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A creative way to bring an old Norwich building back to life

PUBLISHED: 09:02 15 October 2012

Tom Potter, right, with Seth Maclot at the Swan Lane studios.  Photo: Bill Smith

Tom Potter, right, with Seth Maclot at the Swan Lane studios. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2012

The need to rejuvenate old, disused buildings in Norwich along with a burgeoning demand for inexpensive studio space for up-and-coming artists and designers has been forged together by a Norwich man who wants to bring back our creative heritage. Emma Harrowing reports.

The number of empty shops and buildings dotted around Norwich city centre makes for some depressing reading. Sovereign House once enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance of being Her Majesty’s Stationary Office but is now a disused office building in Anglia Square, its future in a state of limbo. Westlegate Tower was seen as a sparkling addition to the Norwich skyline when it was being built in 1959, businesses were said to be queuing up to move in. Of course this 11-storey building is now known as the ugliest in Norwich and has been empty since 1996, although redevelopment of the building and the surrounding area is now being put in place.

Another derelict building is Cygnet House. Nestled next to the Aurum designer jewellery factory outlet on Swan Lane, the building was used as stockrooms for the old Butchers haberdashery store that used to be opposite for more than 60 years. For the past 15 years since the closure of Butchers the four-storey building with roof terrace above the historic Norwich Lanes and overlooked by the castle has been empty with only a few shelves and the odd broken box revealing vague clues as to what it used to be used for.

Now this old building is being given a new lease of life. Norwich-born businessman Tom Potter who owns The Rub massage parlour on Upper St Giles has taken on the lease and is in the process of turning the old stockroom into a creative hub for artists, photographers, designers and other creative people in Norwich with the help of friend and investor Seth Maclot.

“There are a lot of artistic people in Norwich and while there are some studios available to them Space Studios are not only in a central location, they are housed in a historic building that is full of character,” says Tom.

“I have been wanting to invest in a project that will bring the creativity that is in Norwich into one place for sometime, the key was finding the right place to do this and I think I have found it in Cygnet House.”

At the moment it is only the second floor that has been renovated by being divided into studio ‘pods’ for people to rent out, but even these are under development with mere wooden frames dividing out each individual space.

“I want to leave much of the building as open plan as possible so that not only does is the design sympathetic to the original features but also so that creatives who want to rent a studio can decide how they want the space to work,” explains Tom. “This way if you are looking for an open plan space that you can share with others to bounce off ideas this is possible, and so is making a studio that is self-contained and can be locked. I’m open to suggestions.”

This willingness to keep the renovation project as fluid as possible is emblematic of Tom’s ethic to develop a creative hub that is ever-evolving with a mix of different arts.

“This is a place that can have so much creative energy flying around it,” says Tom. “At the moment there is space for 16 pods or studios and two open-plan areas for networking, relaxing and for using as creative space for larger art projects such as set design, a photography studio, yoga or exercise classes, meditation... the list is endless. The top floor for example with its sky loft windows offers the perfect light for painting and drawing.”

Many artists, designers, group art projects and up-and-coming designers and creatives often work from home in the spare room or even on the kitchen table. Many would jump at the chance to have their own creative space especially if they are in a place where creative ideas and skills can be shared. However, for many artists it comes down to costs and a studio space can be expensive.

“I’m pricing the rent of the studios as competitively as I can,” says Tom. “Prices are based on the size of the studio and are pitched on a three-level price structure – non-profit, low income and commercial. I’m also open to negotiation and plans such as a skills swap deal whereby payment is made by using your skills on another project. There are also opportunities to share rented space.

“The key to these studios is to create diversity of the art that is produced here from photography and illustration, to designers and even yoga and Tai Chi classes. It will be open to anyone who is creative as I want to produce a big creative buzz in this old building.”

Tom’s energy for the project fills the part developed but still hollow shell of Cygnet House with the promise of what it can be. His enthusiasm conjures up images of a photographer working with a model, make-up artist and hair stylist in studio in the room downstairs, fashion designers working on their latest creation alongside illustrators and film makers in the pods upstairs, a yoga class practising their sun salutations in the open plan room on the top floor, while set designers create scenes from plaster and paint across the hall and artists etch and paint the majestic view over Norwich from the roof terrace.

With this vision you can hear the creative buzz Tom is striving for, the whirr of a sewing machine, the click of a camera and the swish of the paintbrush and your mind is transported back to the days when weavers, designers and shoe makers made our fine city a creative place to be. A romantic vision that could, thanks to visionaries like Tom, become a reality.

Space Studios are holding an open day tomorrow Tuesday, October 16 at midday and 6pm and also Tuesday October 23 and 30 at midday and 6pm. Viewing is by invitation only so if you are looking for studio space and would like to find out more email Tom Potter at tompotter1@gmail.com

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