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There are many reasons why Clerkenwell has become a “design destination”, and they’re all interwoven. But, like all of life, the story starts with one, vital thing: water.

The water in this case is the River Fleet, which once ran its course openly and roughly along what is now Farringdon Road, before eventually being entirely built over by the mid-1700s. Its existence meant that, in medieval times, the nuns from St Mary’s and the monks from St John’s and St Bartholomew’s could live in Clerkenwell. It also meant that Smithfield could operate as a livestock market (the water being used for the animals, slaughtering and transport).

Then, at the end of the 17th century – just as the Huguenots were arriving here from France and settling in Clerkenwell, bringing with them their craft talents – proximity to the Fleet allowed for a wide variety of small-scale industries, including tanneries, dyeing shops, breweries and distilleries. EC1 wasn’t short of the latter, to say the least, and it ended up with a reputation (both good and bad) as a gin quarter. And then there were the printers, the many, many printers. Besides using water for their processes, they apparently needed cow fat, readily available from Smithfield, for binding. It also paid to be near the local craftsmen – Huguenot and otherwise – who were experts in engraving and type-setting.

By the 19th century, Clerkenwell, like everywhere else, felt the full force of industrialisation – factories and slums. But with the necessary decline that followed in the Sixties and Seventies, the businesses failed or moved away and the area slumped. The printers held out – for example, Witherby’s, founded in 1740, which stayed on Aylesbury Street from 1965 right up until 2010 – but essentially it was a neglected area.

Enter some brave architects, among them CZWG, Alan Baxter Associates and Yorke Rosenberg Mardall (now gone). Attracted by the unique vibe, as well as central location and affordable rents, and armed with a pioneering spirit, they moved in. Here, they were also conveniently close to printers for their blueprints.

“We could nd a property that was interesting, funky and unusual, and it was cheap,” says Piers Gough of CZWG, which took over a derelict workshop in Smithfield in 1978. “We loved the simpatico nature of the area – Clerkenwell is a real mix, and it’s so well connected.”

Alan Baxter moved his practice into a derelict Victorian building in Cowcross Street in 1979. He even had to use his personal assets as collateral for the deal, as the bank refused to lend to him for such a run-down area. He loved the history and attractiveness of Clerkenwell and the idea of being part of its renewal. “The street, despite being largely devoid of activity and with many empty and decayed buildings, had a good urban feel,” he said.

Thus the trend grew and in the Eighties and Nineties the likes of Zaha Hadid and WilkinsonEyre arrived – originally even in the same building on Bowling Green Lane. By 2004, Clerkenwell could boast that it had more architects per square metre than anywhere else on the globe.

And what of the large number of showrooms you walk past all the time? Well, naturally, they followed the architects, their clients. Vitra was one of the first and has been on Clerkenwell Road since 1999. Rolf Fehlbaum was in charge of the company at the time. “I’m being advised to move to Clerkenwell because that’s where all the architects are but my sales team want to stay in the West End. What do you think?” he asked architecture consultant and our columnist Peter Murray, who replied: “Ignore your sales team.”

Now there are more than 100 showrooms in the area, displaying the latest innovations in everything from office chairs and commercial carpets to ceramic tiles and Japanese toilets. All this cutting-edge creativity in turn led to the launch of Clerkenwell Design Week in 2010 and, as the Guardian puts it, “waves of artists, designers, writers and publishers washing in”.

And, bingo, there you have it, the design hub we know today. Clerkenwell has always had edge – it’s an edgy place; literally on the edge of the City and, in the early days of London, outside its laws and the control of its guilds. It attracted artists, radicals, entertainers, prostitutes, innovators.

Basically, we’re all a bunch of creative rioters, or riotous creatives. You choose which.

 

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