A Cup of Tea with Kennedy Woods
By Isabelle Wilkinson
We first worked with Kennedy Woods Architecture in 2014, when they worked on our very first bricks and mortar home in Old Street. They later went on to design our flagship Tea Bar in Clerkenwell, turning a battered-up jewellery warehouse on busy market street Leather Lane into a haven of tea-fuelled calm. Last week we caught up with directors Tom and Chris, to talk about design, the philosophies that guide them and what they love about south east London.
Tell us a little about Kennedy Woods
Chris: We're a design and architecture studio based here in the Bussey Building in Peckham. Our work spans across architectural, residential and commercial projects, down to smaller scale retail design and bespoke furniture. We enjoy working across different scales and sectors because you have to bring a fresh approach to each project; you don’t get into a habit of repeating details and ideas, but instead can get deeper into the design challenges.
And how did you meet?
Chris: We’ve been working together as Kennedy Woods since 2012 but we met at school when we were 15.
Tom: We’re about to cross over the halfway point of having known each other for longer than we haven’t. We’re going to throw a party, the team don’t know it yet, but you guys are all invited...
We grew up working on creative things together; hiding out in the art department at school, just mucking about. But I think the first proper projects that we were invited to participate in highlighted the potential for what we could create together. We probably hadn’t really realised how our two sets of skills could cross-pollinate with such rich results. So when we were pushed together for that first project, we both got stuck in and both the lessons learnt and end results really surpassed expectation.
How do you approach a new project?
Chris: We’re really obsessive about process. Lots of clients come to us with the seed of an idea, and a sense of what their outcome is, but little idea how to arrive at that end point. Often there are lots of contradictions and conflicting criteria to navigate. Over the years, we’ve realised the importance of spending extra time at the outset of a project helping clients develop a brief that highlights all of the varying requirements that a project might have, and we go from there.
Tom: The more people we speak to the more we are realising London’s retail spaces are designed with such a repetitive, cookie-cutter mould, so there are often rich design opportunities driven by these contradictions to distinguish a brand and a store’s identity.
We’ve come a long way in really building and utilising our differences in character. We’ve gained experience in mixing those two ingredients into a more solid foundation, and enjoy being pushed by our differences.
Opening our first shop was obviously a very big, nerve-wracking moment for us. What role do you think design plays in creating a physical space for a brand?
Chris: We’re increasingly interested in using design to curate a particular user experience, over and above simply the aesthetic styling of a space. It’s challenging in today’s image-based culture, when so much of a brand’s content is viewed on screen, through Instagram, or design blogs, to show how much more powerful and memorable carefully curated experiences can be. For example, in the G&P Leather Lane Tea Bar we designed the back bar to be very shallow so that it would be difficult for the staff to have their back to customers. This subtle detail encourages asking staff for recommendations, and prompts longer conversations about the tea, its origins, and the precision way in which it’s prepared. For me controlling these human experiences is critical to good design.
Tom: With such an abundance of eye candy in the design world it can be difficult to communicate the value of creating experiences that resound with a customer. Longevity is what’s important to us in design and visual language, so we try to take what we see on social media with a pinch of salt. If you get too caught up in that cycle, you risk five minutes being on trend but then becoming washed out.
From the outset Emilie had a very clear idea about how she wanted the G&P space to feel, but didn’t necessarily know what that looked like. How did you go about translating what Good & Proper is all about into a physical space?
Tom: I think the Good & Proper project was unusually reactionary against what everyone else was doing. The current coffee culture aesthetic that has saturated every cafe you go into is so tired. This project was interesting because we had to land the Tea Bar interior somewhere that felt familiar and recognisable, with a great atmosphere, but all the while ensuring it felt unique to the coffee shop scene. It was interesting because the room to manoeuvre became narrower and narrower just by process of elimination.
And what are your favourite design 'moments' from the project that, for you, best represent Good & Proper?
Chris: We used an English oak in the space; a material that has got incredible integrity, and would fare really well over time. The materiality felt incredibly important for bringing the tea bar to life.
Tom: The oak tray is a highlight for me. It crystallised the whole project. The tray has three grooves in it - one for the pot, the milk, and the cup, so whilst it feels like this super simple, robust object that is so understated; it’s actually been designed to curate the perfect moment for customers in the way that all of the elements sit together. And it provides so much consistency for the team preparing the tray - every tray goes out looking identical in such an effortless fashion. In a sneaky way, we gave people that refined concept shot in a way that they would never spot.
Our Leather Lane Tea Bar is now a living and breathing space – how does it make you feel seeing people interact with the finished design?
Tom: Good & Proper was our first retail project. Three years on I still think it’s an exceptionally strong project and that’s down to the sheer amount of due care and research that went into it.
Chris: I’ve taken prospective clients to Leather Lane - people that are coming to market with new retail offers - partly because there’s just so much care that has been taken over every detail of the project. It’s a hard project to do justice to in pictures.
Tom: Every time a tray arrives on my table, I look at it and I’m like… yeah, that’s it.
Like us, you’re based in South East London. Do you love it as much as we do?
Chris: In this area, especially in this estate [Copeland Park], there are so many small start up businesses. There are people doing small scale fabrication, there's a lot of design and so much within the art sector too. I think there’s an incredible vitality to everyone. Individual businesses are so small they have to reach out to each other for help and this skill swapping has created a really strong sense of community that I’ve not found elsewhere in London.
Tom: Yeah, we came out of a breakfast meeting in Shoreditch yesterday and got the train back to Peckham and it’s like getting off in the countryside. The creative scene is just thriving but it’s so low density, it’s actually just quite peaceful. The building we’re in is pretty rugged and beaten up so people aren’t here looking for snazzy, glass-fronted, swanky offices. They just want space to do interesting things, with loads of natural light and in proximity to this amazingly diverse community.
And finally, we've got to ask, what’s your favourite tea?
Tom: I love the smoky one, it’s like drinking a BBQ - the Yunnan.
Chris: I really like Lapsang Souchong. Are you going to do one? Or one of your Chinese teas, maybe Keemun...
Find out more about the work Kennedy Woods Architecture do here, or visit our Tea Bar to see the results of their work with us.