After seven years and £17.5 million, Peter Taylor has finally realised his dream of opening a charity-funded mixed-ability jewellery facility in the heart of London. He takes Rachael Taylor on a tour of the award-winning Goldsmiths’ Centre and explains that it’s not just about studio spaces or training but a new spirit of working together for the greater good.
The term commune can lead the mind to wander to an image of bare-footed, hemp-wrapped hippies in tents, or perhaps US religious cults; but at its most basic, what it boils down to is a community of like-minded people living together and sharing resources. And this is a concept Goldsmiths’ Centre director Peter Taylor is keen to promote within the UK jewellery industry.
While there are no jewellers camping out in the roof garden of the four-floor mixed-use centre in London’s Clerkenwell, or platers scrubbing potatoes in the kitchen of its aptly named The Bench Café, which is open to the public, every person who works in the building, be they an apprentice or working for an established business, has signed an agreement that they will work together as an insular community, sharing knowledge, resources and skills to promote the development of each others’ stake and standing in the jewellery industry.
It is a pretty big idea, as an ideology for modern business, but it is one that has been long thought about and excellently executed in the seven years that it has taken the Goldsmiths’ Centre to bloom from a concept on paper to bricks and mortar, and a lot of glass.
The idea for the centre first sprung in August 2005 when Taylor heard talk of a failed attempt for a similar project for the fashion and textiles industry – its government funding dried up – that left a Grade II-listed former school lying derelict with no prospect of the promised regeneration.
Taylor is a goldsmith by trade, having studied for his City & Guilds qualifications in Birmingham before setting up his own workshop, but the past decade or so of Taylor’s life has been dedicated to wrangling public funding from European organisations to set up and manage new projects in the jewellery industry.
This change in career started with a letter to a jewellery magazine. “I’d worked for 10 years in Birmingham but I got into funding after I wrote an article attacking the university for not helping students to get into business,” he says. “Someone said to me, ‘Instead of writing about it, why don’t you do something about it?’.” And so started Taylor’s life as a professional fundraiser.
His first project was to write a bid for Birmingham City Council applying for funding from the EuropeanRegional Development Fund, which was successful, to set up what became Design Space, a facility that offers free workspace for 20 designer-maker jewellers in the city. Designers can stay at the centre for 12 months, using the time to strengthen their businesses with a view to setting up on their own at the end.
From there Taylor, who says he soon recognised he had a talent for bid writing and that “it’s easier than working 12 hour days on the bench”, set up his own consultancy and went on to work with organisations such as the Birmingham School of Jewellery, where he helped to set up the Innovation Centre, a training and mentoring facility with cutting-edge equipment that works with established businesses on collaborative projects.
Then in February 2002 Taylor found himself in London working for the Goldsmiths’ Company as director of technology and training; a job he says he didn’t expect to get. “I was only 35 and a Brummie, and when they called me in for an interview I thought they were having a laugh,” recalls Taylor.
At the Goldsmiths’ Company Taylor flourished, so when the seed of an idea for the Goldsmiths’ Centre appeared it was he who was chosen to sow it, and to grow it.
Through his close connections with the London Development Agency – he had worked with it on numerous occasions in the past – Taylor discovered the aborted plans for the fashion and textiles building and decided that the location would be perfect for a similar scheme for the jewellery industry, but on a much larger scale. While the fashion building had been estimated to cost about £4 million, the Goldsmiths’ Centre project would come in at £17.5 million; under budget, Taylor proudly points out, thanks in part to the original contractor going bust and the second tender delivering a fee of £1 million less due to a depressed construction market.
What stands in place of that once derelict school building is a beacon of modern architecture and high spec facilities wrapped round the existing listed building, creating a visual juxtaposition that is a satisfying metaphor for a traditional trade moving forward into the future.
On the ground floor lies an exhibition space, large rooms available for hire, a reception and a café that is open to the public. On the roof there are a further two spaces available for hire, one with an attached bio-diversity roof garden – the entire building is eco friendly with features such as solar panels to heat the water, rainwater harvesting to flush toilets and a considered use of glass to ensure that as much natural light as possible floods in, reducing the need for electricity. These are the public-facing facets of The Goldsmiths’ Centre but beyond the security gates lies the guts of the building where the magic, and the commune concept, takes place.
There are three types of occupant at the Goldsmiths’ Centre – management aside – and they are the full-time apprentices, post-graduate students and established jewellery businesses ranging from platers and setters to designer makers and established jewellery brands. The range of skill levels and types is vast, but that is all part of the appeal.
The residents still in training are transient but the established businesses can make a permanent home here, as long as they demonstrate a willingness to contribute to the community. “We have built it into the lease that we will review their contributions and if they don’t contribute we will throw them out,” says Taylor. “Contributions can be formal, such as teaching in the Institute [the educational facility within the Goldsmiths’ Centre] or it can be informal such as offering mentoring. You have to put it in the lease, otherwise you get closed doors.”
The concept of open doors works both ways. While students are free to ask the established residents for help and advice, the businesses are free to use the facilities within The Institute, and it seems that it is a way of working that is already taking hold.
An example Taylor gives of this collaborative spirit is a day when the apprentices in the training workshop watched a DVD about polishing and finishing, which was made by Goldsmiths Centre resident Elliot Fitzpatrick. The students then walked up the stairs to Elliot Fitzpatrick’s studio and got a live demonstration from the people who had made the film.
“It’s not the fact that we offer training, lots of facilities do that, it’s that we have real businesses existing alongside the training,” says Taylor. “When you look at who is in this building it’s a who’s who of people who are at the top of their game. You have established workshops next to starter studios.”
Taylor is also working smartly to deliver extra facilities to residents. He has set up a barter deal with software company Simply Rhino. In return for providing free training for The Institute students, it can use the centre free of charge to run its paid-for training courses. “I love a barter and it costs nothing to give away space,” says Taylor, adding that the deal has another hidden bonus of getting outsiders through the doors.
Drumming up interest from outside the business for the facilities is not just an opportunity to show off the building, which recently won an architecture award, it is a chance to start repaying some of the millions invested in the building.
In order to fund the project Taylor was charged by The Goldsmiths’ Company with setting up a charity, the name of which is the same as that of the building. The charity was then loaned the £17.5 million from The Goldsmiths’ Company, which as a livery has significant cash wealth, with a plan to pay it back over the years.
As well as rent from tenants, The Goldsmiths’ Centre has other revenue streams, such as the café and hiring out its events and conference spaces, which have already had significant uptake by businesses in the local area, including shoe brand Kurt Geiger. “It has a great CSR story as all the money spent goes back into the charity,” says Taylor. “If you buy a coffee a percentage goes to the charity, or if you hire a room 100% of the price goes back into the charity.”
That money is not simply used to repay the debt of creating the building, but goes towards paying for the education of The Institute’s students; the apprentices who receive free training 40 hours a week that focuses on traditional skills, or the post-graduate students, such as Ivonna Poplanska who won the recent BJA competition to design a brooch for the Queen, who are given a free place to work and further training for their first 12 months after graduating.
This feel-good factor and future-proofing of the industry is central to everything that The Goldsmiths’ Centre does, and the security of the financial backing of The Goldsmiths’ Company means that it can do so in a way that is both long term and, to a degree, experimental.
“We can do things because they are the right thing to do, not because we need to do them to get funding,” says Taylor, adding that there is usually always a compromise when funding is secured and the challenge is not to compromise too much. “If we were a commercial development we wouldn’t have done it, as there is no return on investment.”
Despite the centre not being a profit-churning machine, it is wholly stable, says Taylor. “The trust has a 125 year lease, with no ground rates to pay,” he explains. “We can take a long view. Most companies operate in weeks, months, days; we think in 50-year, 100-year 150-year blocks. We can pursue things that don’t work out straight away, it doesn’t have to work overnight as we don’t have to worry if we don’t get shedloads of money from the government. From an operational point of view, for the next 125 years we will be doing what we are doing now.”
While the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s official slogan is Creativity, craftsmanship, community, another adage that trips off Taylor’s tongue is We do because we can, which almost perfectly sums up this pioneering centre that is without doubt a landmark for the jewellery industry and interesting ideological model for the future that offers a new way of working that supports, educates and inspires.
This article was taken from the November 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.