From Red or Dead to the Dunston Staithes housing development, Wayne Hemingway explained to the Northern Powerhouse Business Summit how important generosity is in design.
"The main things in our lives were dancing, dressing up and listening to bands, and we knew we could do more of that in London than Burnley!"
Wayne Hemingway and his wife Geraldine now run Hemingway Design, coming from Northern roots without any entrepreneurial background in their respective families. Wayne took to the stage on the first day of the Northern Powerhouse Business Summit, part of the Great Exhibition of the North, to explain his entrepreneurial journey and how he made his way from market stalls, to Red or Dead, to the housing on the Staithes in Dunston.
"The first thing I did on arrival in London was form a band, as you should do! We needed more money than the £50 in our pockets when we moved, and so we heard about Camden market," Wayne says. "I emptied my wardrobe of all my punk clothes, Geraldine brought some things she's made, and we made £300 that first weekend... our rent was just £6 a day!
Wayne went to every second hand shop and recycling yard he could find, becoming an instant entrepreneur looking to exploit this opportunity... they quickly grew to 16 stalls, taking thousands every week.
"London had lost 3 million - 30% - of it’s population in the 1970s, and it’s still not back to those levels. There were empty houses everywhere and loads of people from the North were heading there. The price of property was crazy - a three bedroom house could be bought for £20,000. Within 14 months of hitting the market we could buy a house for cash," he says, though many houses had been left to fall into a state of disrepair.
"More than that," he continued, "when you bought houses, the then GLC (now the GLA) paid 90% of the cost of making the houses liveable again. This houses are worth millions, now. And a whole generation of us made money doing this... it attracted northerners with gumption," says the Yorkshireman.
London had other things going for it at that time. "Geraldine took a stall in Kensington Market; a disused high street building. I could name 20 people fork working class backgrounds that you’ll have heard of, who all made a living at that same market," he says, citing a young Freddie Mercury who worked there before being recruited into Queen.
Geraldine took her sewing machine in, made 8 items of clothing, and displayed them for sale. And when someone ordered 200 of each, she had a burning desire to say yes even though she could only make 3 a day. Who placed such an incredible first order? Macy's, of New York. But how had they found a lowly trader in a quiet London market?
"We approached an export expert who asked if they'd come from London Fashion Week; turned out they’d walked up the road from the Olympia!" But they had a big problem, in that they didn't have any way of manufacturing enough clothes to fulfil this order. So Wayne did what any man in his position would do. "I called my mum," he said, "who hated her job, bought some disused sewing machines and set up Red or Dead.
"That was our future, made."
From those market stalls, Red or Dead became:
"We never felt disadvantaged," Wayne says, as he cites why he feels his Northern roots paid a particularly big part in his success. "We wanted to do better than our parents. I never felt disenfranchised; if you had a go, you could do it.
"Today we have a generation who are worse off than their parents. That ability to get up and go, and do something, isn’t quite there. The inequality that’s around has knocked their confidence.
"And I don’t think we’d have done the same thing we did, if we were 18 today."
London has become 'ridiculously expensive', Wayne says. "Houses aren’t affordable. We paid £8 a week rent; we didn’t need to sell our soul for a roof over our head.
"74% of under 25s could buy a house then. Now, 65% of them will NEVER afford a house in London."
And with their post-Red or Dead business, Hemingway Design, built on four very transferable foundations - questioning, co-design, generosity and bravery - the transferability of their skills was never more in design than when they went from fashion to housing.
"The Staithes is the best thing we’ve ever done in our careers of 38 years," he says. "We are the most proud of this development. It was brave, it was questioning."
The fact that they had never before designed housing wasn't much of barrier to the pair. "I was on a train to Bristol in 1999, and I saw some housing for first time buyers priced at £160,000. It upset me; it looked and felt like a prison camp. A few weeks later they were all sold. It didn’t feel like a housing development.
"The job of a designer is to improve the things that matter in life. Whatever it is, we want to make it better."
Wayne was vocal in his denigration of such housing schemes, which were basically functional but didn't consider quality of life, or formation of community. "It was one of our apprentices, Katie, who was just 21, and felt it was our generation's provision for her generation... the legacy. And even though it was crap, it was all she had." And it was, so they decided to do something about it.
It was Wimpey who brought Wayne in to look at the site of the 1990 Gateshead Garden Festival, then empty for twelve years. And he felt that if you build good homes for a new generation, they’ll embrace it.
"We thought we'd be asked to design a house... they wanted 760-780 homes," Wayne laments. And as is her way, as she had done with Macy's all those years ago, Geraldine immediately said yes. "We had 6 months to build a local team from across the north, relocate here part time and deliver the project.
"We turned planning on it’s head. We put table tennis tables in the streets. Benches outside houses. And the people loved it. Every house backs on to a pocket park, communal spaces with barbecues that allow people to build communities."
Now, Dunston Staithes has the highest build environment mark outside the South East, and it’s won awards around the world.
How did two non-architects achieve this? "The power of the barbecue. It’s all about generosity; doing something that was over and above the bare minimum."
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