known venues.

The Double Club in London in 2008, a part-Congolese, part-western restaurant and bar backed by fashion label Prada, was particularly successful. A branch of Central Perk, the coffee shop from the TV series Friends, which opened in London's Soho for a fortnight last year, was used to promote a limited-edition box set of the series. In 2006, Nike opened a shop in New York for four days, selling a special edition basketball shoe at $250 a pair. Gap has used a school bus, kitted out with merchandise instead of seats, as a travelling pop-up shop in the US.

There have been pop-up projects that have opened for an hour, like Mary Portas's vintage clothes sale in 2008, and others so successful that they've eventually become a permanent fixture, such as Tom Dixon's Dock Kitchen restaurant in Portobello Dock in west London. But what unites these disparate projects is essentially a strong fascination with the temporary, with the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, the idea of excitement, urgency and a dynamic interaction with urban (and it is usually urban) spaces. These are projects that stand in opposition to clone towns, to the idea of uniformity and unending drabness.

The debut of pop-up businesses is often traced back to 2004, when Rei Kawakubo of the cutting-edge fashion brand, Comme des Garçons, set up a temporary shop in a disused building in Berlin. Realistically though, while the "pop-up" description might be fairly new, the idea is as old as the hills. The current craze has echoes in everything from the restaurants traditionally run in people's homes in Cuba to the shop that artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened in London for six months in 1993, where they made and sold mugs and T-shirts and ashtrays.

The artist Dan Thompson set up his first pop-up gallery with friends in a bakery in Worthing in 2001; he now runs the Empty Shops Network, which advises artists who hope to start projects in one of the country's many disused high-street stores. (It's estimated that 13% of all UK shops are currently empty – and that one in five of those may never be used again.) He says that his inspiration comes from the magical curiosity shops that have appeared for centuries in fiction, "which no one can ever quite find again. I love creating something that's gone so quickly that people say afterwards: 'Was that you? Did that happen?' I love that excitement that you can create in a town, that sense of – what's coming next?"

While these businesses have counter-cultural roots, there's no doubt they've become a corporate concern. As Ali Madanipour, professor of urban design at Newcastle University says, there are two key readings of pop-ups, which aren't mutually exclusive. One is that they can be "a positive way of making more intensive use of urban space," he says, "bringing life to parts of the city that are under-used – they can provide space for local activity, civil-society events, impromptu gatherings. But on the other hand, they can also be an aid to consumerism, in which brands create a stage setting, adding colour and texture to the general mall atmosphere that is the backdrop to many of our urban spaces. Pop-up businesses support shopping – they bring a festival atmosphere to shopping."

The exclusivity of pop-up events means those that are ticketed often sell out extremely quickly. Denny says he now finds it "impossible to get excited about a new place that's opening indefinitely – you think, 'Oh yes, I'll go to that at some point' and you end up there in 20 years. Whereas if it's temporary it's like: 'We've got to do it right now.'"

When pop-ups are hosted by established businesses, this exclusivity and popularity can lead to obvious rewards for both host and brand. Over the last few weeks, the London restaurant Meza has been hosting a MasterChef pop-up, with former contestants from the TV show cooking for diners at a cost of £49 for three courses. When I went there last week, the atmosphere was loud, buzzy, excitable – obviously good for the restaurant, and good publicity for MasterChef. It apparently sold out in 72 hours.

One of the attractions of pop-ups for businesses is that they can act as an informal, unacknowledged market research project. Last week the smoothie maker Innocent ran a pop-up event in London called the Five for Five cafe – offering a two-course meal designed to deliver five portions of fruit and veg for £5. Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent, said that the event, held in a disused tramshed, was "a no-brainer. Put on a bit of a party for the people who buy the drinks, meet and hang out with them, and find out stuff you wouldn't discover in some weird research group . . . You get all these charts and graphs that say your customer is a certain age, that they live in a certain place, do a certain thing, and then you see the real people. We could just loiter in Sainsbury's by the fridges and watch the people who come and buy our drinks, but we'd probably get kicked out."

Like the MasterChef event, the Innocent cafe sold out quickly, and was cleverly run – the cavernous space was dressed with fairy lights, fruit trees and herbs on every table; there was friendly service, and good food. Any pop-up event this well thought out, prompting this much goodwill, is clearly an excellent piece of marketing.

Germain says a pop-up event is better value for money than running an advertising campaign. "You're getting a more intense return," he says. "Fewer people, yes, but you're hopefully forging relationships that will last a lifetime." Their pop-up event also enabled them to communicate their brand in an incredibly strong, concentrated way. "Everything we want to do was under that roof," he says. Their core message was literally: "up on the back wall, written in big letters: Eat your greens."

Stephen Zatland, a partner at management consultancy Accenture, says that pop-up businesses give retailers other benefits which might not be immediately obvious to the consumer. It's a chance, he says, "to try out a new store location, to see if the kind of people they want to attract will start flocking there before they invest in a permanent site. Manufacturers can try out new products, new services, deliver them direct to the customer, promote a new brand, or try and re-invigorate an older brand".

And they can carry out all this research and promotion for a relatively low price. Zatland says that compared to opening a permanent site, pop-ups are fairly inexpensive. The recession, with its surfeit of empty shops, has played a key role in this trend. "When a lot of Woolworths stores became available, for instance, retailers picked up on those and rented them for a short period to try out something new on the high street."

The pop-up trend has been so big, for so long, that there have been whispers that it must be about to fizzle and die. But Zatland suggests this is unlikely. "There's another interesting trend for a more permanent kind of feature," he says, "where there's a site for maybe eight different pop-up stores, and the content of that site will rotate, change, every eight weeks, or every three weeks. That will be good, I think, because it encourages customers to keep coming back to see what the new feature is."

When I ask Thompson about the corporate fashion for pop-ups, about the way they're being used to flog us more unnecessary stuff, I expect him to be disdainful. But it's quite the opposite. "I love it," he says, "I love the fact that such a daft idea, started by artists, has taken over. I went to a pop-up Gucci put on, and it was fantastic. It's like Quentin Crisp said – don't keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level. We've completely subverted all these great brands, who are now having to think differently, more creatively, and that has to be good for our town centres."

There's no doubt that pop-ups can aid regeneration and make a genuine difference. As Thompson points out, "if you live somewhere the size of Worthing or Coventry or Carlisle or Margate, and you lose a few shops, you really notice it. If that's your home town, and you're passionate about it, you'll fight to make it better."

Horton Jupiter (whose real name, he jokes, is "Mystic Rock") is less positive about some aspects of the pop-up phenomenon. He has been running a cafe called The Secret Ingredient from his front room in Newington Green, London, for over a year now, and says he prefers the term "home restaurant", because pop-up has "become something that people use as a marketing tool". He appreciates the temporary, impromptu nature of pop-ups, but projects like his, he suggests, are meant to be precisely an escape from capitalism, from the robot on the end of the phone, towards something more illicit, subversive, personal and warm.

For landlords whose properties have been empty for a while, these events are a great way to promote their building, bring people flooding back in, and perhaps get some free maintenance and decorating work done too. Thompson says he's never "paid anything more than a peppercorn rent – we cover business rates, we cover insurance, and in every shop we've been to we've left it in a better condition than we found it. We'll give it a lick of paint, a clean and tidy. We took a shop in Shoreham-by-Sea, initially for six months, but now for another six, and a place that had been derelict for 10 years has been completely refurbished – which has led to two other derelict shops nearby coming back into use as well."

Where artists go, corporations follow. And so does gentrification, as areas blossom, flourish and improve - and rents subsequently head skywards. Perhaps now, at a time of deep economic anxiety and trouble, we should just enjoy the most exciting of the pop-ups, those that bring life to depressed corners, flowers to abandoned skips, the flicker of film to the hollow beneath an underpass.

There is something slightly sinister about the marketing guile – and rampant consumerism – behind some of these projects, but many are straightforwardly brilliant, and there seems no shortage of people happy to get involved. "Every time I walk past an empty shop or building," says Denny, "I think: I've got to do something in there, I just have to! If I had time, every empty space that was remotely intriguing would be filled."


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February 11 2010

Artist sparks Twitter campaign against Paperchase over disputed design

Stationery firm under pressure to withdraw design claimed by Hidden Eloise after complaints go viral online

The stationery firm Paperchase is under pressure to withdraw products featuring a design that resembles one created by an artist after her complaints went viral on Twitter today.

The artist, known as Hidden Eloise, accused Paperchase of copying one of her designs on their products, including books and bags.

The company had ignored her claims, she said. But today thousands of Twitter users picked up on the story and within hours it was one of the top trending topics both in the UK and globally.

The design in question features a young dark-haired girl. The artist claims it is a copy of her design, called He says he can hear the Forest whisper.

She urged her followers on Twitter, and fellow artists, to bombard the company with emails. "[I]f you are any bit angry or frustrated with huge ancient vampires sucking the creative juice of indie artists, a simple email sent to them here might save me from having to raise $40,000 for court expenses!" she said.

Paperchase said it had bought the design from a reputable outside agency in good faith, and was trying to get to the bottom of the issue, adding that it was "deeply concerned" about the allegations.

In a statement on the company's website, it said: "We understand that many of you are visiting us today after hearing about the origin of one of our designs. We would like to make it clear that Paperchase bought the design in question in good faith from a reputable design studio. Paperchase is deeply concerned by the allegations and we will be looking into the matter further." A spokesman for the company said it could not confirm the name of the company involved.

On her website the artist said that since she had called the company they had continued to place items with her design on sale. "I'm sure Paperchase think that there is nothing that can make them stop," she said.

In an email she said she had created the artwork in around March 2008 and had sold it in on the craft website Etsy since then.

A fellow seller had contacted her after noticing the girl figure on a Paperchase bag, she said. She contacted Paperchase in November 2009 and the company denied there was any plagiarism, and stated that the company it had bought the design from also denied infringement, she said.

"Paperchase said that the items in question were in short run and that they wouldn't be renewed after they run out," she said. But she later saw that they had been freshly listed, she said.

She sought legal advice but found the prices prohibitive. "It was just too expensive to even start talking with any lawyers and the legal fees could break anyone with non-corporate pockets," she said.

Despite fears about being sued for libel she decided to go public with her claim. "It was a difficult night yesterday but I am glad I took the decision to take a firm stand and speak out for something that is seen as self-evidently wrong by so many people," she said.

"The tweeter eruption that happened this morning is the warmest, kindest and most gentle affirmation that individual people care about each other and intuitively know what is right and what is wrong. And no court of law can take that away from me."

Paperchase later confirmed that it had bought the design in October 2008, from a well-known London design studio, adding that it takes "all reasonable precautions" to check that designs are from reputable sources.

"Above all, we would like to apologise to any customers upset or angered by this allegation against us," said the statement.

"The illustrator who is making the allegation made us aware of her concerns in November 2009 and we duly responded to her in early December, since when we had heard nothing ... until today. Back in November 2009, we spoke at length to the design studio in question and they categorically denied any plagiarism."

It added: "It is worrying that such an allegation can create such reaction and again, Paperchase apologises for any ill-feeling caused."

The company joined Twitter today, under the name @FromPaperchase, to address concerns directly to the online community, tweeting: #Paperchase would like to address your concerns about the origin of one of our purchased designs." It included a link to its statement on the website.


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