The District isn’t like any other design studio I’ve visited. For a start, it resides in a two-up, two-down brick house. This is surrounded almost entirely by a car park in a small, dated ‘enterprise centre’ in a residential area of Cambridge, not far from the train station.
Arriving at the address, one of the first things you notice is that there’s no formal bell arrangement, simply an open door that reveals a staircase (at the top of which is a small first floor studio) and a doorway immediately to the right which leads into the aptly named Frontroom – an exhibition space run by the studio that exhibiting artists are encouraged to fill or customise without necessarily putting any framed pictures on the walls.
“Last year we decided we would empty our meeting room and develop a gallery space which invites artists and illustrators from the UK and beyond to take over the space for two to three months at a time,” says The District’s Alun Shooter. Exhibitors to date include the illustrator Chris Gray who runs Toy, an illustration agency in Manchester; Sheffield artist Matthew Walkerdine; and Alex Curtis, who now works full time for The District.
“The Frontroom is a great excuse to get together with other creatives, have a drink and see some great work,” says Shooter. “Everyone who exhibits tends to stay with us for a week or so whilst they set up, so we all go out socially and get to know them.
“At times it has felt like going down the park to play football before we have done our homework, but actually it has allowed us to work with people we wouldn’t have got in touch with just being a straightforward creative agency. For us, doing great work is all about the people, not just in the agency but who we have in our wider network, so having the Frontroom as a way of meeting them is a great way to forge a relationship.”
The District’s open front door is rather indicative of the studio’s friendly approach and though the upstairs studio is small, it has a homely, relaxed feel which, Shooter believes, the introduction of the Frontroom contributes to. “It feeds into the overall space we work in,” he says, “which is a homely kind of place. We are currently working on our ‘backroom’ so we have a place to meet each other and clients, and obviously we have the Frontroom which is a great place to show clients and generally get away from our desks.” (The District’s newest staff member is Tom Lovell, who featured in our September graduates issue.)
Cambridge might seem like an unlikely location for an ambitious design studio but it wasn’t a difficult decision to make for Shooter and Matt Bagnall when they first set up the company. “We settled here because our families and friends are around here,” says Shooter. “Actually it is not a bad place to be based – London is only down the road and frankly these days you really don’t have to be next door to your client to have a good relationship and do a proper job.”
All photography by owenrichards.co.uk