Wayne Hemingway

WAN Interior Design Awards juror Wayne Hemingway is synonymous with quintessentially British design. From emptying his wardrobe onto London’s Camden Market in the early 80s to his recent ventures in housing redevelopment with wife Gerardine as HemingwayDesign, his metamorphic, thoughtful yet tongue-in-cheek approach has kept him at the forefront of the industry for the past three decades.

In our discussion about start-up stalls, upcycled housing and the underestimated importance of the garden shed, Wayne reveals to WAN Interiors what he believes makes British design unique and the importance of nurturing native talent.

Your career in fashion design started back when you emptied the second-hand contents of your wardrobe onto a stall in Camden Market to raise some cash, and you are now encouraging this kind of entrepreneurial spirit with your Kioskiosk project. Can you tell us about your ideas behind the scheme?

We started on Camden Market and the rent for our first stall was six quid, and by the time we got rid of the stall ten years later we were still only paying £100-odd for a load of stalls together. That same stall now is £1,760 per week. Kensington Market, where Gerardine started, was £18 per week for a prime London location - that’s now PC World. We had a similar thing in Glasgow which is now Harvey Nichols, the Corn Exchange in Leeds which is now a restaurant and Quiggins in Liverpool which is now Clinton Cards… So how do young start-ups have the same opportunities that we had? The Internet doesn’t replace seeing the whites of the customer’s eyes, which is where you learn whether what you’re doing is good or not. You don’t get honesty through the internet, just wires and a computer screen. You find out about how good you are as a designer by actually seeing the customer respond to it. So basically that’s what it’s about; trying to get start-up positions into prime locations at nil or low cost, to give them the opportunities that we had.

As you say, the ability for anyone to just 'have a go' with no capital to back it up has been crushed over the past couple of decades. In the long-term, do you think it's possible for British culture to go back to this and if so, how?

Quite clearly it’s very important. We’ve got a lot more people now in further education who want to do a creative degree, many of whom would want to have a go on their own at creating something, but you can’t just do it without the infrastructure to have a go. The alternative is to work for the high street, but not everybody wants to do that. And there obviously aren’t enough jobs to go around for that anyway!

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start up their own business now, who didn’t have any capital to back it up?

Well one option is the internet but I’d also try to find a way of getting in front of the public, whether it’s looking for a market stall or working with local councils on empty units, because there are examples around the country of councils that are turning their shops into spaces for start-ups.

Red or Dead was part of a movement to break down elitist barriers in the fashion industry. How do you feel about what the industry has become today?

Well, it’s heartening that a lot of the high streets employ designers now the way they didn’t back then. They realise that design sells, so they go to graduate shows and employ people, which is great. Without a doubt the quality of design on the high street is now in a different class than it was in the early eighties, so that’s a positive thing. The negative thing is that there aren’t many people doing what Gerardine and I did which is starting very, very small and opening a shop, building a brand and then getting to a stage where you’re employing a few hundred people - it’s just not happening. Probably since Alexander McQueen there hasn’t been a [UK fashion] brand that is employing a substantial number of people really.

Why do you think that’s happened now in British culture?

Well the high street is very strong and therefore the market for designer clothing probably isn’t. Young people are very savvy; a lot of the cooler crowds know how to mix a bit of vintage, a bit of DIY and a bit of high street to attain the look. So there’s that, but also we don’t have a manufacturing industry, or not a significant one anyway. In Italy, young designers can get a manufacturer to back them, so they’ve got more of a chance of cutting through.

What makes British design unique and what do you think the future holds for it?

We do have a healthy irreverence and a sense of humour when it comes to design. One of the most unique things we’ve got is the sheer volume coming through design education and how good the design education is in this country, and that gives us a big pool. It’s negative sometimes for the people who are in that and can’t get a job, but it gives companies a big talent pool to choose from. That’s the positive side of it I suppose.

As far as what the future holds, we’ve got to keep ahead of the game because other countries do know the value of design and that’s why they send so many designers to study over here. The government are devaluing design education and saying that art and design aren’t core subjects, so there is a danger in that. The second biggest driver of the British economy is the creative industry, and the second biggest employer is the creative industry, and we’re in danger of harming it as we did with manufacturing.

HemingwayDesign covers everything from urban design to charity work to interiors. What are the factors that you look for in a proposed project before you decide to take it on?

Well, it’s got to excite us – we never do anything just for money. We’re lucky we’ve had a company (Red or Dead) which has sold for a decent amount of money and a lot of success since, so we’re not reliant on just taking jobs just to pay our way – we just wouldn’t do that. And it’s also got to matter. We’re not interested in taking a job on just for the sake of it; they’ve got to have social, affordable and sustainable elements.

That’s very apparent in the projects that you’ve done so far. So in terms of sustainability, do you think ‘upcycling’ is the new recycling?

Well it’s all together really, it’s all about minimising waste and maximising resource. It’s a very thrifty way of living, a thrifty way for a designer to be creative, so it’s everything really.

Obviously this is prevalent in all aspects of design at the moment, so do you think that we will continue to have this very positive approach to sustainable, ‘thrifty’ design, post-recession?

Well it’s always been around because it’s how Gerardine and I started off in Camden thirty years ago, but now it’s prevalent for a number of reasons. Firstly, the idea of sustainability has become cool - and it won’t become uncool, because how can something that’s so important ever not be appreciated? So that’s here to stay. But also, there is a significant change as a result of a whole generation that is potentially not as well-off as the previous one, with a complete re-evaluation of so many things. So, the idea of doing something that saves money as well as being sustainable… I can’t see it just fading away. There are also new skills; people have learnt how to do it better and make it so that it doesn’t feel ‘hippyish’, it feels designed – that’s the difference.

The ‘brown string’ aesthetic is disappearing?

Yes, all that DIY stuff used to be made by hippies at Glastonbury, but now you get it at the Vintage Festival and it’s produced by cool designers, in a different way.

Can you tell us about your redesign of the McDonalds uniform for the 2012 Olympics?

I think that’s one of the most exciting projects we’ve ever done. It has made people prick up their ears because you’d expect us to be criticising McDonalds, but we’ve got to know a lot about the inside workings of McDonalds and we realise how initial judgements can be wrong. We’ve come across a company that is really working hard on every aspect of sustainability and thinking as we do, but with an awful lot of money behind it, so that’s a wonderful start from the beginning.

We’re challenging something by making uniforms which can be ultimately broken back down into their component threads to make new fabric, which has never been done before with a uniform. The technology is so new that there’s nowhere in the UK or Europe that can do it, so McDonalds are trying to work out how we can bring this technology to the UK. At present more than 80 tonnes of their clothing goes into landfill every year because every ten weeks a lot of the clothing becomes unfit to wear, so it all has to get replaced. For McDonalds to commit to a long-term project to eradicate that and to come up with a clothing system that no other company has ever done, is very brave.

Some of your recent work has also included housing development projects. Most new housing in the UK is still dominated by mass housebuilders, and you've spoken before of your contempt for the ‘Wimpeyfication’ and ‘Barrattification’ of Britain, whereas countries like Holland and Denmark have truly 'modern' housing. Do you think the paradigm of housing design in the UK is likely to change over the coming years?

Well, you can change it, but the only way is by an alliance, by the public demanding more, by local planning authorities and planning committees demanding more, and by people actually starting to reconcile the cost of bad design. Because it’s expensive to pull something down within twenty or thirty years, which we’ve done consistently now since the sixties; we’ve been building short-termism into our housing and it just makes no sense for anybody. But the great thing is that this housing downturn has suddenly stopped people treating housing as a commodity. A new generation understands that new housing is about something that you live in, not something that you trade. It’s not like a cigarette card or stocks and shares, it’s about your life.

It’s something that Britain in particular is quite behind on really.

We are quite behind on it in Britain but then the new generation has learnt the hard way. It doesn’t make environmental or financial sense to keep knocking things down, and you can’t now anyway because the figures don’t stack up anymore, because it was only ever about knocking down to build higher density and gambling on land values. All that’s gone now and thank god, it’s gone for a long time.

With the UK having the lowest space standards in Europe, your revamp of the humble garden shed is not only an interesting design but a significant social comment. Can you explain the concept to us?

Well that’s sort of the way we think – we always think of what designers haven’t touched before or haven’t touched significantly, and also there’s a tongue-in-cheek element to the name ‘garden shed’ and its connotations, which fits our aesthetic. Whereas a lot of designers wouldn’t touch something that was aimed at B&Q, we find it exciting because it’s a bit ‘art’ but it also fits our values of affordability and of looking at things obliquely. But there is also a political side to it, as we are short of space in our houses and many of us are collectors, and we do like to do a bit of DIY, so it’s to do with lifestyle as well.

What are your ultimate goals for the redevelopment projects in Britain that you are taking on?

Housing is a real challenge. It’s the most stimulating and you get the most satisfaction because you are making a real difference - you’re doing something that matters and that’s the thing we’re most keen on. Our ultimate goal is to leave somewhere that’s a happy place to live in, to leave a smile on people’s faces. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.

Amy Knight, Arts and Media Correspondent