Londoners have a tenderness for the OXO tower, its letters shining bright red at night. It’s a comforting sight in a way, a kind of urban lighthouse guiding your steps along the Thames. I must have walked passed it a thousand times. Did you know the building originally was a power station, built to supply electricity to the Royal Mail post office? Liebig bought it in the 1920ies, converting it into a cold store – you may know them better as the manufacturers of the famous OXO cube… There was no tower back then, the addition was the company’s architect Albert Moore’s idea. The plan was for it to feature illuminated signs advertising the name of their star product. The city refused – advertising was not authorised along Southbank at the time. Hence this little detour of the rule: windows shaped as letters, by, er, chance… Clever, right?
In the 70ies and 80ies, the building was mostly derelict. The non-profit Coin Street Community acquired it in 1984 and refurbished it to what it is today: housing, restaurant, shops. It’s quite a complex! What I like best is at the back, where the tourists never seem to wander, the quiet courtyard, the light art installation on the wall, the Bargehouse, a huge exhibition space…
The OXO tower is, however, not open to the public but I recently got one of the rare opportunities to visit it. To access it, you have to go to up to the Harvey Nichols Restaurant. There is a door by the kitchens leading to a iron spiral staircase which will take you all the way to the top. You would think it’s a VIP kind of place, but it’s rarely use, apart from the staff sometimes who watch the fireworks from there. It’s like travelling through time, going a hundred years back. It has this industrial feel still, a brutalist meets art deco vibe. London through blue tinted windows, the landscape in little diamond shapes…
And suddenly you’re at the top. From a dimmed atmosphere to bright lightning, the Thames at your feet, St Paul’s in the distance, Gabriel’s Wharf, the London Eye appearing between buildings. It makes you feel quite special being up there…
Although very few people get to go up the OXO Tower, you still can enjoy a good view on the city from the Harvey Nichols Restaurant: there is a balcony on that level open to the public. Just ask the staff, they will show you!
There is more to the building than you realise. A LOT MORE. I had vaguely registered there were a few cafés, an art gallery, shops. But never stopped. Never investigated any further. What I discovered what a closely weaved community of artists, a family. Many have been here 10, 15 years. It’s a fantastic place to find little gems with a story, all without the crowd. Try Wagumi first, showcasing Japanese design: ceramic inspired by traditional techniques but with fantastic textures, ombré effects, a hypnotising geometry sometimes. They have bags made out judo outfits too, good quality tea (their matcha is simply gorgeous), little plants which pots are made entirely of moss… It’s a soothing kind of place too.
Next door is Archipelago Textiles. Do go in. Do ask questions. Do touch the beautiful fabric around.
It’s easy to walk by and just think – wraps, scarves. But this is not just a shop, you see, this is an artist studio too. This is where Doreen Gittens has been making bespoke creations for the last 20 years. The weaving machine is just there, taking a quarter of the room, each of the hundreds threads patiently placed by hand. Linen, wool, silk – all have this wonderful natural feel. Some pieces are white with touches of gold, others seem to capture the warmth of sunshine. Some blend the colours so intricately you could swear Doreen had just invented a new shade. Each creation is unique. Better still, you could ask for your very own design…
On the same level also is Snowden Flood, who found inspiration in the London landmarks. The London Eye, the Chelsea Bridge… the Battersea Station filled with flowers, a teapot crossed by a drawing of the Thames… All suddenly become more poetic, more iconic still. To her own collection, she add careful chosen finds, some modern, others vintage. I’m particularly in love with the Cloud plates… and the cosy, home feeling she has created here.
It’s like being on a treasure hunt. What next? Well, Bramwell Brown. Maker of Mechanimated Weather & Tide Clocks.
When I was a child, my grandparents had a collection of clocks. Each with a different chime, one with a little bird coming out of a window. I loved them, studied them with a passion. In front of these, I’m 7 again, filled with both delight and nostalgia. They are, of course, barometers first, the pictures changing with the weather, shapes suddenly moving, the tide going low, London coming alive. Definitely on my Christmas list!
There is 3D printing too, at Electrobloom. Incredibly complex yet incredibly complex jewels… all created white then dyed. You will see mostly rings there but the list is endless – earrings, necklaces… fabric even! Mark Bloomfield gives you the feeling that everything is possible. He has, after all, designed for Asprey, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Matthew Williamson, even made jewellery for Titanic, Judge Dredd, Braveheart and Poirot… If you’re after a wow effect on a reasonable budget, look no further my friends. His allium ring is a favourite of mine.
If you are looking jewellery that will turn you into an Egyptian goddess, try Alan Vallis. The boutique is ever so tiny – a few windows, a counter, his workshop at the back but oh, does he make magic there… His signature? Stacking rings, to which you can add gems and designs as you wish, building it up from one year/anniversary to the other. He was one of the first artists to settle here at the Oxo Tower Wharf, back in 1996. He has something for everyone from luxurious, classical designs you can imagine of a pre-Raphaelite painting to more dramatic, Middle East inspired ones. Ask to see his fish necklace, which he created after visiting a museum in Cairo!
My last visit was to Innermost, Steve Jones and Russell Cameron’s brainchild. Their specialty? Light. Lightning to be precise – making it part of the furniture and the decor, playing with shapes, giving it a life of its own. Their strength? They design, of course, work with visionaries too. They also have their own factory meaning they can produce capsule collections for boutique hotels. One of their pieces, the bowler hat lampshade, has been such a hit! Plus they have their own gin, Ginnermost. And a gin bar of course.
There are many more artists to discover there so… forget the high street. The Oxo Tower Wharf is not about finding unique gifts: it’s also rediscovering something we keep forgetting with high street shops. Human contact. The story behind an object. The way it has been dreamt, created, the little challenges, the tears and the laughs along the way. That, you see, makes its real value. That, you see, will show you really have chosen it for someone, not picked from a mass produced line.
Why not go to the late shopping event there on December 01, from 5 to 8pm? There will be live music, workshops and demonstrations, free festive treats… A great introduction to this design wonderland.