Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson discovers a refurbished bike repair shop that functions as a hybrid between a book shop, conference centre and art gallery

WAY BACK in the dark and doomy days of March 2022 – before we had allowed ourselves to think that pandemic restrictions may be lifted for more than a month or two at a time – I visited the Confer-Karnac Centre just by London’s Liverpool Street Station. That area was still as quiet as a midwinter midnight, with most offices entirely uninhabited, and cafes and restaurants shuttered up. So it seemed particularly bold that an organisation whose main businesses combines educational conferences for psychologists and selling books would be opening up a space for gathering, for exchanging knowledge and for looking at art, in the heart of London’s business district.

The Confer-Karnac centre is tucked away on Strype Street, just off the main traffic thoroughfare that is Bishopsgate. It was designed by Chris Dyson Architects to meet the needs of this unusual client: Confer is a specialist in conference programming for professional psychologists, established in 1998. Having acquired Karnac books – publishers of psychological titles for over 70 years – in 2020, it also acquired new premises in Spitalfields to become a combined HQ. It was Confer's creative director Jane Ryan’s vision to build a physical space as a hub for their professional community, combining a specialist book shop with offices for the team and event facilities, including regular art exhibitions. She wanted a space that felt anchored in its community, and she chose Dyson in part because he has lived and worked there – his studio is also based in Spitalfields – for the last 20 years, as well as for his previous track record with both community facilities and libraries.

conference centre and art gallery. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER
Conference centre and art gallery. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER

The centre occupies a 440sqm ground floor space, formerly a bicycle repair shop, at the base of an Art Deco apartment block. But for Dyson one of the problems in its transformation was that there is no pre-existing typology of this kind – combining art exhibitions, conferencing (both in real life and also with state of the art recording and streaming technology for live webcasts), book sales, events and offices. He says: ‘Regular bookshops, some of the grander ones, have coffee shops, but none of them have a deliberate art programme or conferences and seminars, launches and broadcasting. It’s quite unique in that regard. And it does all those things pretty well.’

For a strong visual identity, Dyson settled on the Confer-Karnac brand’s distinctive blue logo colour. That vibrant blue appears on the exterior wall, door and windows, interior walls, and also several structural columns whose original rectilinear steel forms have been encased in elliptical envelopes to soften the impact. A unified furniture palette of pale birch ply runs across the bespoke bookshelves, which are lower, more sparsely merchandised and widely spaced than a typical bookshop, to encourage browsing. Alcove seating with leather-upholstery and free floating benches also invite visitors to sit down and peruse rather than rush to the sales desk. The curving contours of this furniture echo the Art Deco detailing in the apartments above.

The art on display often inspires talks that are attended live and online. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER
The art on display often inspires talks that are attended live and online. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER

The mood of calm, contemplative and contemporary design is enhanced by soup-green Marmoleum flooring in the retail area and offices, but the conference centre, which is placed at the deepest, windowless part of the plan, has luxurious carpeting which, together with slatted timber ceiling panels that bring acoustic insulation, creates an atmosphere both welcoming and peaceful.

There is a kitchenette between shop floor and conference room, normally hidden from view thanks to plywood panels with the name Confer-Karnac laser cut into them. The kitchen is used daily by staff, but for events the panels that screen it from the shop fold down over the kitchen counter to form an ingenious bar facing into the bookshop.

The building is designed to host 10 employees in a calm and relaxing environment. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER
The building is designed to host 10 employees in a calm and relaxing environment. Image Credit: EDMUND SUMNER

At the eastern end of the bookshop, a half-frosted glazed wall demarcates the office space beyond, for 10 employees, which enjoys full height glazing onto its rear street-front of Bell Lane. In this way, natural lighting penetrates into the bookshop from both east and west, creating a relaxed, almost domestic feel, which is further reinforced with the art. With three or four exhibitions a year, the art is sprinkled throughout the retail space and scattered across the walls of the conference room. Says Dyson: ‘I think the art works well, you feel like you could sit and browse the books and browse the art as well, combining the visual stimulation with that mental stimulation.’

I have been to two art shows there, and I can vouch for the art, curated by Hayley Lock. With themes exploring our relationship with nature or, as for the current show ‘The Body We Are In’, the art becomes a launch point for interesting discussions; in fact, the last nature-related one inspired a talk between an artist and a psychotherapist that was attended by both a live and online audience.

How is this blend working to enrich the space and its audience? Lock said: ‘It has been very successful. The work has been triggering interest and conversations, and definitely expanded the audience for the centre.’ One of the exhibiting artists, Lisa-Marie Harris, enthused: ‘It’s a really nice place to be, whether you’re looking at art or books. You sometimes feel in a gallery that you are distanced from the work but here it is very much unmediated, integrated into the room. You feel you can go up close and spend time with it.’

And it is that quality of an almost domestic feel with hospitality underpinned by a sense of enrichment that makes this place remarkable and memorable. A little like the Welcome Collection’s wonderful Reading Room (by AOC): a place that has much to offer but doesn’t seem overly intent on selling you anything. As Dyson says: ‘I think it’s a place of destination primarily. If people want certain books they will go there. And they do. People who work there enjoy working in it, and I think it’s a good HQ.’

It is an HQ with added benefits for the wider community. I feel it speaks to a mood that we need to see more of in retail, if retail, as we know it, is going to survive and thrive, providing multiple opportunities for curiosity, encounter and delight.

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