Online | Interiors

A New Heritage

London, UK

Bathroom brand Coalbrook's showroom in Clerkenwell presents a slightly surreal reimagining of an industrial-revolution-era factory – complete with boiler tanks and trickling water – thanks to the imagination of design studio Holloway Li

On visiting bathroom brand’s Coalbrook’s new showroom in Clerkenwell, you might wonder about its history. What was that huge industrial lathe used for? Where did those massive boiler tanks in the basement come from (their curvy insides fitted with a rill to demonstrate Coalbrook’s taps)?

“We wanted people to come here and think ‘oh wow, what were these? Were they always here?’” says Alex Holloway, whose practice Holloway Li designed this space, which is known as The Market Building. Those big, dark, steel drums in the basement, and the similarly patinated chimneys and fonts on the ground floor, were all created to evoke the atmosphere of the industrial revolution at its monumental height (the lathe, meanwhile, came from Coalbrook’s Midlands factory). It’s not all recently made though, since the Victorian building – once a tobacco-pipe-making factory, but most recently offices for a tech company – already had some good bones: “It has grand ceiling heights, and the character of the brickwork and the original steel columns meant it lent itself well to a showroom,” says Holloway.

The columns and the rest of the exposed steel frame have been painted crimson, acting as a uniting factor between the two floors and also across the softer, more domestic-looking break-out meeting space. A new limestone staircase that links the floors is the work of a Stamford-based stonemasonry: at floor level, its edge has a rough, just-quarried look, but as it rises up the finish becomes gradually smoother and more refined, work that was all done by hand on site.

Designing a showroom is more freeing than some of the other stuff we work on, because people can accept a lot more transgressive design than in a private residence or a hotel

Holloway Li was inspired by artist Rachel Whiteread, known for her cast objects and buildings, for the colourful resin panels that glow invitingly in the windows and act as a backdrop for the shower products. “We made a 3D model that was an imprint of a traditional bathroom, with moulded ceramic tiles, the edge of a sash window architrave, a cornice at the top and tiled skirting at the bottom,” says Holloway. “You want to show the showers in situ, so people can imagine what it might be like, but at the same time, the focus should be all about the product. So, this is a way of creating a beautiful backdrop that elevates the product.”

Much trial and error went into the resin panels: Holloway Li used a Turkish moulded-plastic specialist they had worked with before, a company more used to making components for bus interiors. “There was only one abortive attempt, which has now been given a second life as dining table at my house,” says Holloway.

Critically, the space features working products (unlike some other bathroom showrooms), which adds a further sensory dimension to the design. The distinctive sound of water splashing on to metal enhances the sense that you may have stumbled into a surreal Victorian factory, or, as Holloway says, a spa: “There’s something about the trickling sound of water that’s quite beautiful. So, especially downstairs, we wanted to have the feeling of it being almost monastic.”

The breakout spaces have been included so that Coalbrook’s clients can come and work here for meetings and presentations, perhaps as part of a day exploring Clerkenwell’s other showrooms. They have been sited closest to sources of natural light and “we wanted them to be domestic, as a counterpoint to the industrial hard edges of the rest of the space,” says Holloway, so there is comfortable upholstered seating and cabinetry that almost blends into the wall from being painted the same colour. The palette of soft pink and blue took inspiration from a place conceptually rather far away from a Victorian factory, Robert Adam’s ornate library ceiling at Kenwood House in Hampstead.

The imagination, detail and craftsmanship that have gone into the design have – like the best showrooms – perfectly reflected what Coalbrook wants to say about its wider brand, and Holloway clearly enjoyed the process too. “Designing a showroom is more freeing than some of the other stuff we work on, because people can accept a lot more transgressive design than in, say, a private residence or a hotel,” he says. “Also, it’s explicitly about showing off the products, so you can go further than just adding a little flourish or a touch of flair – you really can show off.”

Talking about the success of the project, he says: “We had a very open spirit of collaboration, and they [Coalbrook] intrinsically had an understanding of the amount of R&D work involved, and a respect for our process. They really trusted us.” Coalbrook subsequently invited the studio to base itself here, occupying yet-to-be-developed showroom space until they outgrow it. “I think we hit a special relationship, the kind that you can’t expect to happen every time,” says Holloway. “We went beyond our traditional role and became friends, really.”