“all to create a space” — david mccall, takkBack
There are an ever diminishing number of things you can do in public without causing a fuss, given how sensitive people are these days about mild disturbances to their routine. Taking things in your stride has gone out of fashion at the same click as ever- connected digital living has come into fashion, and odd behaviour can no longer be indulged without acquiring an online imprint courtesy of bemused, amused or indignant onlookers.
Once, you might have waited until evening to describe the impromptu photoshoot you saw going down in the local coffee shop, if it occurred to you to mention it at all; tomorrow, yours will be one of many Snapchats seeking distant commentary on what’s going down, before the what- the-what has even hit the floor. Let’s not even install Periscope.
Yet the only record of our recent swift setup-shoot-takedown photoshoot in Takk, as a weekday afternoon rose busily around us, is a tranquil photograph of Takk’s co-owners, David McCall and Philip Hannaway. The image doesn’t show our art director, Shang-Ting, pressing for an angle as politely as possible in the gaps between people around an adjacent table; or the umbrella light being held aloft over the shoulders of a couple chatting in the window seats; or record the time it took to bring all the elements together — the people (Philip had just dropped in, unawares), the lights, the coffee just right — and then to engineer the right combination in the right moment, to satisfy the camera’s shutter and Shang- Ting’s eye. The camera might not lie, but photographs make photography look easy.
And around and about, at the frayed undefined edges of our pop-up studio corner, nobody flinched. Nobody even looked, bar a barista or two, amused between orders by their bosses’ modelling discomfort. In a room where we’d wager everybody had some kind of portable electronic device within easy reach, nobody checked this change to Takk-routine and thought it worthy of recording and sharing about or even, it seemed like, comment. While we caused a certain amount of necessary chaos to get the job done, nobody gave us a blink.
“I’M FASCINATED BY THE DIFFERENT THINGS I SEE PEOPLE DOING WHEN THEY COME TO TAKK”
It’s not that they didn’t care. That might be the classical cool Mancunian cliché; narrow eyed disinterest, quietly watchful, outwardly uncritical. It’s more that ours was only one of many off-normal activities going along in the pine-panelled and brick-walled cosiness on Tariff Street, a place where people are well disposed about change. After adjusting their seats to make way for our clear shot, the group at the big round table behind us dived again to their discussion, leaning on closed MacBooks and handing round paper and drinks. A student at the table next to David’s — the tables at Takk are all old school desks, making students of everyone — remained intent on her laptop screen, where we caught a glimpse of diagrams we couldn’t understand, a face looking on from a Skype window.
“I’m fascinated, sometimes,” says David, “By all the different things I see people doing when they come to Takk.” There’s not the compulsion there to snap curious sights for later, but there is the curiosity; it’s the breadth of acceptance and expectation of differences that makes Takk itself feel different. And worth taking pictures of.
“The central sharing table has been a big success,” says David. “We weren’t sure at first if people wouldn’t be too stand- offish; but you can watch that change, and it’s quite fun. Two people will sit near each other, and they won’t exchange a word. Then they’ll notice each other again, and they’ll show an interest in what the other is doing. Soon you see them arranging to meet here, moving to sit together at the smaller tables at the side.”
Much is made of Takk’s Nordic inspiration, and how it influences the decor and the menu; and that influence is genuine. “Drop Coffee,” says David before we’ve even finished asking about coffee shops in Sweden. “Drop Coffee has got such a raw feel to it. The tables are pallets, and they’ve got a little roaster right in the middle of the room; there’s coffee on the floor. It’s high quality, and they love what they do and are really welcoming. That has really inspired us.”
The welcome, and the knowledge, and the feel of the space are the less tangible elements of Nordic coffee culture that are the real critical import to Takk.
“I go to Iceland quite a lot, where because it’s dark and cold, they love coffee,” says David. “There are so many cute little pared back coffee bars in Iceland, and I love going there and hanging out in coffee shops. You come to a certain age when you can’t hang out in bars all the time, so coffee shops are the next step.
“We wanted to create a space at Takk where people could feel really relaxed and hang out, that wasn’t work, that wasn’t home, but a bit of a mixture of the two. So it would feel like a regular place, a neighbourhood bar where you could hang out, but also work.
“We took a deliberate decision to put in millions of plug sockets everywhere, all around the space, and to never bother our customers about moving on; to be really welcoming, so it’s fine to come and spend all day here. All the seating is designed
for people to come and work — well, not ‘designed’ designed; it was planned. But then we went out and found it all in skips and vintage shops. All to create a space. Coffee is important, but the space is as much so.”
The place is important, too. Tariff Street, despite the development all around it, still trails off into not much if you walk too far along; it’s still the wrong side of Oldham Street for those who view the Northern Quarter as an overflow leisure district for the Arndale. There are easier places in Manchester to open a door and open a business.
“When we opened it was just us and a gay sauna,” says David. “Now us and the sauna are the only places on the street that aren’t bars. But we had to to work hard to get people to come here; it wasn’t a natural place.
“We were looking for the right property. We were looking in Chorlton, in other parts of the city. Then we walked past here and saw the landlord putting a To Rent sign in the window. We came in, saw the floors, saw the brick, saw the windows, and we told him: Take that sign down!
“It was offices, and we quite stupidly thought we could do it all ourselves; we got loads of tools and came in one Saturday and tried to take the old offices apart.
Which I wouldn’t advise. We quite quickly thought we’d best get a construction company in to help, but it was quite nice for a while, bits of glass falling on us as we took the walls down, thinking we could do everything ourselves.”
After the dismantling, the building; not just of the counter and the shelves, but of a community of customers willing to venture this far down to Tariff Street.
“I’ve never believed the saying, if you build it they will come,” says David. “It’s a bit pretentious.” Instead David and Philip built Takk and then went to go and get people to come, meeting their neighbours and doing something for them that would bring them over: a weekly meet for small companies starting up in the surrounding buildings, stitch and bitch groups for the knittering locals, Labour party debates, games developers working together at the back; meetings, gigs and weddings have followed as Takk has developed as a space reflective and supportive of the changes around it. Never startled by something new; always welcoming and encouraging.
“You see things changing all the time,” says David. “Like anywhere. This street has been regenerated, with big bars here now, and you can see moves happening; small communities are starting to grow up in Ancoats now, you see little shops opening there. Things move on, they do. You see it in London: Shoreditch was the place to be fifteen years ago, but now all the big advertising agencies are there, and it’s places like Peckham where little restaurants and coffee shops and artists’ studios are springing up.”
Fifteen years ago David was in London himself, but the move to Manchester was not so much a spring-loaded change as a simple, natural progression.
“I’m from north Kent originally,” he says. “I always feel like I was in London for longer, but actually I was there for eleven years, and I’ve been in Manchester for thirteen now.
“I’d been coming here since the eighties, when the Haçienda opened, all the nightclubs. Boots did this really weird thing; at Boots the Chemist, I’ve no idea why, but if you spent more than six pounds you got a free rail ticket to Manchester. I still don’t really understand why!
“So we used to come to Manchester all the time, on Boots. We’d buy all our hair gel there then come up and stay in a really dingy B&B on Ancoats, and go out clubbing.
“And Manchester in the nineties was such an amazing place to be. When Dry Bar and Manto’s opened, they were the most stylish, contemporary bars you’d ever seen — there weren’t even bars like that in London.”
Even when David moved for good at the end of the nineties, though, much contemporary Manchester was still lagging in the wake of those few up-to-date spots.
“My partner Philip studied planning at Manchester University, so we’d been commuting between the two places, and he had just moved to London when we thought: Do we really want to settle here? So we swapped, and moved to Manchester. I was working in TV and film so it was quite an easy transfer to make.
“We lived in the Northern Quarter, in the Smithfield Building on Tib Street, the first one developed by Urban Splash. It was such a different place then. The Millstone and The Unicorn were literally the two pubs you could drink in.” We reminded David of our own old favourite haunt, The King. “The King! Oh gosh, I used to love The King. You could get three vodka and tonics for £1.
“Occasionally new places came around. I remember when Bluu Bar opened, about ten years ago? Everyone was like — there’s a proper bar opening in the Northern Quarter! You couldn’t imagine it now.”
Well, that’s not strictly true. There wouldn’t be that reaction to a bar opening in the Northern Quarter, that’s true; but things haven’t moved on so far for that Manchester to be completely detached from the imaginative possibilities of its citizens. You can still press your hand against a blackened Lever Street warehouse wall and imagine what had to have gone before what has come now; and imagine what it was like when all of this was new, street then building then occupier then new occupier and on and on. Which is why David helped to make Lever Street the first home-beyond- Sweden for graduate school Hyper Island.
“It still feels like bits of that city exist,” says David. “It has that counter-cultural feel, punky, creative, getting things done; and it’s a city that you can walk around, so that you see people and things happen. It’s not like London, where you can get lost, where you see people and say, ‘We must make that film, we must plan that project,’ and then don’t see them for four months because you’re in your own little suburbs. Here, everyone is together, and things happen, and that’s what we want for Hyper Island.”
Hyper Island’s sign doesn’t give much away, but behind the door at any one time are up to fifty students from twenty-two countries, plugged into a network of Hyper Island schools in New York, Singapore and Sweden, where the first Hyper Island was founded in a disused navy prison, one hundred years old, on an island at Karlskrona.
“I think the founders bought it with their hearts, not their heads,” says David. “It’s a proper prison, with cells and corridors — if you’ve seen Alcatraz, it looks like that. And it’s in a small navy town with one bar. But it worked, because it was immersive.”
What the students at Hyper Island were and are immersed in is solving the problems and learning about the opportunities of combining technology, business and creative processes. In the mid-nineties, when Hyper Island was founded, computer science departments, business schools and art and film schools were all breaking new ground; but nowhere was there an institution or a place that linked all three. And links, discovered back then within brand new CD-ROMs, were becoming an important part of living; as was rapid change, like the speed with which the internet made those CD-ROMs obsolete. “The founders could see quite quickly that students at Hyper Island should be able to deal with change,” says David, “And that meant understanding yourself, your own leadership style, your own ability to communicate, to work with an idea, to learn on the job and learn every single day and be conscious that you’re learning; and to understand that there are no right answers anymore. You can create your answers now.”
In keeping with the no answers ethos, Hyper Island has no teachers; challenges come live from industry, from working industry professionals, taking the pupils directly to real situations from the leading edge of contemporary business.
“Our course content comes direct from industry, and Hyper Island staff are there as facilitators to support the students in solving problems. Unlike some school environments, students won’t be given an answer, because in most cases there isn’t one; and when something doesn’t work out and we show students an alternative process they might have used, they can get super frustrated: Why didn’t you show us that in the beginning? And it’s because they would have just followed a formula people have followed before, not invented something for themselves.
“A third of Hyper Island students go off and set up new businesses and new products; a third go on and invent stuff and make things. It’s a place that’s there to support students and their ideas, to increase their competence but most of all their confidence.
“When you put those two things together and you’re playing with technology, using creative processes, always understanding what the business opportunity is, that’s when we see great things happening with young people.”
David became part of Hyper Island through its students; he began by setting up work outside Sweden with business clients, and added oversight of their eventual move beyond Karlskrona and Stockholm to Manchester, and Hyper Island’s subsequent moves across the globe.
“When I worked in media I employed a couple of Hyper Island graduates, and there was this difference in them. Not so much their skills, but their self-awareness, the way they had this drive and ability. To have a 21-year old graduate who was self- aware, self-motivated, asked for feedback, gave you feedback — that’s quite unusual in people so young. So I went to see them in Stockholm, and badgered them for a job for a year.
“I presented a business case to the board for moves to London and Manchester — pros and cons for each. Pros for Manchester were its reputation, its size, that it’s an immersive city and a student city; the cons, that 80% of the industry were in London and that it might not meet international students’ expectations, compared to their perceptions of London. London’s pros were that it’s an international city, and very attractive to foreign students, but the cons are that people can get lost there: they come out of university and go back to their suburbs.
“London hasn’t got that counter- culture. Hyper Island has always been about breaking stuff, and London’s not known for that. London is a conformist city. Manchester is like the punky uncle. And I tried to be dispassionate when I presented it to the board, to let them make a business decision; and they chose Manchester. And that was why they chose it, all of them the same. Which was good, because I didn’t have to move!”
That’s the one change David didn’t have to adapt to, moving; instead he has remained keenly interested in an ever changing, adapting city, where the Hyper Island students fit, where Takk fits, where he fits.
“TAKK IS NEVER GOING TO BE IDENTIKIT”
“Having a job where you’re surrounded by thirty young people really challenging you and pushing you, creating their own culture and ways of learning: it keeps you alive. I’ve gone grey and lost a bit of my hair, but it’s also kept me on my toes.
“We’ve only got a small sign that doesn’t look like much, but when you walk in there now Hyper Island mirrors a sort of artists studio or digital agency or coding den, and that’s what we want it to be. It’s a bit messy because it’s lived in — it’s really lived in. Sometimes I come in and I have to wake the students up because they’ve been working all night, and feed them espresso. They get a 10% discount at Takk, of course they do!
“The students do love it here, they love the city, and lots of them stay. The local industry has really supported us, and we work on briefs for Transport for Manchester, for local hospitals, we work with the BBC; we work really hard to be part of the community, and we’re part of the fabric now.”
As is Takk; but being part of the fabric doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready to tear things up a little bit now and then. Takk will soon be opening new spaces in new locations; only one of them you could call a new shop, destined for Manchester University’s campus, while the others are pop-ups, or counters, or services, or presences, within new and existing tech hubs, theatre spaces, media hubs. Whatever you want to call them: presences seems best. Some nice people from Takk will be there to serve you coffee, and what’s the word for that?
“We’ve been invited to do lots of things,” says David. “We’re having to think about where we go, because we don’t want to go too crazy; we love the city, but we don’t want to saturate it. That’s why we’re planning to do things in partnerships, with the main driver in the partnership being a space where people are coming together, whether it’s a tech hub or a media hub, and we’ll be there to create the right vibe in that space.
“Takk is never going to be identikit. We believe that every one of our spaces should be connected to the building that it’s in. The new place will be in a new building, so there’s going to be lots of concrete, pale woods and whites. If Tariff Street is more Nordic, you could probably describe that as quite San Franciscan.”
Wherever the design inspiration comes from, it’ll still have to reflect the core inspirations that really drive Takk; beyond what any given space looks like, what’s important is what happens within it.
“It’s a service and a philosophy,” says David. “We only hire our staff for one thing, and that’s their happiness, their likability. Because we can train them in coffee, but you can’t beat walking in and seeing someone super-smiley and interested in people.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester, issue 1