Clerkenwell - past, present and future

Grant Gibson, gives us his thoughts on Clerkenwell Design Week, past, present and future.

Have you heard the news?  We’re making our debut at Clerkenwell Design Week this year in an exciting collaboration with Acrylicize.  We think that combining our brand heritage with Acrylicize’s creativity is going to produce a stunning piece of art. But we’re biased!  We’d love you to come and see for yourselves in St John’s Square 24 – 26 May.  You can find out more here if you’re intrigued.

Although our teams have visited the London festival for many years, we still feel a bit like the newcomers, so we asked Grant Gibson, the respected design, craft and architecture writer, to give us his thoughts on Clerkenwell Design Week, past, present and future. Over to you Grant...


Historically Clerkenwell has been a magnet for making, political radicalism and, well, thuggery. Wander along St John Street now and it’s difficult to believe that, as Peter Ackroyd pointed out in his brilliant history of the capital, ’in the eighteenth century travellers felt obliged to walk together down this road, guarded by link-boys bearing lights, in case they were harassed or attacked.’ Opposition and unrest appears to have been designed into its DNA. In 1381, for instance, followers of Wat Tyler sat on Clerkenwell Green and watched as the priory of St John went up in flames. In 1816 the Chartists staged a massive rally that attracted a crowd of 20,000, while a decade later William Cobbett spoke at a meeting on the Green to defy the Corn Laws . 

Clerkenwell Design Week, which runs from 24-26 May, is a rather more urbane affair reflecting the industry that currently dominates the area, office furniture, while attempting to cling on to echoes of its craft (if not its revolutionary or violent) past.The Goldsmiths’ Centre is acting as a hub for the week’s talks programme and the temporary Museum of Making, created by Swedish practice White Arkitekter and curated by Pete Collard on St John’s Square, promises to include work from the area both past and present. As ever Clerkenwell’s swarm of showrooms will be opening their doors and there will be a host of temporary exhibition sites running along the spine of the area from Smithfields to Exmouth Market. There are installations too. As well as Bisley’s collaboration, I very much like the sound of HakFolly, a 4.5m stacked timber structure designed by FleaFollyArchitects that ‘aims to create a fleeting moment of peace and tranquility’ in St John’s Gate. Under the aegis of Media 10’s show director William Knight (full disclosure: we go back) the week is a slickly run, often hugely enjoyable, event. 

And yet somehow its success makes me ever so slightly wistful for Clerkenwell’s past. On one hand it’s wonderful that, since the regeneration of the old warehouses into loft conversions in the mid-nineties, the arrival of numerous architecture practices, and the subsequent emergence of the office furniture industry, the area is thriving once again. I also accept that cities need to adapt and change to succeed. However, it is a shame to see some of the quirky, smaller galleries leaving the area. 

Clerkenwell is merely a microcosm of the wider city . Makers and artists are finding it increasingly difficult to rent workshop space within striking distance of the city centre. Is this really a problem? Well, yes I think it is. Areas need variety to flourish – and the truth of the matter is that artists, makers, and their accompanying galleries help create a sense of place that, for all the good work accomplished over three days in May, office furniture showrooms will never quite be able to manage.