The Market Building in Clerkenwell, London, is an unusual beast, even for the typology-fluid times we live in. Neither conventional showroom nor pure office or co-working space, it’s a savvy blend of all three, with extra room for events and dining and a major focus on partnerships and collaborations thrown in for good measure.
“The client liked our ideas about flexibility and what we’ve learned from our work in hospitality,” explains Alex Holloway, co-founder (with Na Li) of the interior architecture firm Holloway Li, which designed the new space. “It’s about how you can create engagement around a property that might not be revenue-generating in a traditional sense but that has a harder-to-measure but hopefully longer-lasting impact to do with culture and community.”
The project, which occupies two storeys of what was once a tobacco pipe factory, was commissioned by British bathroom brand Coalbrook to display and promote its manufacturing and design capabilities in a way that would be as immersive and experiential as possible. Davroc, the family-owned company that founded Coalbrook in 2020, has been in the bathroom distribution and manufacturing industry for over 40 years and owns numerous contemporary sanitary-ware and brassware brands, as well as a joinery company.
“We were leveraging a lot of the client’s existing capability in the design and using their factory contacts and know-how,” explains Holloway. “It was an obvious move in some ways, but also really good from a cost, practicality and time-saving point of view.”
Coalbrook takes its name from a town in the heart of England called Coalbrookdale, where the world’s first iron bridge was made. So the design team started by stripping back the anonymous paraphernalia and ceiling junk of the space’s previous incarnation (as two separate offices for tech firms) to reveal some of its most alluring industrial features, such as rich brick walls, a fireplace, the original pavement vaults in the basement and cylindrical metal columns (square ones were later added by a previous landlord building a roof extension).
Then the designers created an atmospheric, surreal landscape of Corten sinks and “chimneys” on the ground floor and big boiler-shaped shower columns downstairs, evoking industrial forms and materiality and the heat of furnaces and engine rooms. Along with the striking casts of Victorian bathroom walls — in both iron and red or amber resin versions, the latter featuring cornices, tile skirting and the identifiable edge of a sash window — these totemic structures are used to display Coalbrook’s taps and shower heads.
At the centre of the project, both physically and metaphorically, is a floating staircase that links the basement to the ground floor. Fabricated by The Stonemasonry Company of Peterborough, U.K., it has a rough quarried edge at the bottom that becomes smoother and more finished as you approach the top. It’s great to look at but also groundbreaking from an engineering point of view. “Whereas, traditionally, a stone staircase would be toothed into a perimeter wall so that each tread is supported off the tread below on its inside edge and by the wall on its outside edge,” explains Holloway, “here, each tread is like a vertebra in a spine threaded with steel tension cables that act as a spinal cord and hold it in tension.”
Beyond this unique engineering feature, the Market Building is a showcase for beautifully manufactured products and materials by other master craftspeople, fabricators and factories around Britain. The big Corten drums are by East London metalwork studio Steel&Form; their curved roofs were made by a different metalwork fabricator based in South London. In the light-filled meeting room–cum–private dining area, also downstairs, more bathroom technology is on display in the form of floor-to-ceiling Crittall-style screens made with fluted glass by Drench, a shower screen company that Davroc often works with.
On the ground floor, two annex spaces known as the drawing room and library feature decidedly domestic interiors, for a change, with furniture, carpets and tables supplied by Danish brand Menu — another collaborator-in-residence that now has a space to show off its products in London. The bespoke cabinets in these meeting rooms, meanwhile, are made by a subsidiary brand of Coalbrook’s called Bard & Blackwood and are used to display models and hold stock.
Another of the client’s labels, Bard & Brazier, crafted the oversized magnetic display boards that show up throughout the interiors, framed by brass tubing similar to that employed in its towel rails. “Usually these would be polished up to a clear, shiny brass, but we wanted to keep the patina to express the making process,” says Holloway.
As for its tenants, the Market Building counts Holloway Li as one of its first: The firm’s office is situated in the basement. For the moment, the various companies that partnered in its creation use it for meetings and work — but upcoming events such as Clerkenwell Design Week and London Design Festival will help attract new audiences and embed it into London’s creative ecosystem.
In the future, it could also be used for receptions, more formal office or retail space and even performance art or music, suggests Holloway, as well as experimental collaborations with companies involved in traditional and contemporary making processes. “We like the idea of a space where there aren’t too many rules set out early on,” says Holloway. “It’s what people expect now.”
Interiors studio Holloway Li has turned a former tobacco pipe factory into a spectacular showcase for a number of brands.