Archive Articles: RIBA Journal, February 1999

RIBA Journal
February 1999


Highly Polished

Coexistence, one of the most familiar names in contemporary furniture, has opened a third showroom in Islington. Amanda Baillieu reports

Coexistence is the one-stop shop for the design-conscious client. Those that have beaten a path to its showroom in London’s Islington include retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, theatres, galleries and banks. Even Oxford dons have been known to lower their tweedy behinds into Hitch Mylius tub chairs from Coexistence, while one of its more recent commissions was for the Virgin club lounge at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport.

Founded 25 years ago by Mary Wiggin and her husband, Ross Bull, Coexistence began life in Bath, moving to London four years later – first to Covent Garden, then to Whitcombe Street, and eventually settling in Islington. Accompanying them, in a metaphorical sense, has been architect Rivington Street Studio, which has been involved with each of Coexistence’s six premises and has just completed the latest showroom. This links the existing showroom on Upper Street with a new showroom around the corner in Cross Street. By joining the two buildings a landlocked yard at the back of the Upper Street shop has been used to provide a gallery and meeting room. The link with Cross Street is made via a glass roof supported from glass beams. The new showroom, which takes up the entire ground floor of the Cross Street building, extends back to the meeting room, while above a panelled maple staircase leads to three floors of small offices.

Planners accepted that the existing house on Cross Street, built in the 1960s, was of poor quality and could be demolished. This opened up possibilities, both for the architects – whose work for Coexistence had been limited to shopfronts – and for the client, which wanted a building that would reflect its well-honed instinct for the best of contemporary design.

‘We do feel that creating a place that looks good is important for us,’ says Wiggin, who holds regular events at the showroom for clients, and is in the throes of planning Coexistence’s 25th anniversary bash.

There are three elements to the elevation: the ground-floor shopfront and entrance, which is glass-framed in steel; the two floors of offices; and the top-floor terrace and offices, which are set back, and so dealt with as a separate element.

The architect’s first solution for the front of the building was rejected out of hand by the council. Rivington Street director Charles Thomson wanted a building that would look crisper, finer and more robust than its neighbours, while eventually accepting the need to reflect something of the local vernacular.

What has emerged is undoubtedly a compromise. Thomson wanted a double height window extending past the parapet of the adjoining property, but this was rejected by planners for not being ‘contextual’. They also demanded that the building should be no higher than its neigh­ bour, although they did allow the top floor to be set back behind a parapet.

The shopfront is open but severe in detail. Glass-framed in steel, it allows passers-by to look down the length of the showroom to the meeting room – where a glass partition carries the Coexistence name, the only clue linking it with the Upper Street premises. There is little at­ tempt to tell the uninitiated what the shop is about. Wiggin and Bull’s decision to move away from retailing to contract furnishing means the public are not admitted, but Wiggin admits it is not unusual to see would-be customers standing on Upper Street, fingers on the bell, bellowing into their mobile phone ‘I want to buy a chair, let me in!’ – until politely, but firmly, they are told they’re are not for sale.

Austere, but with flashes of colour from the furniture, the showroom has a ‘look, don’t touch’ quality, and is a more dramatic version of Rivington Street’s shopfront for Coexistence’s nearby Canonbury Lane premises- itself the subject of months of arguments with planners in the 1980s. The first- and second-floor windows are the same size as the neighbours’, but the framing is steel, not timber; dark grey, not white. The head of the window is a flat arch. The windows are linked by a render panel to add a boldness to the elevation, and to emphasize its chaste composition.

The need to set the top floor back and to ‘deal’ with it as a separate element has been turned to an advantage. The glazed wall is set orthogonally to the party wall, which attempts to resolve the angle of the front and defines a generous south-facing terrace on the top floor. The top floor and roof are clad in zinc, which reinforces the hierarchical composition of the building. Although Thomson’s frustrations with the planners are understandable, the building is better for the arguments. In the initial design, the large studio windows dominated the front facade unnecessarily, whereas in the built version, the natural hierarchy of the building’s functions is much more clearly expressed. It is, after all, just a very swish showroom with offices piled on top. To pretend otherwise would have given the building pretensions it could not have carried off.

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