More international news today from globe-trotting Australian ex-pat James Conway… here James goes in search of affordable design innovation in London’s East End. I am so jealous! What a fantastic round-up… London never looked so appealing!
Enjoy! – Lucy x
Going to London and moaning about the prices is a bit like jumping in a river and then complaining that you’re wet. Still, even when you know what awaits you, the speed with which pounds seem to evaporate here is breathtaking. The next Olympic city remains a podium fixture in the cost of living competition (gold or bronze, depending who you believe), but what’s especially dismaying is that so many of the shopping options seem to be either the same as you could get anywhere in the world, or else beyond the reach of anyone without an oil well to their name.
There are pockets of affordable innovation, but they’re under attack. You can find one of the frontlines at the edge of the City of London, the all-consuming financial powerhouse straining at the boundaries that inspire its nickname of The Square Mile, now continuing its assault on the East End.
The once vibrant Spitalfields Market, which stands a little too close to enemy territory, is a sad spectacle these days. You can still find a range of small-run design wares, but as well as losing some of its floor space to cookie cutter shops and offices to house the City’s overspill, the market seems to have lost its bohemian allure. And so there is even less room for young creative types and their potential customers to find each other.
But the further you get away from the City the more interesting things get. Managing – just – to retain their glorious Georgian architecture, the few blocks east of the market still bear the traces of successive waves of migration, from French Huguenots in the 17th century to Irish weavers, East European Jews and more recently Bangladeshis. The 18th century building which hosts the Brick Lane Mosque has previously served as a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel and a synagogue. The fascinating cultural layers here still attract writers and artists, though they tend to be less of the young and struggling variety, and more like Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and Jeanette Winterson.
Brick Lane is the destination of choice for a moderately priced post-pub curry, and the street continues to host an endearingly shabby market of new and used stock of a Sunday morning. The bizarre mix of merchandise is impossible to summarise; suffice it to say that if your shopping list reads “second-hand bicycle/5-pack of cotton-rich socks/‘60s picture frames/catering-sized can of creamed corn/rusty pliers”, you’re really in luck. A few blocks away they might be nutting out byzantine billion-dollar deals, but the vigorous, earthy capitalism practised here is a lot more appealing.
The old Truman Brewery site which straddles the street is home to a constantly changing roster of creative enterprises and events (including an upcoming Eco Design Christmas Fair), as well as the regular Sunday UpMarket, which is taking over where Spitalfields left off, and the ever-popular DJ bar Café 1001.
Just off Brick Lane you’ll find Cheshire Street, a small holdout of wilful individuality among the homogeneity of London’s retail scene. First stop is MAR MAR Co, whose range includes simple devices which allow you to turn old plastic bags and bottles into, respectively, garbage bins and bird feeders. Innovative, simple, cheap. A couple of doors down, the storefront of interior designers Richard Laurence oozes morbid glamour, and they’re happy to sell selected original and vintage pieces to the public.
More vintage gems await you at Russell Roberts, which specialises in 20th century furniture, while at Shelf they’ve captured the trend for retro printing techniques with Portuguese notebooks. You could always whip out your Faber-Castells and design your own costume for the unpainted Russian dolls also on offer. The globe-trotting continues at Labour and Wait where they scour the world for, well, scourers among other things, as well as enamel-coated pots and other utilitarian household items. Now you might be turned off by this fetishising of tools from an age when hard toil was a burdensome necessity rather than a lifestyle option, or you might just appreciate quality products built to last. In any case their store and mail order service are booming.
If that seems a bit precious, maturity and sophistication are unlikely to trouble you at F-Art. The range here includes space-age toys, old girlie mags and original art prints whose scatological humour lives up to the store’s name. At the other end of the street, past a stall selling £5 plimsolls, you’ll find Beyond Retro, second-hand outfitters to the stars. Well, to the Mighty Boosh anyway.
Leaving Cheshire Street (and passing Les Trois Garcons restaurant and adjacent bar Lounge Lover, both style mag regulars) you come upon Unto This Last, a workshop selling its clever, clean-lined plywood furniture direct to the public, at (for London) surprisingly sane prices. Nearby Squint deals in second-hand furniture reconditioned with loud fabric scraps. The results, while impressive, don’t come cheap, but you can always have a look around for makeover inspiration.
Our last stop on this tour is Columbia Road Flower Market, a Sunday morning institution with shouty stallholders and a lively assortment of cafes and shops, including Ryantown, with its range of delicate paper cut motifs and Nelly Duff, which specialises in high-impact limited edition prints by Banksy and other contemporary artists. Even midwinter doesn’t deter the crowds from sprawling over the cobbles and nursing their hangovers with some of the best coffee in town, and if you time your visit for the early afternoon you can get a drastically discounted pot plant or bouquet.
Or you can just soak up the atmosphere, which will cost you exactly zero British pounds.
Thanks so much James!