As Rents Rise, Artists Are Reviving the Idea of the Medieval Guild

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From London to Berlin, five collectives embracing the centuries-old structure of shared resources and labor.

Starting in the Middle Ages, when craft guilds were first conceived in Western Europe, artisans — from haberdashers to glassmakers — have organized themselves in skill-based communities to control production and quality, support apprenticeship and obtain local influence. Here, we highlight five collectives across the continent that are reviving that centuries-old structure of shared resources and labor. Inspired by the collaborative tenets of the Bauhaus school in Germany, the rise of contemporary co-working spaces around the world and the groundswell of socialist rhetoric in the face of increasing urban gentrification, these communities are redefining the relationship between designers and the cities in which they live.

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Marseille, France

La Friche la Belle de Mai

Stories about abandoned buildings often end with grim tales of squatting and forced evictions, but in the case of La Friche (“the wasteland”), local authorities sought to counteract that narrative. By inviting artists to legally colonize a shuttered tobacco factory in the early 1990s, the city of Marseille set in motion what has since morphed into one of the most progressive cultural complexes in France. “From the start, we were well organized,” says the German conceptual artist Alfons Alt, one of the first inhabitants of the late 19th-century iron-and-concrete structures, which span 30 acres in the Belle de Mai district. “We had a cultural manager. We collected money to maintain the building.” After the tobacco company abandoned the complex in 1990, Marseille’s cultural attaché asked two respected theater directors, Alain Fourneau and Philippe Foulquié, to repurpose the buildings as artistic and cultural venues. Artists were invited to keep studios on the site for the cost of basic maintenance. By 1995, the architect Jean Nouvel had come on board as president. In the years following, scores of designers and performers joined the nonresidential community: Now, about 400 creatives work here daily, hosting some 600 public art events annually.

The complex continues to evolve: Since 2004, the French and local governments have given La Friche more than $30 million, which has gone toward renovating the studios and exhibition spaces and installing two new theaters, a skateboard park, community gardens, an on-site bookshop, a cafe and a child-care center. Two years ago, studios for composers were added. The next project, still a few years away, is to incorporate a public elementary school, effectively turning the studios and stages into classrooms. “What better way to learn among a community of artists?” asked Alain Arnaudet, La Friche’s 53-year-old managing director. “The whole world is watching us.”

Zaventem, Belgium

Zaventem Ateliers

Inside the massive hall of a former 19th-century paper factory in Zaventem, 20 minutes outside of Brussels, several people were recently gathered around a flame rising from a metal urn. If not for the MacBook resting on one lap, it could have been a scene from the Middle Ages.

Zaventem Ateliers, as the 65,000-square-foot complex is known, was opened last year by the Belgian interior designer Lionel Jadot. Within the three-story brick building, he has carved out 28 workshops and communal spaces — a shared kitchen, a plant-filled lounge — for the 22 distinguished local makers (sculptors, leather weavers and woodworkers among them) to share ideas and materials. There’s Arno Declercq, who builds West African-inspired furniture using iroko wood from Benin and Belgian oak, which he blackens using the Japanese shou sugi ban method; Vladimir Slavov, who creates monumental brass lighting fixtures under the label Dim Atelier; and Alexandra and Grégoire Jonckers, who, along with their father, Armand, who began his career in the early 1960s, make tables of resin and etched metal.

The 49-year-old Jadot says his aim is to create an “autonomous hive” in which craftspeople can exhibit together — last month, most of Zaventem’s members showed their work at the second annual Collectible, a design fair in Brussels — and occasionally collaborate: Declercq recently teamed up with Slavov on a lamp made of black wood and sand-cast bronze for Declercq’s spring collection. By this summer, Jadot hopes to open a public restaurant hosting visiting international chefs on the ground floor, which will open onto a garden. Members sign a contract and pay a monthly fee that covers everything from Wi-Fi to beer on Friday nights, but can leave with three months’ notice, which, as the 24-year-old Declercq adds, “gives young artists and designers a chance to take a risk.”

Eindhoven, the Netherlands


When the Dutch electronics and manufacturing companies Philips and Stork started moving production overseas in the 1980s, they abandoned vast factory complexes in Eindhoven, which stood empty for years. Fortunately for the city, it was home to the Design Academy Eindhoven, one of the most innovative art and architecture schools in the world, founded in 1955. Over time, many of the school’s graduates started to claim space within those century-old sites.

A decade ago, the designer Sander Wassink, who was then a student at the academy, teamed up with some fellow students to rent 6,500 square feet inside an erstwhile Stork factory. The 34-year-old Wassink — whose practice focuses on what he calls “the discarded, the abandoned and the already partially formed” — and his cohorts have continued to expand the ad hoc makers’ space, which they named Sectie-C, after a Dutch urbanism term used to describe an industrial zone. There are now about 250 interdisciplinary entrepreneurs who work across the nearly 400,000-square-foot brick complex, which comprises shared and private work spaces, a lunchtime cafe, a contemporary design gallery, two theaters and even a bicycle-parts reseller. Wassink fears the project’s success could be its downfall, and that everyone could be priced out by encroaching commercial businesses, so the board is currently negotiating with the complex’s owner to preserve it as a creative space, allowing the tenants to participate in its future development. “Sectie-C is a different kind of factory,” Wassink says, “A human-scale laboratory that is adaptable and flexible.”



On a winter afternoon at KAOS (an acronym for Kreative Arbeitsgemeinschaft Oberschöneweide) — located inside a brick warehouse on the Spree River in southeast Berlin that dates to the late 1800s, when it was part of an electric power supplier — everyone working in the 7,500-square-foot main hall was wearing thick jackets and wool hats. It was substantially warmer in the smaller nooks that had been stacked along the inner walls like Tetris blocks: a small kitchen with a long wooden table; a music studio with a jumble of instruments; an event space with a bar. The 20 or so designers and makers there that day (about 60 come and go; rent is so low that some artists keep second studios elsewhere) were consumed by their projects. Sehan Poulton, a metalsmith from Vermont, was polishing a half-finished gauntlet for a suit of medieval armor that he was making from scratch. Nearby, the Hamburg-born artist and production designer Henry Baumann was sanding down the surface of a tubular lounge chair made from several types of reclaimed wood. KAOS’s two managing directors, the multidisciplinary designers Anka Broschk and Jascha Vogel, entered a workshop filled with pleated vases in a variety of materials (metallic foil, brass, acrylic, waterproof paper) that belonged to Jule Waibel, a Stuttgart native who focuses on transforming materials by folding them. Typical of the way the community collaborates with tools, she shares the custom steaming machine she invented with other tenants.

KAOS (pronounced “chaos”) opened in 2013, but Broschk and Vogel have devoted the last few years to formalizing the enterprise: Every tenant now pays a modest monthly rent that covers their own space, with an added charge for any communal workshops they use. They have learned that, in order to thrive, KAOS requires some structure. Though there were few rules at the beginning, “as we grew,” Vogel says, “we understood that a drum player in a band can’t also be the full-time manager.”


Old Paradise Yard

With the exorbitant cost of London real estate, many studios have been turned into luxury apartments, so “one of the only ways to find space as a young artist is to come together,” says Alfie Lay, the 36-year-old manager of the decade-old Eat Work Art, which buys and leases empty buildings in the city on behalf of artists, designers and craftspeople.

One of the most creative of their five sites is Old Paradise Yard, inside a former Victorian school complex. Before Eat Work Art took over the empty space in the Waterloo district of central London in 2014, it had been a retreat for a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center. After cleaning and securing some 10,000 square feet, including a schoolhouse, a canteen building and several sheds clustered around a garden courtyard, the company worked with architects to create studios within the complex, which were then offered for rent to artists and makers (the design office Mentsen, the theatrically oriented Lizzie Props), some of whom adapted them to their own needs. All 25 spots were filled within a year.

At Old Paradise Yard, even the receptionist is a maker. In between signing for packages in her studio, the designer Kelli Des Jarlais sews stage costumes and bespoke latex outfits for clients in the fetish scene. Many of the other renters make work related to the performing arts: The artist James Winter, who constructs surreal light installations, recently collaborated with Pilot Technologies, an on-site software company that specializes in audiovisual production, and the pioneering electronic musician Juan Atkins on the Cybotron world tour that kicked off two weeks ago at the Barbican Center in London. “We just signed another lease,” Lay adds. “The City of London is finally starting to realize the value of spaces like these.”

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