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Co-DB’s Lily Nichols on gender in the design industry & creating workspace

26th October 2017

Chats with Lily of Co-DB, the team we can thank for redesigning Auction Rooms.

We had a morning hanging out on the freezing building site that will soon become a buzzing Collective coworking hub. As with our previous space Collective Temperance, we drafted in Co-DB – a group of architectural designers and all-round doers to transform a shell of a building in to a welcoming, functional workspace. Co-DB grew out of another network called RARA, a cooperative workshop in Hackney developed by three architectural students. It functions as an open hub where designers and regular folk alike can work on personal projects or get together to create something bigger.

Over tea in a plastic cup we had a chat with Lily, one part of the Co-DB crew who are busy transforming this disused TfL building in to something that will literally sparkle on Camden High Street.

A quick overview of Co-DB…

We’re a team of designers and problem solvers. We work with clients on anything from furniture design, creating spaces, delivering workshops. We’re working with a whole range of people to engage with the build environment and the material within it.

What motivated you to get in to this sector?

I really enjoyed maths, physics and art at school, so I started to think about what I could do with this.

My stepfather is a builder and I worked with him a lot as a teenager. It gave me confidence that I was doing the physical work really well, and I took a lot of satisfaction and pride in it. I had started to think about space, design, furniture – and how to make things more useful and enjoyable for people. That was a real gift that he gave me. It’s something I still get out of my job.

What sets Co-DB apart from other organisations in this field?

I think it’s our attitude. We work with people to draw out a solution. We believe that people have an intuitive understanding of their environment, but sometimes don’t feel they are able to have an opinion on it.

We’re about empowering people to tell us what they need and want, and working with them to create it.

If you’re handed a finished drawing or perspective it feels as though you haven’t had any input. If there is a constant dialogue with the designer, you’ve really been involved in the product.

It’s a traditionally male-dominated sector. What’s been your experience?

The gender thing is really interesting, gender norms are very restricted for everyone, we’re all caught up in this web that’s really difficult to work against. You can win respect by doing what you’re doing, and doing it well. People will change their opinion, and that’s really satisfying. Being able to defy their expectation and gaining their respect is worth it.

Including more people only enriches the work. People of all genders like doing all sorts of things, and if we can just unlock that potential all these people might enjoy this work and get a lot out of it.

We did a workshop with year 8 students from a school where they designed and constructed a display trolley. We were teaching all of the kids how to use power tools, treating them all exactly the same, because all kids will think power tools are fun!

Did you feel supported in your choice of career?

There are a lot more women studying architecture then there are men. That ratio changes massively once you enter the profession. In terms of the physical work, and gaining ground in the leadership area, that’s where gender is more relevant. It’s not so much during education.

Some people don’t expect me to be working with my body and don’t expect women to lead. Those people aren’t prepared for when those women do it, and do it successfully.

Tell us about the process of getting Collective Auction Rooms up and running…

With this project, the starting point was looking at the spatial arrangement of the building. There were no divisions to start with, so our first step was to ensure we could arrange it in a way that would let in extra light. At this point our background in architecture was really handy.

Then we thought about the communal spaces – areas that would be used collectively, that needed to be flexible for both coworking and events. Juggling all those considerations at the same time allows you to make the most of the space.

Then you come to the timeline. Projects like these need to reach the right milestones within the allocated timeframe and they need to be within budget. This is something Co-DB is good at. We make a lot of the products ourselves and so we are really in touch with the detail, the costs and realistic time constraints.

Is there any specific architectural or design theory that goes in to creating coworking spaces?

You need to think about it in as fine detail as possible. You consider the space itself and how it needs to be used – where do these two meet? A working environment is so much more than a desk and a chair.

The fun thing about a Camden Collective project is the key design specification, being able to accommodate any situation. One scenario in the daytime can be completely different to that in the evening.

Which upcoming projects are you excited for?

I love the engagement work we do, delivering workshops. It means that you’re helping people create things, and that’s exciting. We live in a world where you feel that tough decisions are made for you. You look through the IKEA catalogue and select a kitchen table and that feels like a design or a taste choice. But it’s still so restricted – being a part of the process is so empowering.

Aside from that, I always love working on the building site, and the idea of a little family coming together to work on a big project.

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