CITIZENS DESIGN BUREAU - AN INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDER KATY MARKS. LIVERPOOL-BORN KATY MARKS FOUNDED CITIZENS DESIGN BUREAU IN 2011 AS A CO-OPERATIVE COMPANY OF ARCHITECTS. EVER SINCE, THEY HAVE BEEN BUSY WORKING ON INNOVATIVE COMMUNITY HOUSING PROJECTS, CREATIVE WORKSPACE SCHEMES, AND A NUMBER OF HIGH-PROFILE THEATRE AND ARTS BUILDINGS. HOSPITALITY IS A PARTICULAR FORTE OF THE TEAM. TAKE FOR EXAMPLE THE ACHINGLY ELEGANT ‘THE CAFÉ’ AT THE SUMPTUOUS HOTEL CAFÉ ROYAL ON REGENT STREET IN LONDON.
Citizens Design Bureau is based at the Hackney Downs Studios on the site of a former crack den that is being transformed by Eat Work Art into creative work and community spaces, for which Katy and her colleagues are project architects. It’s from this nerve centre that a number of exciting new projects are developing, including work on a major new London theatre venue for renowned impresario, Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
In fact Katy has been making quite a name for herself within the profession, having been heavily involved with the 2014 Stirling Prize winning Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (she originally worked on the project from concept to start on site during her time at Haworth Tompkins, and was later involved again, this time with Citizens Design Bureau on interiors and furniture design).
Katy and the team also scooped the WIN Awards Bars Category 2015 last December for their fantastic work on the bar area at London’s world-famous Royal Court Theatre (check out the lampshades they created especially for the project). We speak to her about the award, her work, her childhood love of going to the theatre, and the day Kofi Annan opened a rather mind-blowing community project she had been working on in Soweto…
The wonderfully inviting interiors you designed for the undercroft Bar & Kitchen at London’s Royal Court Theatre landed you a starring role as a winner at last December’s World Interiors News Awards. A two-part question please: how did it feel to win, and what do you think made your designs stand out above the other high calibre submissions?
Design awards are so subjective. We were nominated alongside some other brilliant projects. It’s great to win though. I hope that somehow the judges could really see how we design to a human scale, that an ethos and an idea is expressed in every tiny detail. It’s not about being fussy or over elaborate but being aware of how people will really experience a space.
Do have any especially enjoyable memories from the Gala Awards evening at The Sky Garden in London (apart from winning)?
The brilliant view and a nice chat with David Kohn. We work so hard, so it felt good to get a bit of recognition as a team!
Citizens Design Bureau collaborated with architects, Lyndon Goode, at The Royal Court Theatre (described by Harpers and Queen as ‘London’s coolest theatre’ and said to be ‘the most important theatre in Europe’ by the New York Times). How did this come about and how did it work on a practical level, that is to say, how were responsibilities split?
Lyndon Goode had been invited to pitch for the project at the Royal Court Theatre. I had previously worked with David Lyndon at Haworth Tompkins and he knew we had experience designing theatres and bars in particular, so asked me if we would like to collaborate with them to pitch for the job, which of course we were really happy to do.
We worked very much together as a team on the conceptual and detailed design, making models, sketching, working closely with the client, project manager, cost consultant and really high quality makers. A lot of our work involved an intricate overlay of new and old -reclaiming and reusing many of the beautiful, original materials.
Of course we each focused on particular elements to an extent but this was a real collaboration with the overall spatial and detail concepts developed together. As design team leaders, Lyndon Goode Architects did the working drawings and also helped the client secure funding for work elsewhere in the building.
Time was one of the big challenges in transforming the bar area at the Royal Court Theatre – a presentation to the Theatre team in March 2015, start on site in August, and all done by September. That must have been tough! How did you cope, and what were some of the other main challenges?
The Royal Court Theatre is very well loved. Many people feel personally attached to it and we worked for the architects of the earlier refurbishment. So, there was a lot of pressure to do it well and be respectful of the vibe that people valued so much, without being scared to do something new.
One of the main challenges, as always, was budget. If we had completely renovated the whole space and all of the finishes, there would’ve been no furniture! So, we decided to leave many of the old finishes as they were - even if they looked a bit scuffed - and our work simply added another layer. I say ‘simply’ but that’s not simple. Reclaiming existing timber, and matching it to new timber is not easy. Working around existing services and doing it all very quickly was a real challenge.
And speaking purely personally, what is your favourite aspect of the finished space?
Citizens Design Bureau separately designed the coloured enamelled steel pendant lamps – so it was brilliant to see them used in this project, both to colourfully define the space above the bar and to create a glowing cocoon around diners in the round booths.
The ‘ladies room’ at the back, that used to be the public toilets under Sloane Square is many people’s favourite: a really intimate, cosy space. The filigree screen was also a personal favourite that references some of the beautiful metalwork elsewhere in the building. There was a lot of love put into this building over the years and we wanted to put in a little of our own!
Collaboration and co-operative working obviously run deep in the way you like to operate professionally. It started after gaining your Masters degree in Environmental Design when you founded Somoho - an arts, culture and environment centre in Soweto, South Africa. Can you tell us about a few of the highs and lows of that particular experience?
I have always worked in collaborative teams. Years ago, I and several other non-architect friends had established an organisation focussed around communicating and debating environmental and social justice issues. Together we were invited to organise awareness raising events for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
We were disillusioned by the UN circus and decided to embed ourselves in the township of Soweto. The community there had a very clear agenda to reclaim a barren wasteland, a dangerous no-go area. Our clear agenda was to bring the World Summit out of a conference centre, to make it relevant to people’s lives and for a disenfranchised community to have a real voice – on their territory. All very idealistic…
It was opened in Soweto by the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and has been published in ‘The Good Life’ by Zoe Ryan and ‘New Public Spaces’ by Sarah Gaventa. I met some incredible people there. It was at times violent, dangerous and distressing but all of that was eclipsed by the burning talent and ongoing creativity of the people I worked with there. The project has been a catalyst for so many other initiatives and careers. We just planted a seed. I’m still in constant contact with friends there.
On your return, in 2004 you and three friends co-founded The Hub, a collective of different businesses in one place in Islington, which went on to become a highly successful network. Can you explain how it works?
The Hub was the first hosted co-working space in London. Rather than become a franchise business, it has become a network of over 80 ImpactHubs around the world. It has a very different ethos to other more recent co-working spaces, ploughing back profits to the network. Each Hub is founded and run by a local team rather than an externally imposed management model.
After that you joined the respected firm, Haworth Tompkins, working on high-profile arts projects such as the National Theatre Studio, the Young Vic, and the 2014 Stirling Prize winner, The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Can you explain your involvement with The Everyman, and tell us why it is very special to you?
It was a difficult decision to leave the Hub but I wanted to get more architectural experience as an ‘apprentice’. Working at Haworth Tompkins was a brilliant experience. The Everyman in particular was very personal to me. I am from Liverpool. I used to go to the Everyman as a child and everyone in Liverpool had a strong opinion about what the new building should be like – lots of pressure.
In 2011 you left Haworth Tompkins to set up Citizens Design Bureau. However, you’ve obviously retained a very close relationship with your former employer, as evidenced by your appointment to create the interiors and furniture at The Everyman. What made you want to leave and strike out on your own?
During the construction phase of the Everyman, I gave birth to my second child. I had worked on the Everyman since competition stage and was keen to finish it, but setting up Citizens Design Bureau was my opportunity to work more flexibly. I was also really keen to get back to a more multi-disciplinary way of working and collaborating that allowed me to work on a diverse range of ideas including research, product design and teaching.
Citizens Design Bureau is described as a ‘co-operative company of architects’ that enjoys ‘working with interesting people to make unusual things happen’. Do you have a favourite example of this?
We try to make our work accessible and relevant to people who might not normally go to an architect so in addition to a typical project based architectural service, we also offer ideas surgeries to local shops, businesses, schools, households, as well as ongoing relationships with businesses who need regular but ad-hoc advice for which we get a retainer fee. I am currently taking part in a TV programme called ‘Tricks of The Trade’ – a sort of ‘Grand-Designs-on-a-budget’ to look at low cost ideas.
We are also developing a range of products including the lampshades that were used at the Royal Court… watch this space. We have permanent employees but also work closely with makers and freelancers on a project by project basis. I am in particular always interested in working with women who are coming back from maternity leave and want to work part time but still want to have lots of responsibility and so on.
After the triumph of The Royal Court, what other interesting projects are you working on at the moment, and what’s next?
A new West End theatre, The Sondheim, for Sir Cameron Mackintosh and a private house for film director Stephen Daldry, as well as a community café and studios at Clitterhouse Farm in Barnet, custom shell housing schemes… amongst many other things.
There are two other obvious recurring themes in your career: community/ environmental design and the arts. Where did the love of these two things stem from? What were your influences as a child?
I’ve never seen building a building as an end in itself. I’m interested in how people use and experience space at every scale – from the larger architectural idea down to the way it feels to touch. I love the craft of what we do. We don’t call ourselves eco-architects. It’s just a pre-requisite that an environmentally aware sensibility is woven into every design decision.
Born and raised in Liverpool, you went on to study at Glasgow School of Art, followed by ETSA Madrid and Cambridge. They are all remarkable cities in their own way – in what way have they left their mark on you creatively?
In Liverpool and Glasgow you don’t get away with bullshit or being pretentious. You have to have a sense of humour and tap into the ethos and character of a place…
In London everything is a lot more anonymous, everyone is trying to out-cool each other which can be pretty boring. In Madrid, I really learned how to build/detail. In Cambridge I sang in a band!
Seriously, it was really important to study in different places. They were all really interesting experiences. Now when I interview people for jobs, it is always very clear who has stayed in the same place for their whole education…
Each in turn, what is your favourite stage show, book, piece of music and why?
The stage play ‘Motherfucker With The Hat’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis or the Kneehigh Theatre production of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’; ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy; any music by Ali Farka Toure.
The weekend is all yours. How might you enjoy spending it?
I invariably get woken up at about 6.30am by two small boys, a bit of playground action… it’s all very exciting… if we’re lucky we occasionally get a night out. I like going dancing.
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1: Royal Court Theatre, (Eleonore De Bonnevale)
Img 2: Katy Marks with Lizzie Venning (Left); Katy Marks (Middle); And Magda Pelszyk (Right). From Citizens Design
Bureau At The Win Awards Ceremony 2015 (Matt Chung)
Img 3: Eat Work Art Community Space
Img 4, 5, 6 & 7: Royal Court Theatre, (Eleonore De Bonnevale)
Img 8: Hub Islington, (Christian De Souza)
Img 9: Everyman – (Philip Vile)
Img 10: The Sondeim (Alberto Arzoz)