Last November I was invited to be a judge for an awards scheme organised by Liverpool Design Initiative to promote good design to businesses in Merseyside. Because of my origins in the North West I was seen as a suitable choice, being both industry respected and a local lad, as it were. On the day, the work of one group, going by the name Shed, stood out from the competition both for its consistent quality and the wide range of categories which it entered, and won. No less than 12 pieces were shortlisted. I was intrigued and impressed.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a “successful” company would have difficulty surviving outside London. I had been drawn to London in pursuit of a career in the music industry at the end of the Seventies, as I felt that no real choice was possible then, but had the situation really changed? When, in the new year, I heard that Shed had split into two, Shed and a new company Union North, I decided to head to Liverpool to meet Miles Falkingham, the company’s founder.
The first question I had was why the change of name? It transpires that Shed had earlier merged with architect King McAllister to become ShedKM, and with it a disciplinary agenda had developed that Falkingham became increasingly uncomfortable with. A split was inevitable and Union North now aims to be the continuation of what Shed was before the merger.
Falkingham studied audio visual fine art in Cardiff, but moved in 1989 to set up in Liverpool, where his brother Jonathan was studying architecture. I wondered what made him think he’d be a good graphic designer.
MF: It was as a reaction really, but it took me three months to get work – with a portfolio with no real design content it was quite difficult. The thing that really set up the cross discipline practice was when Jonathan left college and went to work for an architect. We collaborated on a number of projects under the collective name of Shed, the first being Baa Bar in 1991.
I saw there was a skills vacuum in Liverpool. Anybody who was any good was leaving. I’m not saying there weren’t other good people but, as a generality, that was a process that had been on-going in Liverpool for 20 years. I came with the philosophy that if you don’t go where it’s happening, then to some extent you have a much greater opportunity to set the agenda. We regarded ourselves not just necessarily as a regional design practice, even though most of our clients, then and now, are still in the North West, but we anticipated working in a national, if not global, market, and that ultimately location was going to become less significant.
Through being based in Liverpool we developed a set of skills that we otherwise would not have had, largely from necessity. There are not that many businesses in the region who put a high price on design quality, so turning relatively unpromising clients into good design opportunities is a skill that we’ve learned. Also, there are opportunities that would otherwise be quite rapidly taken up in another city, yet it’s quite easy if you’ve got a flexible framework to fill any gaps that open up.
What we try to do is occupy the interface between different disciplines, to make a better link between the various areas of a project. We can take methods of manufacture and production from one discipline to another with a kind of democracy of material. We think every material is equal, and every process is equal. We’re just as happy to work with concrete as we are with paper, whether in interior design or in print. I do think that our legitimate palette, if you like, is broader than most practices.
MG: In my view, there is a common failing in contemporary design that often the choice of material, an unusual material for a record package, for example, is accepted as good enough as a design solution, but I don’t get that impression from the work at Union North. I see an inherent functional integrity in your design attitude.
MF: We have a more complex model of functionalism, one which is more multidimensional. We’re not hardcore modernists at all, but we do believe in that functional integrity. Social, cultural or political function is also a part of it. If you’ve got lots of clients who are quite suspicious about design, then you have to be much more rigorous.
Recently, we’ve been contacted by a pie manufacturer, which we’re very excited about. Pies are a much maligned product because people often don’t know or trust what’s in them. We wouldn’t take a pie and simply repackage it saying “this is a great pie” if it’s a less than great pie. The pie has to be right. Here’s a client who’s never bought design, but they’ve sought us out from the Liverpool Design Awards catalogue, so they already have an idea of what we do. What’s exciting is the opportunity to say there is a bright new future for pies and address the whole issue of food quality.
Similarly, if you look through restaurant guides, it’s very rare to come across an Indian restaurant that has a rating. While there are good Indian restaurants they suffer from being stigmatised by the general view. You get a sense that it is appropriate to address the integrity of the product again, because the client base is becoming more discerning, and the market is being eroded by pizza delivery and microwave meals. Chicken tikka masala is apparently Britain’s most popular dish.
MG: Of course you’ve already established yourself in the leisure environment with Baa Bar and then with the Modo project.
MF: The brief for Modo was something that was absolutely ideally Union. Here’s a use that’s only roughly described. It’s a 750m2 licensed retail space. The development of the trading concept, the trading identity and all the interior architectural branding and marketing, are functions that are readily performed by Union. There are lots of late bars in Liverpool. Baa Bar was the first of those. When we came to re-examine that area, we were very keen to move the agenda forward a bit. It’s easy to make the mistake of opening somewhere which is too big, where if you’ve got 500 people it looks great, but if you’ve only got 50 they’re rattling around. By subdividing the space, and including a noodle bar called Not Sushi and a Kiosk (what we call the pedestrian service station), the idea is that it’s principally a bar, but from a customer point of view the service is much broader.
We’re now working on a restaurant project in Leeds called Townhouse which is really a three-dimensional graphic solution. The client wanted us to define what it was going to be about and who it should be aimed at; what the format should be. We’re using quite a lot of wood. We tend to choose a palette of materials that suits our objectives quite early on, without necessarily knowing quite how we’re going to use them. There is a staircase right up the middle of the building which is to be painted in a high pigmentation colour and will also have a soundtrack. It’s a definite journey as you go into or out of a space, as you travel between the restaurant, dancefloor, bar or toilet.
MG: How do you see the future, given that you see yourself as a national or international consultancy?
MF: What’s interesting is the fact that, as a business, Union seems to have come of age. It’s quite gratifying for us to be winning an award for excellence in architecture, and simultaneously to be winning Liverpool Design Awards for best furniture design and best print project. In a way, that bears out the approach; non-disciplinary rather than multidisciplinary. The Royal Institute of British Architects said of Modo, that it demonstrated a quality rarely found outside of London. We also feel we’ve been able to produce work that is a lot better than it cost, if you see what I mean. There is almost an expectation that good work is only done in London, and that, being regional, you are on the wrong end of that. As soon as people have got a decent budget they feel they have to go to London, rather than to someone local, because of that expectation of quality.
MG: So why have you tagged “North” on to this great word Union?
MF: Obviously we’re proud, and defiant. It doesn’t imply we’re not a national practice, it just says we’re in the north, and we’re not embarrassed or hindered by it. It also implies there could be a Union South for instance.
Union North is currently working on a commission to develop a restaurant in the Albert Dock in Liverpool. This is a grade one listed building, where any alterations have to be passed by the Victorian Society, English Heritage, MDC and Liverpool City Council. One of the key problems is how to establish a presence on the dock that doesn’t alter the appearance of the building, or alter its fabric. The bottom line is that you can’t put up a big sign. Union North had the idea that the identity for the restaurant would be based around a colour, so it’s called Blue and the idea is that when you go down to the dock, one of the buildings has a blue illuminated halo around the ground floor, so you think ‘that must be Blue’. It’s very high visibility signage without using signs. However, nothing inside is blue.
The potential client base for the restaurant and bar changes from daytime to evening. During the day there is a diverse cross section of the public coming to the dock – families, OAPs, tourists – who are in some ways quite incidental and might be drawn to go inside on a whim. The evening trade will be more discerning and will have a different set of expectations. Union North uses this as a way to explore the notion of a schizophrenic space, using imagery that is pretty and inoffensive to the daytime customer but that has a hidden subtext which is vaguely sexual in nature, picking up another interpretation of blue. The group hopes to achieve this in the main body of the space, with something that can be read according to the expectations of the audience, using images that are chosen for their ambiguity and that can change according to the mood.
The building is a massive structure and Union North is putting virtually no new structure back in. After it is stripped out, the elevations will be reglazed and two staircases and a balustrade put in. The interventions are relatively few, and beyond that it is finishes, which will be obviously applied to the building to provide an ephemeral feel.
A lot of energy is going into coming up with a couple of quite specific sculptural responses to the space. The staircases are in glass-reinforced concrete and are being made in Ireland. The aim is that they’ll be brought in by barge and just unloaded straight into the space. ‘We’re very keen to get these right because, following the split with ShedKM, we want to make the point that we are not only comfortable, but competent with the more architectural elements,’ says Falkingham. These structures, together with the balustrade, will be quite massive objects and will compete or at least occupy a similar physicality to the building.
Union North is currently working on Blue, a new restaurant in Liverpool’s Albert Dock.