In Conversation with Nick Compton

20th anniversary
type - in conversation
In Conversation
As part of The Future Laboratory’s 20th anniversary celebrations, co-founder Martin Raymond meets former colleague and friend Nick Compton. Having started his career as a menswear journalist, Nick is now contributing editor at Wallpaper* and a consultant on the development of Design District. We join their conversation as he and Martin discuss the vagaries of fostering creative communities in property development initiatives such as Peninsula Place on London’s Greenwich peninsula

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

Martin Raymond: A lot of our business was created around identifying where culture sat – on the edges or the extremes – and then tapping into that with the view that if that’s starting now and it’s a minority taste or idea, over time it will grow and become the big mainstream trend. I think what you’re being asked to do is the opposite. You’re taking these things, planting those seeds and hoping that they will grow into something that gathers momentum, but draws people into the area. So in some ways you do the opposite of what we do as a business.

Nick Compton: There is a creative corridor on the Overground line, going from Dalston and Shoreditch down to Peckham and Crystal Palace. So you can see this line of where a lot of young creatives are living.

MR: What you’ve done there, cleverly, is to establish that you have this creative 
community; you’ve got taproots coming from X and moving into Y. Creatives, as a rule, tend to like places that are awkward and difficult and unloved. That’s kind of what happens when you move into a derelict warehouse or you go to a bit of London that previously was where you went to buy drugs or attend a rave. And I feel that the obvious part of your skills is not readily appreciated because a lot of it comes from your residual knowledge of what these things are, your background and what you have learned as an editor, as a writer, as a thinker, and then also the instincts you have about the creative community. And then all of that comes together in something like Design District in Peninsula Place.

NC: Yeah. And obviously the job is to get away from that sniff of the contrived and the 
cynical developer move and all that kind of stuff. It’s about talking about the place in a way that gets beyond that and finding ways to communicate what the possibilities of this place are that get around that. At the moment, what’s fascinating is the Covid era shifts in what is required of a workplace and the fact that creative businesses are the most enamoured of being physically in a place.

Published by:

7 May 2021

Author: The Future Laboratory


MR: That has become for us the big curiosity; we’re doing quite a lot of work looking 20 years ahead because a lot of developers have to plan that far ahead, and one of the big questions we’re being asked at the moment is, what will be the justification for going back to the office?’ Because if you’re in the creative industries, without a doubt, when you say this to people, instantly they mention the culture and the collaboration and the creative nature that being together generates. And when I chat to people at companies like Accenture and the banks, which we do a lot of work with, it’s rare for them to bring that issue up straight away. Their businesses almost exist – and I don’t want to be rude about this, but – devoid of the things that the creative industry sees as of value and the core aspect of their being. To Accenture or other places that is seen almost as an add-on.

NC: Absolutely. So, it’s about accepting that and then trying to build in some flexibility in terms of ‘do you need to be there all the time? Does everybody need to be there all the time?’ These were trends already going on anyway.

MR: Let’s look at the bigger picture – we’re obviously celebrating 20 years, and if I look back at 2001 to 2020, some of the changes were visible: that push to flexi-working; the re-emphasis of culture rather than commerce; people were thinking about the culture city, the creative city; and how design became a huge part of value or generating value for a city. We kind of get that now. Reflecting on what you know and what you’re seeing now, what do you think we’ll be thinking about next to add value in the same way that we now see design or culture as both adding a key value to a business and a reason for going to it?

NC: Part of the reason that I have been so interested in the design community is that I was just sick of people imagining the creative economy as basically people sitting on laptops at WeWork, doing – I don’t know what they were doing. That is not the creative economy. The creative economy is a physical thing quite often and it was being squeezed out. So, it is about re-asserting the idea that creativity is not being squeezed into the co-working place and sat on a laptop, without it becoming this kind of cheesy, slightly reactionary craft, artisan conversation, that it embraces technology. Design’s been in a funny place, I think, in terms of product design, in this slightly reactionary place that talks about craft and artisanship in materiality, and denies technology and rapid change. Anyway, design was trying to bring together this idea that creativity was often something physical and was making, but it wasn’t a kind of fuddy-duddy preservation task either. It was a kind of living, vital thing. And if you just provided the space for it and gave it a bit of thought, you wouldn’t be squeezed out to Margate or God knows where. It could become something that was visible and inspirational without being a kind of cynical showcase.

MR: I always think that if you talk to people about culture and design, the value they place on it is always dependent on their income. And now people are talking about the value of the arts and the role of design, and you see there is a massive gap because it provided you with sustenance in a way that’s inexplicable. I think the problem with design is that it’s like an adjective, it’s an emotional thing, it’s an intangible thing, and it tends to be put to one side during a moment of crisis. And yet probably, more than anything, this is the time we need theatre. We need art. We need that designer’s intervention. But because designers are generally invisible and because their places like theatres are now dark boxes, there is an absence of conversation about the role of design and culture and the positive value designers contribute to our lives. It’s not something I’ve really heard a big conversation about currently.

NC: Well, weirdly – and this separates culture and the performing arts from design, which are two different things – the conversation in design in the past couple of years has been about how the role of the designer has expanded greatly. It’s now involved with materials and processes and manufacturing and supply chains, and at the other end, sustainability issues and post-consumer life and all that kind of stuff. But beyond that has been the view that design thinking and the design process and the way you break down problems and look for solutions and iterate and reiterate is the way to tackle all kinds of things beyond product design to experience design and social design. Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli from the Museum of Modern Art in New York have just done their live series, Design Emergency, which is about how design thinking tackles the climate crisis, everything from how cities work to how infrastructure works and the big fundamental problems. So, in some ways, designers almost grabbed that opportunity to say: ‘We are looking at everything.’ There are so many complex arguments that have been heightened about what a city is and what a city is for. And they’ve become very complicated…

To hear more of Nick's thoughts on the future of design and property development, please watch the full Zoomcast below.