Blackhorse Workshop on the art of a good creative space

Blackhorse Workshop on the art of a good creative space

Words Nicholas Hitchcock
Photographs Johanna Ward

Harriet Warden, creative director of Blackhorse Workshop, tells us about the importance of creating an inspiring and supportive environment to learn in – not to mention a nice café…

As you enter Blackhorse Workshop there’s a palpable scent of idealism in the air – it’s a heady mix, especially when combined with good coffee and freshly sawn wood. Founded by the Turner Prize-winning, multi-disciplinary practice Assemble, it’s been open since February 2014 and has successfully incorporated an ‘everyone’s welcome’ approach to making and creativity. There’s affordable access to tools, workspace and on-site technical expertise as well as a café and events – from community raft races to alternative joinery, hip hop nights to indigo-dyeing workshops. Harriet Warden gives us a potted history behind this Walthamstow maker space.

When was Blackhorse Workshop started?
Blackhorse Workshop opened its giant red doors in a cold February back in 2014.

Can you describe the space?
It’s a two-storey industrial warehouse, housing a fully equipped wood and metal workshop and a rather nice café on the ground floor, with over 35 creative businesses operating from the top floor. The workshop houses a broad range of traditional woodworking machinery from surface planers to thicknessers, lathes, MIG and TIG welding equipment, not to mention a wide range of hand tools.

We also have a large yard that has a small forge and a covered area – great for working outdoors, and for the assembly of larger sculptural and set design projects. This summer we’ve built a new café to allow us to extend our bench space as well as a new education area and materials library run by Ma-tt-er.

What kinds of creative industries do you cater for at Blackhorse?
It’s a broad spectrum from furniture makers, architects, product designers, artists, instrument makers, set designers, leatherworkers, metalworkers, bike builders – we’re open to anyone who can make use of the tools!

What’s the intended purpose behind an open access workshop?
Blackhorse is one of a number of open workshops across London. Our aim is to provide shared use of equipment and space that you might not be able to afford to run on your own, but also to teach people to use the machinery to enable them to build their own projects.

Is Blackhorse Workshop characterised by a particular philosophy or set of values?
I’d like to think our most important philosophy here is to establish an inspiring and supportive environment. It’s about creating a space where people feel excited about the possibilities, and raise the stakes of what they want to achieve.

Do you think that collaborative spaces are necessary for the creative industries?
Absolutely. It’s not just about providing the tools and machinery that’s important, but establishing the network to enable makers to connect with others with different skills and to introduce new techniques and materials. It becomes a ready resource of advice and ideas that spark some interesting outcomes, and helps you to keep pushing what you learn.

How have you seen London’s creative network develop since Blackhorse Workshop started?
Yes certainly. In less than two years there has been a substantial increase in shared facilities across the city. The Open Workshop Network that maps open access resources across London shows many more spaces than when we first started. What’s interesting is that the spaces aren’t in competition as each caters for a specific type of making or audience – whether that’s digital manufacturing or textile printing or whether they’re open to beginners or just for professionals.

What are some of the major setbacks to starting a creative business in London? How does an open access workshop help mitigate these problems?
The three top ones we see from our members are affordability, space and location. Due to the nature of the industry, the majority of contracts are freelance and the type of space or equipment you might need could vary enormously. The open access workshop model allows you to access the tools and equipment you need when you want it and for however long you need it. We’re lucky to have the support of our local council in terms of the building, which means we can still keep the costs affordable, and retain flexibility for our users. We’re lucky to be on the Victoria line too, which means its pretty quick from whatever side of London you’re coming from.

What have you learned from working in an environment like Blackhorse Workshop?
How important generosity of spirit is and where it can take you.

What part of the job most pleases you?
The people you get to meet, and the variety of projects. Whether it be a set build for Chelsea Flower show or a local puppet theatre, a new product for the Milan Furniture Fair or some simple shelves, a steel cocktail cabinet for someone’s flat, a dust machine for the AfrikaBurn Festival or a new renewable energy heating device – I love seeing the enthusiasm behind the projects made here, and watching the ideas transform into reality.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Someone came along to our fine metalwork course and relayed an old phrase they’d been taught at school to remember how to set up a brazing torch: ‘A before O or up you Go’ (Acetylene before Oxygen). I’d say that’s a pretty handy rhyme to remember!

A hole-and-corner is a secret place hidden away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Where is your own hole-and-corner?
When I get the chance I head out to Covehithe beach on the Suffolk coast where the coastal cliffs are eroding so rapidly that the place is literally disappearing before your eyes. Last time I went, there was a tree that appeared to be growing straight out of the sea – it’s a strange, but beautiful place, it’s a stark reminder of how quickly time passes.

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