Profile Helen Arvanitakis


Design District London’s director talks to FX about how the new creative quarter will helf form an ‘ecosystem’ for new businesses.


Words by Sophie Tolhurst

THERE ARE MANY obstacles to being a success as a designer, well beyond actually getting the design right: from negotiating contracts to understanding taxation; and keeping up with payments for everything from rent to buying the teabags and toilet roll. Dealing with such issues can feel like anathema to creative practice, yet it is inescapably bound into the survival of a brand. To understand how to navigate it all is something many never quite master.

Design District is located within Knight Dragon’s Greenwich Peninsula development
Design District is located within Knight Dragon’s Greenwich Peninsula development

Someone who does understand is Helen Arvanitakis, a consultant for creative businesses on all areas outside of design. The biggest stint on her CV is ten years at Tom Dixon and its Design Research Studio, but before that there had been a range of interesting roles: straight out of university she joined New Media in a marketing position, ‘pre dot-com crash as well, so money sloshing about, super exciting clients, like nothing else!’, she describes; Arvanitakis then worked in the BBC’s property department as they were building ‘everywhere’, including the Broadcasting House extension in W1 as well as in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester – ‘I mean it was absolutely bonkers’, Arvanitakis says.

Helen Arvanitakis has been director of Design District London since 2019. Image Credit: TARAN WILKHU
Helen Arvanitakis has been director of Design District London since 2019. Image Credit: TARAN WILKHU

While there was something about development that caught her eye, Arvanitakis realised she didn’t want to go down a straightforward development route, ‘...even on the client side, because it was quite... well at that time, and at that age and that moment in my life it just felt a bit too ... dry and straight’, she says. She applied to both a construction project management master’s as well as a course at renowned art school Central Saint Martins; getting into the latter was to lead her to a number of creative opportunities – including meeting Tom Dixon.

She joined in a business development role at a point where the Tom Dixon business was still relatively small, with around 17 employees. As she explains, the interior design studio was earning more than the product business at the time: ‘It was there really to help fund development of all these products, but also a really interesting way to learn what types of products were needed in the industry: what are interior designers and architects going to specify for restaurants, clubs, and that kind of thing. So it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating.’ As the business grew, with teams for interior design, product design, exhibition spaces, graphics and branding, her role was ‘to kind of shepherd everyone towards a common goal and brand DNA’. She admits she’s not going to give me the warts-and-all version, but she can safely sum it up, saying:‘ It was a brilliant experience, really wide-ranging. And I got to work with some exceptionally talented people, for which I will always be grateful.’

Design District’s canteen was designed by Madrid-based architects SelgasCano
Design District’s canteen was designed by Madrid-based architects SelgasCano

It seems many of them were grateful for Arvanitakis too, for a number of designers who had passed through the studio and had subsequently set up on their own got back in contact: ‘They’d often get in touch with me and say “I’m really stuck on this one thing”. It might be a clause in a contract, or a negotiation around a fee, or wondering whether or not they should employ certain people, that sort of thing, and it occurred to me actually I had built, through my experience at Tom Dixon … quite a wide skill set that was in fact really useful for these smaller, fledgling businesses, which typically couldn’t afford to employ someone full time to help with all that sort of stuff.’

The bright, caterpillar-shaped canteen serves as a focal pointThe bright, caterpillar-shaped canteen serves as a focal point

Fast-forward to 2021, Arvanitakis is director of Design District, planned as a new creative quarter for London within Knight Dragon’s Greenwich Peninsula development. Comprising 16 idiosyncratic buildings by eight leading architects, all coordinated in a master plan by HNNA, architecture is part of its draw to attract all kinds of creative businesses. But there is much more to ‘mak[ing] this an absolute hands-down deal breaker’, Arvanitakis explains, and it’s her role to work out what that is.

Design District comprises eight pairs of buildings designed by leading UK and European architectural firms. Image Credit: DESIGN DISTRICTDesign District comprises eight pairs of buildings designed by leading UK and European architectural firms. Image Credit: DESIGN DISTRICT

She describes how there are two strands to creating the Design District: ‘One is the nuts and bolts of it, how the place actually operates, and the other is working out what that means to the tenant.’ She continues: ‘And I think that’s where my time as a consultant to lots of small businesses has been really helpful on this project... because I’ve sat inside those studios, I know what’s going through the minds of the people that own those businesses, and how difficult it is for them, and how they are expected to produce a brilliant product or space or whatever it might be on the one hand, but they are also negotiating contracts and buying the milk and the teabags, and worrying about the rent and the insurance.’ Straddling both worlds – that of the development and that of the small creative business – Arvanitakis takes her knowledge and sets about ‘plugging it in, or using it to question our service charge, or the way that we’ve structured our contracts, or our marketing messaging’.

One of the flagship offers, meanwhile, was introduced in response to the havoc wreaked on the creative industries by the pandemic. ‘We knew that we ought to be trying to do something to help businesses inside the creative industries, and [...] decided that actually the most democratic thing to do, the thing we’d have the biggest impact on, and without making judgements ourselves – which we don’t feel that we were particularly well placed to do – was to have an across the board £5 rent per square foot for anyone in the first year at the design district.’

Close-up on Mole Architects’ CorTen steel-covered C2 building. Image Credit: DESIGN DISTRICT
Close-up on Mole Architects’ CorTen steel-covered C2 building. Image Credit: DESIGN DISTRICT

‘And that was really about just giving the businesses that move here a moment to catch their breath, and take the focus off having to pay the rent, and putting their energies back into what they do best, which will be whatever creative pursuit is their own.’

Tenants announced (at the time of writing) include Ravensbourne University, with its new postgraduate Institute for Creativity and Technology; QUEERCIRCLE, a LGBTQ+ art space; Love Welcomes, a social enterprise using craft to help refugee women; Concept Kicks, a sneaker innovation platform; Brace Yourself, an independent music brand; and Bureau, ‘London’s new member’s club for the creative industries’.

The idea is that grouping together the creatives will form an ‘ecosystem’ of mutual benefit and support: sharing of skills and equipment, attracting business and creating an inspiring atmosphere – the latter also being a boon to the rest of the wider Greenwich Peninsula development. The Design District team, meanwhile, will continue to support the community, with programming tailored to what will be of practical use – covering tax and HR for example – as well as more ‘inspiring’ events.

Long awaited after the interruptions of Covid-19, Arvanitakis is looking forward to everything finally being open. The buildings have been opening gradually since June, but September marks a month-long launch or ‘celebration of the creative industries’ coinciding with important events in the design calendar such as London Design Festival, London Fashion Week, Open House Weekend and more.

Beyond this, the Design District will be ‘ever changing,’ and so too Arvanitakis’ role with it, ‘because the tenants will come and go, and their needs will change [...] for [the Design District] to do a good job by the creative industries it needs to move with whatever the demands are.’








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