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Cockpit Arts

Cockpit Arts

Words & Illustrations Sophie Pelissier

“When you study your art or your craft you aren’t taught how to run a business…”

There is an air of quiet industriousness down the wooden hallways of Cockpit Arts. You could be forgiven for thinking the ghosts of the original 1920s furniture workshop were still working behind the studio doors were it not for glimpses of colourful textiles, bold typography, or polished ceramics. True to its legacy of craft manufacturing, this discreet white-brick warehouse in Holborn is home to 90 ‘makers’ of various craft professions: tailors, jewellers, potters and more. With the squeeze on central London studio spaces, the resident designer-makers have been handed a golden ticket by Cockpit Arts, an award-winning social enterprise and the UK’s only creative business incubator.

“What I’ve noticed is that people find their way here at different stages or with different intentions for their products, and this place allows you to get it together.” Ian Scott-Kettle, 49, sits on his work table with his hands in his lap, contemplating the role of Cockpit Arts in his varied trajectory through the fashion world. He was granted a studio space at Holborn five years ago in partnership with a textile artist, but they found that their initial product idea was floundering. “Cockpit very graciously gave us the space to try and figure it out. So, we both re-grouped and we’re both still here but doing very different businesses. Still very good friends.” And after three years on his own it would appear that Ian has indeed figured it out, having developed a scale-able business making and marketing bespoke men’s accessories made using traditional pattern cutting techniques. Now he sees a steadily growing stream of clients making their way to his studio. So how exactly does Cockpit Arts work to help designer-makers launch their businesses so successfully?

There have been ‘starter’ craft studios on the premises of Cockpit Yard since 1986, but it wasn’t until 1993 that Cockpit Arts was formally created as a social enterprise. It offers talented makers the means of growing their businesses, providing them with an affordable studio space at one of two sites in either Holborn or Deptford. Cockpit’s current CEO Vanessa Swann explains how having a hub of creatives under one roof delivers the first “informal layer” of support, “a cross-fertilization of skills and contacts”, which is then combined with a “formal layer” of business development advice. This is tailored to makers’ needs, no matter what stage they are at in their careers, and delivered via one-on-one mentoring from a small, full-time business incubation team. The Cockpit package provides further support from Associates, a network of external professionals in sales and marketing, accounting and intellectual property. Getting help with their business strategy is all the more invaluable since, as leatherworker Candice Lau says, “When you study your art or your craft you aren’t taught how to run a business”. It’s a sentiment I hear echoed in the experience of other makers I meet. Candice arrived at Cockpit in 2015 having won the Leatherseller’s award, one of many such schemes that sponsor studio spaces for around 20 applicants each year, providing them with access to equipment and industry contacts. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Cockpit. It’s helped me to become very professional, and there are other people around me who are designing and making products. We feed off each other so much creatively.”

This community spirit at Cockpit is enabled in an important way through shared studios, and not necessarily between makers who are cut from the same cloth, so to speak. Onome Otite came to Cockpit in 2016 through the Creative Careers Programme, which works in partnership with The Prince’s Trust to help young people between 18–30 establish a career in craft. Her figurative illustrations using textiles and printed materials started life in her living room, and she admits that pre-Cockpit she would never have considered a shared studio. “But actually… you get so much more out of it. You see more, you share more ideas… You learn a lot, whether that’s a new technical skill or about a show, stockist or supplier.” The transferral of knowledge has come full circle now in the large, airy studio she shares with three other jewellers and milliners from the new 2017 Creative Careers intake; after her first year at Cockpit she can now pass on her own experiences and advice about business strategy.

Shared studio spaces are one of many ways in which Cockpit fosters an open dialogue about running a craft business. Makers are encouraged to be vocal and engage with each other through the social enterprise structure and using digital tools like Google Groups, which functions as a Cockpit instant messenger for makers to find out about shows and possible commissions, or even just to ask for a lift to a specific event. It all goes towards building a mind-set that encourages them to seek out opportunities for themselves. “You get into the habit of talking,” Onome tells me. “I’m constantly talking about myself and my work as everything is so shared, so you’re forced to. I’m not somebody that was comfortable with sharing my own personal experience… but luckily this is a safe environment.”

Building a business from your passion isn’t easy; but neither is building a business and sustaining it. That is why Vanessa Swann is so keen to insist that Cockpit Arts is also about “acceleration… in case there’s any misunderstanding about incubation and it being solely for makers just starting out. We’ve always been about supporting makers at different stages and ages.” Theo Wang, for instance, has been at Cockpit for nine years but had to re-launch his letterpress business in 2017 in order to adapt to his business partner leaving London. “Being a maker and running your own business is all about evolving and developing, whether it’s your skills, your markets, the way you promote yourself. You need different kinds of support and advice at every stage.”

But every small business needs customers and local supporters, thousands of whom are welcomed to Cockpit Arts during the twice yearly Open Studios. Makers decorate their workspaces to introduce their products to customers and buyers, while the public have the opportunity to dodge the high-street and buy unique, tailor-made creations with their own narrative attached. One of many long-standing local residents and supporters is Anne Beresford, who has spent the last 20 years buying homewares, jewellery and clothes for herself and as gifts at Open Studios. “I was fortunate enough to win the raffle one year, so I put that towards a one-off sample jacket that I’d been coveting. I love the fact that things are made close by, and that I know at least some of the people involved in the making.” In the face of diminishing local businesses in Holborn and Bloomsbury, there is a sense of pride amongst residents to have witnessed and supported Cockpit’s development. Josie Firmin, owner of a china painting business nearby, has employed many freelance artists working at Cockpit Arts over the years. Jane King is another resident in John’s Mews and reiterates how much inner-city areas need cultural centres and independent businesses “in order to be a balanced community – I do not want to see my neighbourhood become just an investment and a dormitory for the very rich.”


Every maker, employee and resident I speak to comes back to the importance of community – one that encompasses the internal structure, the Associates, Trustees, Sponsors, then of course the enthusiastic buyers of beautifully designed, handmade products at Open Studios. “You get the feeling that everyone is on your side”, is the way Ian Scott-Kettle puts it.

It is a structure that exists not just to help makers create a viable business but also to realise their dreams, as Vanessa passionately affirms: “There is nothing more satisfying than thinking ‘could we help this person realise what it is that deep down they want to do, and have the capability to do, even though it appears to them to be very difficult’.” Under the guardianship of Vanessa and her team and with the support of their fellow makers, the future is bright for anyone honing their craft at Cockpit Arts.

Karen Henriksen

Karen Henriksen

Words Sophie Pelissier

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

It’s a Saturday morning in June, and the Bloomsbury cafes are filling up with brunch orders and locals doing their weekend coffee-and-croissant run. Runners pound up and down Lamb’s Conduit Street and the small shops are beginning to open for summer trading. But further down the quieter Regency streets I find that milliner Karen Henriksen is already at work in her little studio. “I don’t mind it,” she says with a broad smile as she shows me inside. “There’s no-one else around and I have the radio on, so it’s a productive time to work.” We are in Cockpit Arts, site of the award-winning social enterprise and business incubator for UK crafts makers hidden away in the streets of Holborn. Flat caps and ladies’ cloche hats from Karen’s ready-to-wear collection line the walls, alongside rolls of fabric, jars of pins and paper patterns covered in black marker pen. But beyond the clutter there is calm orderliness to Karen’s workshop. “I’m a bit of a control freak”, she grins. It’s partly what drew her to millinery at the prestigious Royal College of Art: “I like having complete control over the whole process from start to finish. Whereas in fashion you’re always passing on work to pattern-cutters or seamstresses.”

It was during her post-graduate degree in millinery at the Royal College that Karen won the Hat Designer of the Year award, with her first collection later being bought by Selfridges when she launched her label in 2004. Her personal style remains true to her original MA collection: sculptural yet wearable re-workings of traditional hats for men and women, but especially the English country flat cap, which inspired her iconic ‘Windswept’ collection. This is Karen’s USP: a range of large, asymmetrical flat caps which provide the basis for her ready-to-wear collections. “It kind of happened almost by accident,” she explains when asked how the idea to urbanise the quintessential country hat came about. “When I did my Royal College collection, that was inspired by really functional styles of headwear but they turned in to these sculptural, dramatic pieces with giant headscarves and giant caps. I featured a flat cap that I then started to develop into a more commercial idea, and it evolved from there really.” She admits that the original Windswept styles are possibly still “too out there” for a lot of customers, but the flat cap variations that she has developed since are growing in popularity. I tell her that I’d recently spotted one in a selection of flat caps in the menswear section of a well-known newspaper’s magazine – undeniable evidence of the cap’s transition from country-wear to the London man’s casual wardrobe.

While the caps form part of Karen’s ready-to-wear collection, using pattern-cutting, she also produces a range of couture pieces employing the art of a traditional milliner. “This is most peoples’ perception of millinery, which is blocking – so either steaming or wetting a fabric like straw or felt over a block, then wiring and trimming it. It’s a much more elaborate process and a completely different technique to pattern-cutting.” To show me, Karen picks up a small red piece, no larger than a tea cup, which she is making up for an order to send to Melbourne. She found the vintage fabric in Paris, where she goes twice a year during Fashion Week to present her collections at the leading fashion accessories trade show Premier Classe.

Despite people’s willingness to embrace casual headwear in the last decade, couture millinery is still largely constrained to smart weddings and events or race meetings. But if anyone is going to turn heads with their choice of headwear, all eyes are undoubtedly on the Royal Family; not always kindly, if one remembers the media frenzy about Princess Beatrice’s ‘pretzel hat’ at the Royal wedding in 2011. It is Zara Tindall, however, who has gracefully donned some of Karen’s elegant couture designs at high-profile occasions like the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Christmas Day services at Sandringham.

Karen’s fascination with asymmetrical, structural design is especially apparent in these couture hats; with their swathes of fabric ruched in layers, curves or angular lines, she seems more like a sculptor than a designer. It’s no surprise to discover, then, that her formative years after leaving school began with an art and design foundation at the Leeds College of Art, in the extraordinary footsteps of alumni Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. “They certainly did influence my designs later on, and knowingly so. But even back then I think there must have been some sort of influence through osmosis,” she agrees, when asked how far these sculptors shaped her own style.

Eventually, our conversation turns to Bloomsbury and Cockpit Arts, where she has been able to develop her work and her business since 2005. There are two sites, the original one in Holborn and a second site in Deptford. The craft studios within the Bloomsbury building can trace their creative history all the way back to 1745, when Cockpit Yard was taken over by a cabinet maker. It wasn’t until more 200 years later, in 1986, that Camden Recycling created the first five ‘starter’ studios for young craftsmakers trying to start their own businesses. Now with around 80 ‘makers’ working in single or shared studios in Bloomsbury alongside Karen, there is what sounds like a merry and bohemian community of jewellers, typographers, picture-framers and designers in the heart of London: a welcome success story among the growing concern over a shortage of studio spaces for artists and designers in the capital. “We open the doors to the public twice a year, in June and November. Cockpit Arts was actually one of the first places to start doing open studios.” In the run-up to Christmas, the November opening normally welcomes thousands of people to the studios, and it seems to be an important ritual through which the makers can reaffirm their relationship with the local residents of Bloomsbury.

Surely working in a part of London with such a rich creative history must be another source of inspiration? “Literature and architecture have both always been common themes for me. My ‘Two Cities’ collection for winter this year was inspired by the different architecture and history of London and Paris during the French Revolution, as in the Dickens novel. Then I did actually do one collection in 2015 that was influenced by the Bloomsbury set called ‘Night and Day’, after Virginia Woolf’s novel, and I did the photo shoot around the British Museum and Russel Square.” It seems fitting, as a Bloomsbury local, that she also enjoys playing on words, and making up names for her hats based on word associations. “One of the cloche hats that’s been the biggest best-seller was named for Debbie Reynolds’s character Kathy in Singing in the Rain.” In fact, there is always a touch of silver screen glamour in millinery, she tells me. “Ask any milliner and they’ll always cite those old Hollywood actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo as inspiration.” But as a designer she stresses that she is “appropriating vintage styles, as opposed to copying them. I enjoy thinking of ways to make them more relevant and contemporary.” It’s a formula that is clearly working, with her hats now catching the attention of international fashion editors and stylists and being exported to specialist boutiques and stores around the world. And imbued as their work is with little dashes of Bloomsbury history, one hopes that Karen and the other makers who have brought Cockpit Yard back to life have many creative years ahead of them.