One positive of the enforced lockdown, has been that it has given us the opportunity to give the shop a facelift, carried out of course with the most stringent adherence to social distancing. Calvert Avenue has been our home since 2005 and being in the bosom of such a creative and supportive community is something that we relish. Giving the shop a refresh felt timely and is a nod to the new phase we are all living in and brings fresh energy. The only sad thing in all of this has been that just as we were preparing to reopen our doors, somebody stole our iconic, wooden A that has stood out-front for years. 

Ally worked with Seng Watson to make a space that is cleaner and more open feeling. Seng’s signature materials of cast concrete and sustainable papercrete have been used in the light-fittings, the main display shelves and units and the outside benches. The lights were cast using Schweppes bottles and defy expectations, whilst the undulating benches are formed on a corrugated iron sheet , an accent previously used by Seng when he created the one piece bar for Raw Duck. 

Colours in the shop are neutral but striking; the floor is in high gloss beige and compliments the Edwardian match-boarding, painted to a warm off-white. We’ve given some love to the exterior too, painting the woodwork a warm brick red that recalls the original glazed bricks of the Victorian shop front. We are very pleased with the results, but do come and judge for yourself. Grab a coffee from Paper and Cup across the road and park your bottom on one of Seng’s benches, as you ponder our bags and watch the world go by. 

“Polyomino is quite powerful when compacted together, because you know what its potential is when it comes apart.” Ally Capellino

Seng and Ally first collaborated together in 2014 for the London Design Festival, with a project entitled Polyomino. Their inspiration for the installation came from Danish scientist Piet Hein’s 1933 Soma Cube; a wooden, hand-held puzzle that Hein created from 27 smaller cubes. The cube dismantles into seven individual pieces, each one composed of four cubes - it can then be reassembled in 240 distinct solutions. Ally and Seng created a scaled up version to sit in situ in Calvert Avenue. The pieces remain in situ today, proving endlessly versatile and handy. 

Seng’s work and appropriation of concrete is inspired by London’s brutalist architecture of the 1960s; think the Trellick Tower in North Kensington, the Southbank or the Park Tower hotel at Knightsbridge. Working in the medium offers a form of stripped back honesty in an increasingly visually overloaded world.

Concrete offers up a challenge in that it is very heavy. This is where Papercrete comes into play, offering a similar texture, and the stark finish you expect of concrete, but blending cement and wet pulp for a result that is deceptively light and maneuverable, with a smooth, grey finish that holds subtle texture and surprising versatility. The industrial look and harder lines create contrasts with the softness, form and material used in our AC bags, both representing a perfect coupling of form and function.

Five Minutes with Seng

Seng Watson is a trained architect and artist. He has worked in London for over thirty years. Seng first struck a chord when he designed and developed the famous Electricity Showrooms (and above apartments) in Shoreditch, working at a time when the area was beginning to transform into London’s design hub and burgeoning social scene. Staying within the Hackney area, he went on to install his studio space in Trafalgar Mews, an iconic address for London’s contemporary art and creative community. A fairly enigmatic figure, we sat for five minutes on the benches outside our shop to learn a little bit more about him: 

You first worked with Ally when you produced our initial Piet Hein blocks for the Calvert Avenue shop. Have you remained in contact since and how much did the project stay with you? 

I can’t believe that was more than 5 years ago! Ally and I met at the opening of Raw Duck restaurant where I had worked on the bar design and charred timber ceiling. We hit it off straight away and it was during our subsequent collaboration with Ally that I first experimented with papercrete. We’ve stayed in touch ever since and I’ve made other bits and pieces with her over the years. 

Do you work exclusively in concrete and papercrete, or use other mediums too? What do you like about papercrete so much?

I started out working for Tom Dixon, mostly welding scrap steel into furniture, so I like working with most materials. Cast papercrete has a soft, stonelike texture to it that I enjoy. I also like its low-tech aspect and its low cost. It is also surprisingly durable. I’ve had a cube in my garden for 5 years and it's fine, now with added moss!

What kind of projects do you tend to work with? Commercial or residential and do you have a preference?

Both. The most essential thing is working with nice, like-minded clients, which luckily is 90% of the time.

Your studio is located in Trafalgar Mews, a focal point for young British artists in the 1990s. Are there still lots of artists there? 

Some of them have moved out but others have moved in. It is still very much a community. Especially over lockdown. We’ve had performances from a concert pianist and other musicians and outdoor cinema nights. We’ve even cast a communal concrete table together.

Favourite project? 

In the late 90’s I set up a bar, The Electricity Showrooms in Shoreditch. I designed four flats upstairs and the bar downstairs, with a nightclub in the basement. I thought I’d be there for a year or so but ended up running it for another six. These were the early days in Shoreditch’s regeneration and were a lot of fun.

Your papercrete work seems to speak a lot about contrasts? Is that a theme in much of your work? 

I like trying to find beauty in simple and often cheap materials.

What is your current workspace like? 

I’ve been working outside for most of lockdown as the weather has been so nice.

Most surprising thing about your work?

It varies – I mostly respond to clients and their briefs.

Is papercrete porous or does it need treating to protect it from staining and marking?

It won’t hold water like a vase, but holds up well. I prefer to leave it untreated.

We made a book! Pop by the shop to pick up a copy of our book Polyomino looking at Seng’s work in more detail. Shot by Agnes Lloyd-Platt, it is a beautiful homage to Seng’s innovative work.