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Cockpit Arts–30 Years of Supporting Makers and Fostering Innovation

Cockpit Arts–30 Years of Supporting Makers and Fostering Innovation

By Purva Chawla

We are weaving in and out of a series of studios, each more visually intriguing than the next. In one space, a crew of diverse ceramicists has populated shelf after shelf with their pristine creations and even installed a kiln.
In another, textile designers and weavers have hung webbed, waif-like weaves from walls and perched printed fabrics on hangers and shelves; here the picture is made complete with the presence of an active Jacquard loom, placed beside massive windows.
There are still other studio spaces where one large, unpartitioned and flexible space is home to a mix of makers–a leather jewelry creator, a fashion designer and a crafts business whose trademark is faceted metal homeware. Within these spaces, craftspeople, makers, and designers seem to thrive together and even cross-pollinate.

Inside Cockpit Arts, the hive that holds within it these workspaces, we see all phases of craft-making in action– ideation, design, testing, sampling as well full-scale production. It is crucial to understand, however, that the goal here is more than just providing productive and accessible workspaces. Learning, growth, and business development are vital to the experience and journey of craftspeople and artists who inhabit spaces here.

 The Cockpit Arts location in Deptford

The Cockpit Arts location in Deptford

The UK’s only business incubator for craftspeople first provides healthy and stimulating workspace for craft-based business and individual makers and then proceeds to wrap them in a robust business model. With one-on-one coaching, access to education and training resources, funding, and financial support, more than 170 craft businesses are developing steadily at Cockpit Arts' two locations in Holborn and Deptford, in London. Not to mention the many craftspeople and designers elsewhere in the UK and internationally–outside of the two physical Cockpit Arts locations–that are benefiting from its consultancy and intermittent support through platforms such as the London Creative Network.

Two key observations are emerging as we complete a walk-through of Cockpit Arts’ Holborn location. We ponder over them, as we prepare for an in-depth chat with Cockpit Arts' Chief Executive Vanessa Swann.

The first is the seemingly limitless potential for spread and scalability that seems to be inherent to the Cockpit Arts model. Both stable and dynamic at once, as well as ever-evolving, it can cater to similar craft communities around the world, where makers can benefit from its gathering of experts and well-tested business development toolkit.

The second is the sheer quality and innovativeness of the products that are emerging from the different studios at Cockpit Arts. From jewelry and accessory designers who are inventing one-of-a-kind composite materials; to weavers who are elevating textile to the scale of architecture, and employing unconventional materials on traditional looms. The Cockpit Arts model is nourishing innovation, and allowing trendsetting craftspeople to develop and thrive.

These thoughts remain on our mind, as we chat with Vanessa, and begin to learn more Cockpit Arts and its development over more than 30 years, as well as the many exciting initiatives that are on its horizon.

Editor's Note: This Interview with Vanessa marks the beginning of a new series of articles on our website, featuring Cockpit Arts' makers, designers, and artists. Showcased, will be their innovation with design and materials, as well as their roots, including their growth at Cockpit Arts. 

MD: Vanessa, In the last 30 years Cockpit Arts has evolved from workspaces for craftspeople, to a business incubator for craft-based businesses in the UK, and a consultancy for the industry here and all over the world. How did this evolution begin?

VS: The transformation was incremental for us. From 1986 to 2002, our goal was to provide affordable workspace for craftspeople and makers. Around the end of this period, we saw that the market for craft was both growing and broadening, with online purchases, commissioning, and demand from department stores all on the rise. In absolute contradiction to this, however, the income of craftspeople in the UK was declining; the national data was illustrating this clearly.

We saw an opportunity here, to raise the bar and to test how providing coaching and support to craft-based business could bolster the livelihood of craftsmen.

 An image from the 'Open Studios', in Holborn, held twice a year at both Cockpit Arts locations. Seen here is Dovile Bertulyte, showing her work and studio at Cockpit Arts' Holborn 'Open Studios'.

An image from the 'Open Studios', in Holborn, held twice a year at both Cockpit Arts locations. Seen here is Dovile Bertulyte, showing her work and studio at Cockpit Arts' Holborn 'Open Studios'.

MD: What are the ways in which the Cockpit Arts model changed then, and continues to evolve in today?

VS: Our evolution was gradual, but one of the first things we understood, was that one-on-one coaching would be our focus. We determined that it would be crucial for us to have experts from multiple fields who would enable Cockpit Arts residents to access coaching and seminars regularly.

This idea has been fundamental to our model: the in-house associates and specialized trainers who work with makers and craftspeople at our two facilities have long-standing relationships with them. They work with them in a continuous fashion, rather than in one-off interactions. An excellent example of this is Madeleine Furness, our Business Incubation Programme Manager. Madelaine has extensive experience working with galleries and with art and craft curation. She has helped a lot of our artist-makers as they apply to art bodies for grants, assisting them as they prepare for rigorous selection and assessment.

We also determined that to do our job thoroughly and cultivate these businesses; there would be many activities that would be compulsory at Cockpit Arts. Crucial to our work is also a constant review of our mechanisms. We observe the impact of our efforts, and assess how effective and efficient we have been. That helps us tweak and edit the way we do things constantly.

MD: It feels like Cockpit Arts helps foster lots of research and innovation, in addition to helping craftspeople and makers develop viable businesses. How is Cockpit Arts doing that?

VS: Every year 25 craftspeople and makers join us at our two locations in Holborn and Deptford. A majority of these makers come to Cockpit Arts on sponsored awards and bursaries from the many Trusts and organizations we partner with. This support allows both the makers and us to invest time, space and money into their work, promoting investment in research and development. This aspect of our model is crucial. Additionally, we offer low-interest loans and micro-finance schemes to all our makers, which helps support early-stage business and fund both growth and innovation.

Something exciting and very recent for us, though, is our partnership with the London Creative Network (LCN), which began in 2015. Through this association (where we are ‘Consorting/ Delivery' partners), we can reach a large number of makers and craftsmen, including those outside of Cockpit Arts. You could call it a virtual incubation of sorts. As a result of this partnership, more specialists are coming into our locations, a boost to our internal system as well.

As part of this partnership with the LCN, we help craftsmen and makers most specifically to develop brand new products and strategize for their long term goals.

 Showcasing and Nourishing Innovation: An image from the 'Open Studios', in Holborn. Seen here is Petra Bishai, showing her work with traditional and non-traditional materials and techniques at Cockpit Arts' Holborn 'Open Studios'.

Showcasing and Nourishing Innovation: An image from the 'Open Studios', in Holborn. Seen here is Petra Bishai, showing her work with traditional and non-traditional materials and techniques at Cockpit Arts' Holborn 'Open Studios'.

MD: How is the design/craft industry responding to this boost to smaller craft-based businesses, that Cockpit Arts is facilitating?

VS: The first thing we have seen is that buyers like working with makers and small crafts-based businesses. They like that they can source design products that have been created in small batches, and are unique.

The second thing is that for these smaller and early-stage craft business to survive as businesses, they are forced to continually innovate. So the result is that these businesses are naturally trendsetters. These two aspects have no doubt influenced the climate of crafts-industry here in London and the UK to an extent.

MD: Cockpit Arts has also consulted for craft communities internationally. How does that work?

VS: In countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea, we have served as consultants to craft communities and craft-based manufacturers. This work has been geared to social enterprise development.

In one such collaboration, we organized a study visit for Thai craftspeople to visit Cockpit Arts and meet makers here. This proved to be extremely fruitful and informative for them and us. We would like to do a lot more of that. 

We currently offer artists residencies for UK-based makers, but would like to open this up as international residency in the future.

MD: Thank you so much, Vanessa. This was so insightful! Congratulations, also on a terrific response to the Cockpit Arts' Christmas Open Studios that took place just a few days ago at both Holborn and Deptford locations! For our readers: The Open Studios are held twice a year at Cockpit Arts, and allow visitors to walk through the studio spaces and purchase unique craft products directly from the makers.


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