Blackhorse Workshop: Making and Community

December 21, 2021
Blackhorse Workshhop © Agnese Sanvito

In the run up to opening V&A East we’ve been building a community and network of designers and creative practitioners across east London.  I meet with a range of different community partners regularly to catch up and hear about their work.  The studios and makerspaces of east London have been a great source of inspiration, and some have become important partners and advisors for our creative programmes.  Serendipity and tea are important parts of the process for developing creative and engagement projects and this is often how outreach and engagement work starts off.  When there is an area of shared interest or something we are keen to explore together we start to bounce ideas around, and projects start to take shape.  Building relationships and listening comes first.  This naturally paves the way for partnership work and creative projects and experiments.  This week I caught up with Harriet Warden, Creative Director of Blackhorse Workshop and long-term collaborator and critical friend of V&A East. Blackhorse Workshop worked with us on our Celebration of Making event at The Great Get Together on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2019 and are currently collaborating on our co-production project with School 21. We talked about making, community engagement and ideas for future projects.

Table Saw at Blackhorse Workshop. © Boya Latumahina

Harriet, tell us a bit about Blackhorse Workshop.

Blackhorse Workshop is in the heart of a residential and light industrial area in Walthamstow, in the midst of one of London’s oldest manufacturing areas, and at the same time one of the fastest growing areas of regeneration. 

The workshop opened back in 2014 at the beginnings of the makerspace and open workshop scene in London. Now the range of different making equipment across the city and the specialist technical knowledge you can access is amazing, but at that time public access to shared tools and equipment was limited.

The space was originally founded by the architecture and design collective Assemble and began as a pilot project designed to promote the making heritage of the Blackhorse Lane area and support local professional maker businesses. Waltham Forest Council agreed the use of one of their empty properties and were keen for the project to become a cultural hub for the neighbourhood. So, we started out with this interesting mix of professionals working alongside total beginners, defining a new type of public space and exploring how that could work.

Eight years later, we have 50 resident makers working across the creative industries from furniture makers, set designers, architects, product designers and fabricators. We run a range of skills training courses from welding to wood turning and have an award-winning youth programme; Blackhorse Responders, that uses making as a tool for social change.  We’ve become firmly part of London’s making scene, and on a local level are now very much part of the cultural infrastructure.  

© Paul Cochrane

As well as working on site you also work with different spaces across the city. Tell us about that and what you’ve been working on recently.

We’ve just finished a project called ‘Plaster Works’ in Chingford Mount – working with sustainable material designers Good Waste. We gave them a brief to explore material waste from businesses in the local area – and explore new ways to work and process it. They uncovered an abundance of waste plasterboard, which is especially toxic if mixed with organic matter. Good Waste experimented with a new process to extract the plaster using heat, allowing it to be re-used as ordinary plaster, and using traditional Italian plaster techniques it could be used to cast objects using specially designed moulds. 

Together, with the help of a group of local unemployed young people, we brought back to life a former camera shop on the high street that had laid empty for 15 years. The space became a live workshop, with local residents learning to cast plaster bowls using wooden moulds turned on our lathes here at Blackhorse. We had over 1000 people take part from primary and secondary schools, and families living in the area. 

© Paul Cochrane

What is your approach to community engagement?

We primarily work in two ways: by responding to community need, and by creating fun and playful making experiences.  

We approach the first by speaking to different local partners, getting a sense of what issues they are facing, and how we can help create programme to address them. So, for example, next year we’ll be working with Age UK and local refugees who are new to the area to run regular drop-in sessions to combat isolation, which has obviously become a major issue through the pandemic. 

Another example of this approach is our creative activism programme Blackhorse Responders, where we work with young people to understand issues they care about and find ways to voice their concerns through making. This programme was in fact inspired by the V&A’s fantastic Disobedient Objects exhibition, which explored the power of objects as tools of protest.

Blackhorse Responders. © Daisy Gaston

For our innovative making experiences, ideas evolve gradually through different conversations with artists, makers and partners across different disciplines. With these programmes we’re really interested in testing out alternative ways into making and finding unusual settings for opening up who gets to do it. These experiences explore making through a different lens – whether through performance and storytelling, as we did with our London Borough of Culture project Atomic 50, or starting with a theme, such as waste as we did with Plaster Works. 

We want the public to be taken by surprise, creating a different kind of interest and spontaneous engagement. This type of community engagement also allows us to support makers to experiment with their own practice and enables us to further test the social possibilities of making. 

With all of our projects, our ultimate mission is to build new opportunity and collaboration for people and places. 

Atomic 50. © Paul Cochrane

What do you think makes a ‘successful’ project for Blackhorse Workshop?

One that inspires everyone involved – whether that be through meeting new people, introducing new ways to do things, finding new avenues to explore creatively and watching people get joy out of collective making! 

Kit Kites. © Robin Sinha

Have you got any new plans in the pipeline?   

Yes! We’re really excited as we’re in the process of developing plans for a new dedicated building on our existing site which will be specifically for working with our community and education partners. With this space we’ll really be able to explore the role of making in our neighbourhoods and extend the groups we’re able to work with. This new space will house a unique on-site experience space, that will have a changing programme, working with different practitioners from all kinds of fields to develop activities that explore material and making – and inspire new ways of working on a local level.  

Blackhorse Workshop celebrating their 7th birthday. © Simon Way

What would you like to work on with the V&A East team next?

I’m really excited about the V&A East project, and what you are doing to shake up the role of the museum and making collection more visible. It will be an incredible resource for makers, and there is so much exquisite craftmanship to be uncovered and celebrated. This approach really chimes with our own ethos at the Workshop to explore new routes into making and widening its social value. 

So many things are possible with the museum so close! 

Firstly, I think it’s a real opportunity for us to showcase and celebrate the work of emerging makers working in the area. There is also an urgent need to champion the importance and value of practical skills as we get more embroiled with screen life, and art and design disappears from the curriculum. 

I’d also like to use this moment before the museum opens to further explore how people value making, and to further experiment with testing out co-designing new making ‘experiences’, bringing together leading designers to work with us on this mission. 

Find out more

School 21: “Why should I care about a chair?” – developing a displays for the V&A East Storehouse

Harriet Warden is the Creative Director of Blackhorse Workshop and has set up and developed the project since it opened its doors in February 2014. She has worked across a variety of institutions across the cultural spectrum –  as one of the founding team behind Alain de Botton’s The School of Life, previously for architect Zaha Hadid, and for Tate Modern’s public programme and development teams. As a maker herself, Blackhorse Workshop presents a fantastic opportunity to combine her background in arts management & design with a passion for start up projects and building communities.

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