I have just returned home after returning the keys to the manager of the office I occupied in Clerkenwell for all of last year.
It was in a very charming former clock factory, now called Clerkenwell Workshops. It was full of charming little companies, from television production studios, to the HQ of a betting website, with a sprinkle of graphic design studios in there for good measure. There was plenty of exposed brickwork, and wooden floors. The Clerkenwell Kitchen (which is needless to say, charming) was situated there: a place that – to Alex Nelson’s surprise – only served organic cola (I had no idea there was such a thing).
All very nice. But recently I decided to let the lease lapse, and end my tenancy. Here’s why:
When I started the lease on the office in December 2010, I had an awful lot of projects on the go. Suddenly I felt I was struggling to cope without needing to hire some designers and developers full time, and as such I needed a space to call my own. The studio was small-ish – about 270sq/ft – but could fit about 5 people comfortably: a perfect place to grow into slowly.
But as the weeks and months progressed, my ability to juggle projects and get work done helped by awesome – remote – freelancers increased. As suddenly as I thought I needed a physical space for the studio, I dreaded the idea of hiring, bringing with it the pressure of responsibility, National Insurance contributions, and keeping track of sick days.
The idea of running a traditional studio was now as appealing as my various, old roles in corporate-dom. I’d lose the time I had to learn and develop, and to keep my hand in all the projects I execute. I’d have to take on projects I didn’t find interesting to maintain overhead (and I should say, keeping a studio in Clerkenwell isn’t cheap…).
So clearly the best course of action was to share the space with the awesome people I have been lucky to work with. Rik Lomas, Al Monk, Gemma Leigh, Severin Furneaux and Lawrence Brown all worked from the studio at various points during the year.
Whilst sharing the space was fun, fundamentally the space wasn’t designed to be – and could never be – “a co-working space”. But with that term thrown around so often it’s often tricky to pin down what it means.
The mighty Studiomates in DUMBO is what I consider a co-working space. Everything else that markets itself as a co-working space, don’t come close.
Studiomates is a community led by Tina and her gang of fun, inclusive, cross-discipline creatives and do-ers. It is the too-ing and fro-ing of interesting people doing interesting things that makes the place so exciting. The space itself (as enormous and cool as it is) becomes relegated and invisible.
It’s this community that is missing from the self-styled co-working spaces that have popped up in New York and London over recent years. With some notable exceptions (New Work City, for instance), the community – or even simply, the “feeling” – is missing. A sea of reproduction Eames furniture and carefully designed desks doesn’t make a successful co-working venue; it’s the community that uses and underpins the space.
I’m not dismissing the usefulness of such places. After moving from my office I signed up with the excellent Club Workspace (in the basement of Clerkenwell Workshops), but I see it more as a drop-in center where I can use the wifi and drink as much of the free coffee as my nerves can handle. Sadly, the furtive whispers of the huddled people in each corner of the space isn’t enough for me to spend all my day there.
So let’s create a co-working space!
Actually, no, let’s not.
I’ve learnt that co-working spaces are organic things that can’t be started like an engine. The conditions under which a successful co-working space can thrive have to be right. The balance of people, projects, want and will all have to be tended first. That’s what Tina has worked on for years.
Further, the economics of setting such a space in London can be tricky. Recently, Ben Stott and I briefly looked at some numbers. A Central-ish location in London can be staggeringly expensive, and that’s before the Vitsœ shelving installation is taken into account. Without guaranteed sublets, the investment required suddenly looks a touch vertiginous.
So with that said – and while day-dreaming of the perfect collaborative space in which sees stuff happening – I’m looking forward to gate-crash various spaces, studios, and offices over the next few months. Hopefully along the way I’ll meet and work with the people who’ll one day help make it happen.