SPACE MAN – NICK COMPTON

In between running his creative consultancy, Bureau BCM – working on briefs as diverse as content strategy for the Economist Group and the development of the Design District in Greenwich Peninsula – Nick Compton is Contributing Editor at Wallpaper* magazine. Culture journalism is in his blood, having started at The Face and Arena. And with design, architecture and creativity his focus, we asked him for his thoughts on how covid has changed our relationship with the spaces we live, work and play in.

 

As we (fingers crossed) begin to emerge from covid, what will its lasting effects be in terms of design, architecture and human space in general?

I think we will come out of this with a completely new sense of what we want and need from social spaces and public spaces and performance and exhibition spaces. A new sense of how much space, and what kind of space, we all need. I think all that has been fundamentally altered. That idea of when we need to share space and be in private space has really shifted, and that’s true of social life, cultural life and professional life. And the edges of all those things have blurred.

Are we in danger of losing the benefits of working together in shared spaces?

One of my side projects is consulting with the Design District, 16 new buildings offering affordable studio space on the Greenwich Peninsula. And that has been fascinating, thinking about how creatives and creative businesses are going to work now, what kind of space they will need. How they are going to communicate and collaborate. And it’s clear that creative businesses really need and prioritise physical interaction, working through things in the same space.

What other new things do you think might emerge?

I’m always wary of over-generalising, but I think something has shifted in our relationship to cities – and the idea that a good night out means cramming ourselves into somewhere sweaty, urban and indoors – and that there are opportunities for artists, venues, festival organisers to do more and more that sits between the city gig and the mega festival.

I’ve been a bit of a camping nerd for a long time, but I managed to get in a few solo camping trips last summer which were amazing and restorative.

It made me realise that the big outdoor festivals were a really effective way of penning in noisy teenagers and students during the summer. And what a nightmare it was when they were just roaming around freely and leaving their shitty cheap tents and laughing gas canisters everywhere. Actually, it made me think what a shitty experience the big festivals really are and how much better they could be.

Of course it has already happened but perhaps there will be even more smaller and less formulaic festivals and events, where the being-in-nature element is more fundamental and respectful. I think there could be outdoor events that aren’t just focused around live or DJ performances. And aren’t just about over-priced food stalls and yoga classes either. Not entirely sure what that new form would be I just think that people will look for new ways to enjoy and celebrate that environment. I think people have realised how much they need music and walking in the woods and running and swimming and collective cultural experiences and perhaps all those things can come together.

How about Wallpaper? It must have been a complex year or so for the magazine.

For a design-centric magazine like Wallpaper, the pandemic felt almost like an existential crisis. As if print magazines weren’t already in crisis. The design industry is very focused on Italy, and of course Italy was crippled in the early stage of the pandemic. Brands weren’t launching anything, the world’s major design fair, held in Milan, was cancelled.  And Wallpaper is a super visual magazine, but for a long time, commissioning photography was impossible. The stories didn’t dry up though. People were still making and creating in studios and workshops, but they were doing things in new ways, just as we were forced to cover that in new ways. What we do is get inside the creative process, and so we could use sketches, illustrations, models, iPhone photography, self-portraits and zoom photography to do that. And there’s a particular energy to that mix that works, that suits the subject. That’s how people
work.

Thinking virtually now, what do you think will be the new spaces, the new ways the arts can
reach people?

It’s been fascinating in the last year talking to people doing their own kind of improvising, artists who were having to install major exhibitions remotely. There have been more experiments with AR and VR and people thinking about that more creatively, as a creative end itself. I think major cultural institutions have been really forced to think about how they communicate with their audience, or potential audience, and what their physical spaces are really for.

 

What’s the one development that gives you the most reason for optimism?

What is fascinating about the pandemic is the way it made us understand more fundamentally how music and art and performance sustain us. We understand better how much we need to spend time with friends, how much we need time outdoors and in nature and how much we need physical activity. And actually also, how much we value time by ourselves. Maybe all of those things will come together in new ways.

The one bit of live music I did manage to see last year was the pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason at Bold Tendencies in Peckham. I love the way that music transforms a concrete car park into a magical space with the views across the city. And actually, whenever I go, with friends and my son usually, it’s about the journey there and back on the overground, having a drink and eating at Franks upstairs. There is something powerful when you take art and performance out of the sanctioned exhibition and performance spaces. It can really reframe your experience of a city.