Beyond the Espérance Bridge
At the close of last century, the land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Railway Stations was promoted as the biggest development site in Europe. Over the post millennium decades new places and spaces have taken shape between and inside retained and restored structures. The cast iron frames of gasholders continue to provide a robust architectural presence. An ankle height plaque on one of their columns reads: “Erected 1864. Telescoped 1880.”
Next to the gasholders is Coal Drops Yard, a collection of former industrial buildings transformed by designer Thomas Heatherwick into luxury shops (such as Le Chocolat by Alain Ducasse, Astrid and Miyu jewellers and Tom Dixon’s flagship store), galleries and restaurants. Overlooking Coal Drops Yard and backing onto the canal is a row of gorgeous converted commercial buildings. On the ground floor is designer Tom Dixon’s studio and – whoop whoop! – an Israeli restaurant. Further to the north are some of the most exciting new schemes in London. Not least Allison Brooks Architects’ Cadence tower of apartments over offices. The historic arches of the area are reinterpreted in bézier arched window openings on various levels of the 15 storey tower and adjoining lower blocks to striking effect.
Coal Drops Yard was built in the 1850s close to the canal and railway tracks to receive, sort and store the coal that powered Victorian London. Two decades later the coal trade shifted south of the canal and the buildings found alternative industrial uses. Glass bottle manufacturer Bagley, Wild and Company took over one of the buildings. Little did cousins William and John William Bagley know that a film studio in what was once their warehouse would retain their surname. Better still, the next use, a nightclub, would as well. Bagley’s occupied the three storey eastern block of Coal Drops Yard. It held the biggest and best raves in Nineties London with capacity (often exceeded) of 2,500 partygoers. Each floor would have a different music genre blasting to the beams. Pure ecstasy!
Next door to Tom Dixon’s studio, Coal Office is a collaboration between him and businessman Chef Assaf Granit (who owns the Michelin starred Machneyuda in Jerusalem). Over Saturday brunch at the restaurant bar overlooking the open plan kitchen we chat to Head Chef Dan Pelles. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before working for five years at the nearby triple Michelin starred restaurant Jean Georges. His cooking is rooted in Israel and across the Levant: Dan is from Tel Aviv.
We name drop Shila (pronounced like the female name “Sheila”), our favourite Tel Avivian spot for lunch, especially on the Ben Yehuda Street terrace. “Shila is a great seafood restaurant,” Dan agrees, and referring to the owner Chef, “Sharon Cohen is a good friend. Israel is so so tiny – everyone knows everyone! Have some chilli olives.” We’re keen to understand what Israeli cuisine is all about.
“In New York there’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy,” he relates. “So many cuisines are separately defined. Not so much in Israel. In the Forties and and early Fifties Israel was filled with immigrants from Yemini to European. I have a Scottish grandmother and a Moroccan grandmother. It became a melting pot – the common language is food. There’s no other place like it in the world. Israeli cuisine is a blend of international traditions with healthy and fresh local ingredients. My Scottish grandmother made black pudding; my Moriccan grandmother cooked octopus. I eat both!”
“This dish has three types of aubergine.” Tarterie Oto (aubergine tartare, white and black aubergine cream, parsley and chilli aubergine) is served. The weekend brunch menu is divided into Small Plates, In Between Plates and Big Plates. We opt for ample sized Small Plates. Tapogan (salmon sashimi, potato crisp, horseradish crème fraîche, chilli oil, dill) is followed by Salat Dla’at (Delicat pumpkin, dandelion, Galotyri cheese, apple balsamic vinaigrette). Dan’s prestigious training and experience shines through in every dish. Alma White 2021 from Dalton Winery, Galilee, is the perfect accompaniment to the savouries. “Do you want an Israeli passion fruit dessert wine?” tempts Dan when sea salt caramel ice cream on carmelised pretzel arrives.
The sharply defined interior right down to the wine glasses and cutlery is designed by Tom Dixon. We interviewed the designer for Select Interiors Winter 2008. This glossy Irish magazine was published by Brigid Whitehead. Here’s the copy: We keep hearing the word ‘maverick’ bandied about in the media, especially on American television channels. Vice President hopeful Sarah Palin can barely make a speech without referring to her running mate John McCain as a maverick. Whether or not he fits the standard definition (“A lone dissenter: an intellectual, artist or a politician who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates”) is a moot point. A quick online search of the contemporary designer Tom Dixon’s recent career highlights – of which there are many – wouldn’t immediately suggest he is a maverick either. He’s been awarded no fewer than two doctorates and the highly successful design brand Tom Dixon has now expanded into the US. That’s just the tip of his iceberg sized CV.
His iconic status is there for all to see. Surprisingly, he’s self taught. His maverick status starts to emerge. “He is a self educated maverick whose only qualification is a one day course in plastic bumper repair,” is a quote once used to describe Tom’s background. In place of formal training, his interest in welding led him to experiment with furniture using found objects from a steelyard at Chelsea Harbour including iron tread plate, gas fittings and industrial nuts and bolts. Tom explains, “I was immediately hooked on welding … mesmerised by the tiny pool of molten metal viewed from the safety of darkened goggles. Allowing an instant fusion of one piece of steel to another, it had none of the seriousness of craft, none of the pomposity of design. It was industry.”
Recycling might be all the rage now, but back in the Eighties, Tom chartered new waters with his breakthrough designs. Others were left to play catch up. They still are. He continues, “London at the time was full of scrap metal yards and the skips were piled full of promising bits and pieces due to the Eighties boom … all of which presented themselves to me as potential chair backs or table legs. Unhindered by commercial concerns – I had my night job – or formal training, I made things just for the pleasure of making them. It was only when people started to buy that I realised I had hit on a form of alchemy. I could turn a pile of scrap metal into gold!”
At the end of the following decade, pundits were surprised when he accepted the post as Head of the UK Design Studio at Habitat. In the intervening years, he had been self employed and he was never considered ‘establishment’. Tom confesses his friends were horrified. Perhaps they thought he was losing his hard earned maverick status? According to him, “They said I would have my creativity compromised. I would be entering a stifling world of corporate politics.” But in reality, “It was as though I had a giant toy box … all the manufacturing techniques in the world from basket work to injection moulding. Everything for the home to design … everything at normal everyday prices!”
Six years ago, the company called Tom Dixon was set up by Tom and his business partner David Begg. In 2004 a partnership was established between the Tom Dixon founders and venture capitalists Proventus to form Design Research Studio. Today, the Studio owns and manages the brand Tom Dixon as well as Artek, the Finnish modernist furniture manufacturer established by Alvar Aalto in 1935. But Tom has ensured that he hasn’t sold out, joined the establishment. Instead he is fulfilling his lifetime ambition to make good design available to everyone.
Every icon must have his or her iconic work and Tom’s has grown from single pieces of furniture such as the S Chair and Blow Pendant Light to full blown interiors. Shoreditch House is Design Research Studio’s latest project, led by Tom. As usual, an innovative approach was taken to this private members’ club in a converted biscuit factory. The industrial character was played up by introducing even more raw materials while dedication to comfort with deep-pile rugs creates an enjoyable tension. In Tom’s words, the concept was to, “Celebrate honest materials with all their functional and decorative qualities. Their imperfections too.” We’ve heard that Damien Hirst, Jamie Dornan and Sophie Ellis Bextor all like to hang out there.
Tom has turned full circle. He recently joined a band called Rough; he plays with them when working for Artek in Helsinki. Last time he was in a band was in the Eighties. “We play bad Kylie Minogue covers,” he says, laughing. And in the last six months, Tom has started buying back original Artek pieces from schools and hospitals and replacing them with new versions. The institutions are glad of the update and collectors like to buy the originals. “The big idea underpinning the whole project is this discussion about sustainability,” he relates. It’s a new take on recycling. No matter what career posts he takes on, he’s always able to take an independent stand apart. Tom Dixon, ever the maverick.
Returning to 2023, whole Coal Office is Tom Dixon’s next door neighbour, his upstairs neighbour is the celebrated architectural practice Herzog and Meuron. What’s new in his store below in Coal Drops Yard? He advises, “Elements: a series of fragrances inspired by the medieval alchemist and eastern philosopher’s quest to reduce all matter to four simple elements, four scents of extreme simplicity and individual character that reflect their elemental names of Fire, Air, Earth and Water.” A medium size candle is £125; large, £220. As we edge towards the middle of the third post millennium decade, the land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Railway Stations has become one of the best developed sites in Europe.