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Partnership / Coal Drops Yard: Double Take

Coal warehouses, a crane and five curious characters: The making of Double Take

Coal Drops Yard, the shopping and dining destination in London’s King’s Cross, has some colourful new residents. Hanging out among the restaurants and boutiques and hiding in the archways are five giant characters, part of an installation created by It’s Nice That called Double Take. The installation is, as the name might suggest, all about getting visitors to look twice at their surroundings and to discover something new. Here, we chat to the team behind the project to find out how they created a series of sculptures to stop shoppers in their tracks.

Coal Drops Yard was originally built in 1850 to receive coal sent by train from the north of England. The warehouses were later used by light industry as storage and, in the 1990s, hosted some of London’s biggest raves. Amazingly, much of the original industrial architecture has survived and, thanks to Heatherwick Studio, this architecture has been restored and reimagined as a brand new public space, which opened in October 2018. Now the Victorian structures and cobbled central yard are home to a variety of design-led restaurants and stores, including Paul Smith, Universal Works, Spiritland, LPOL, Honest Jon’s record shop, and the bar and off licence House of Cans.

Coal Drops Yard briefed It’s Nice That to create an installation that would appeal to the discerning eyes of a creative audience, encouraging them to wander around and explore. “The project was approached as a partnership so we wanted the outcome to feel like a coming-together of the two businesses,” says our senior creative Ali Hanson. “That’s where the identity of the project came from initially, defacing the ‘N1C’ of the Coal Drops logo to read ‘IT’S N1CE THAT’.”

When developing their installation ideas, Ali and his team were inspired by the fact that there is more to Coal Drops Yard than meets the eye. As well as the buildings having a rich history, the resident businesses are also using the space in unexpected ways. For example, STORE Store is running workshops to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds break into the creative industries, while lifestyle store Earl of East has an in-store pouring room so customers can watch as they make their candles on-site. All this led the team to land on the concept Double Take.

“As soon as we had this concept, we began looking at how we could create moments around the space that would catch people’s attention or encourage them to look a bit closer,” says Ali. “We explored ideas relating to movement, the history of the place, and illusion, but characters felt like the most playful and workable choice as a basis for ideas.”

Each of the five characters, with their bright and friendly faces, draw you into their surroundings. Electric blue eyes with raised brows guide you through a pair of arches to Regent’s Canal, while a giant, purple smile frames a passageway leading to Stable Street. Meanwhile, a slightly shocked-looking yellow character highlights the point at which Heatherwick Studio’s “kissing” roofs meet.

The positions of the characters were carefully selected so that they align with visitors’ routes through the space. “To create a ‘Double Take’ moment for each sculpture, we designed them to catch a person’s eye as they walked into that particular space within Coal Drops Yard,” says Ali. “Realising that many visitors aren’t necessarily coming to see the sculptures meant we had to learn about how people visit a space and what could grab their attention.”

Unlike in an exhibition space, at Coal Drops Yard, visitors can view the installations from every angle and through multiple arches, stairways and from different floors. To help capture their attention from these various locations, the team created viewpoint signage and maps. They also chose a colour palette for the installation that was in stark contrast to the muted tones of the buildings. “The colours respond to the graphic identity of Coal Drops Yard and bring that into the space more prominently,” says Ali.

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Face on Stable Street (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

While the characters needed to stand out, it was important for them to also look at home, so each statue is constructed out of geometric shapes inspired by the historic architecture. “We wanted to tie the aesthetic of the installation to the building and branding of Coal Drops Yard, so we worked with shapes heavily associated with both, such as arches, pillars, the kissing roofs and the stairways around the space,” says Ali. “We wanted to be respectful of the space, installing something that was in harmony with the buildings but that still stood out as something new.”

When it came to drawing up the characters, It’s Nice That worked with spatial designers Isabel + Helen, a studio which has previously created artworks for Selfridges, Somerset House and the V&A. For Ali, collaborating with the duo was an easy decision. “We have worked together several times before and we trust their approach and how they work,” says Ali. “We also love the playful way they approach design and they share our desire to fold humour into design work when possible. Their ideas communicate so well. These factors felt important to have in the team we collaborated with.”

They then worked with production designer James Hamilton and his team at Made Workshop to make Isabel + Helen’s 3D designs a reality. “Initially we loved the way the sculptures looked as stand-alone pieces, but it was really exciting to think of them being positioned in such an interesting space,” says James, who has also recently worked with brands including Apple, Sonos and Burberry.

The space might have been interesting creatively, but logistically it posed several challenges, particularly as a crane was required to initially place each and every sculpture in position. “The public nature of the space was a big challenge,” says Ali. “With many aspects of the building being heritage, you have to be careful not to propose anything that could damage a wall or a pillar, for example.”

The public’s reactions to the artworks have made overcoming the challenges worth it, though. “From the moment we placed the sculptures, even as we were applying the finishing touches to the paintwork, visitors were stopping, having a closer look and taking a photo – that was pretty cool to see!” says Ali. The bright colours and geometric shapes invite interaction, as passersby have been spied stopping to touch the surfaces of the statues since they were installed last week.

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Eyes in the Archways (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

Echoing Ali, James says: “It’s a wonderful thing to display something to the public that you are so proud of. You never know what sort of reactions you will get. Everyone has their own interpretations and that’s amazing, because you get to see things you didn’t even know were there.”

The installation has made Ali do a double take himself. “I’ve noticed so many interesting details as I’ve walked around since that I never considered at the design stage,” he says. “The sculptures look different from so many angles. The way they look at night is so different, too. I loved seeing the change as the sun went down. I hope it brings a smile to the faces of people who visit Coal Drops Yard over the next five weeks.”

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Face on the Bridge (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

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Holding up the Viaduct (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

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Holding up the Viaduct (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

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Holding up the Viaduct (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

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Face on the Eastern Viaduct (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

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Face on the Bridge (photographed by Hufton + Crow)

Coal Drops Yard is a new shopping and restaurant district in London’s King’s Cross. Coal Drops Yard was originally established in 1850 to handle the eight million tonnes of coal delivered to the capital each year, and was latterly the location of nightclubs Bagley’s and The Cross. The area reopened in October 2018, reinvented by the acclaimed Heatherwick Studio, which has interwoven a contemporary design with the surviving structures and rich ironwork of the original Victorian coal drops.

Located within a reimagined set of historic buildings and arches directly adjacent to Granary Square and Regent’s Canal, Coal Drops Yard houses over 50 stores from a unique mix of established and emerging brands, along with cafes, bars, top independent restaurants and new public spaces.