“up here you can take the corners at speed” — nick bax, human studioBack
We went to visit Nick Bax and creative agency Human Studio at their office in the almost refurbished Urban Splash block of the Park Hill estate.
From Sheffield city centre you can’t see Nick’s office but Nick can probably see yours. On a peaceful mezzanine above the six members of the Human team, we sat and gazed through plate windows at the city. The trams in the foreground, the Arts Tower in the midground, the Peak District in the background, all below a greyly declining autumn sky. To hide from our view you could take advantage of one of the valleys and crevices that are like static in a total idea of the urban geography of Sheffield, as small buildings rise above their station on bigger hills, and bigger buildings on smaller hills behind them crack in half and hide.
Because Sheffield makes high rises an exception, it’s possible from here to stroke the shapes of the city with your flat palm as if practising scales up and down an imaginary piano keyboard; or as if playing a slow, architectural whack-a-mole without a mallet. The view is impressive, and you could sit and look at it all day. But it might not do you much good.
“I like the back view better than the street view,” says Nick, leading us through an office that is neat, well-ordered, but showing the first after-tidying signs of untidiness; Nick has to move a pile of posters to show us how a large architectural model of Sheffield city centre lights up from within. “They’ll never build any of this now,” Nick says, as a pristine and translucent Sheffield ghosts alight at the flick of a switch. “And they were going to throw it away. At night I use it as a lamp.” On a table there’s an old BBC microcomputer, still wearing a university property stamp, and on the floor a Sinclair C5. “I’ve driven that down Gilbert Street,” Nick tells us. Gilbert Street is one of the streets in the sky that rule the lines of Park Hill’s concrete heaven. “What’s good about the streets up here is there are no right-angles, so you can take the corners at speed.”
“You don’t realise how big Park Hill is until you see this bit,” Nick says when we reach the back window, where his desk is. While our mind has been on views from the windows to the city, we realise Nick is thinking about how the city views Park Hill, and how much better it looks viewed from within. “You can see everybody’s little balconies, and how they personalise them. If you just look from the other side you don’t see that.”
Park Hill has changed under the direction of developer Urban Splash, and is still changing. At the base of the building we wended around crates of timber and stone, past unplanted plant beds, and stood patiently with some workmen as a large articulated lorry, one of those with its own forklift truck strapped to the back, slowly reversed directly at us, its white noise siren as flattening as an amped up Algorave melody of glitches, warning us not to be flattened under the trailer’s many wheels.
“We were the first ones to move in,” says Nick. They’ve been at Park Hill for two-and-a-half years, waiting for everyone to catch up. “About six companies are moving in in the next six months. Warp Films are going to be our neighbours. Two digital companies, an architect, a recruitment company.” The companies will have common, modern needs: space, broadband, somewhere to go to drink. “The developers could have sold all the ground floor spaces as offices, but they’re holding some back. We want a shop, a bar, a café. It’s great to have The Scottish Queen as a gallery space, but it will be even better when it’s a pub again.”
For now the buildings are a work in progress, attracting the shyly curious but not the regular reveller, and still a place to tour; and Nick gives us a tour of the topmost street, so we can look at the view from an even higher spot, and at the balustrades from up close.
“They’re new,” Nick tells us, inviting us to put a hand between the bars. “The spaces here are a little wider than others, whereas on the old buildings they are about the same. They don’t go to the edge either, there is a little bit of metal here, and the top is wood. It’s only a little thing but when you repeat that across the facade of the whole building you get a big effect. It softens it.
“Since the first phase was finished, I’ve noticed a real softening towards the building. A lot of the purists and fans of brutalist architecture weren’t sure about the coloured panels and other changes, but a lot of people who never liked the building began to have a lot more affection for it. It’s achieved the almost impossible, turning something a lot of people didn’t like and thought was an eyesore into something that the whole city can be proud of and cherish.
“We’ve found that when people come here to visit us, they might have lived in Sheffield for decades but have never been here. Unless you knew someone that lived here you had no cause to come to a place that for a lot of people was literally the wrong side of the railway tracks. Perceptions grew that it was a dangerous place full of drug addicts. I’d never really been here, but when I first came with Urban Splash about ten years ago, it was really quiet. Mainly older people living at the top end. So I knew it would be a good place for us to come.
“For a lot of people it’s like discovering a new quarter of the city; lots of people come along when there’s an event on, and often it’s because they want an excuse to see the buildings. The new businesses should give it the drive; I’m hoping that by March next year there will be five or six hundred people living or working here. That should justify us having at least a shop.”
We can tell Nick is looking forward to it. As a designer, for a long time at The Designer’s Republic and now at Human Studio, he has dwelt in the future for twenty-five years, doing things there.
“What we’re doing at the moment is really diverse,” says Nick. “We’ve been doing virtual reality stuff for Oculus headsets; that’s what we’re getting interested in now. Imagine if someone had said five years ago that you were going to be able to build a virtual gallery space, put on a headset, and move through it? But we’ve made three of those this year.”
They also transmitted an exhibition to Calm & Punk Gallery in Tokyo. Scattered around Nick’s office are blocks of coloured plastic, like rocks found and brought back from a moon by astronauts, too terrified to solve the mysteries behind combinations of planes of boisterous coarseness with clustered edges of sharp geometry; what generated these objects, if not some combination of alien intellect and alien nature beyond our comprehension? But if these really were moonrocks, they’d be from a retro moon where spacemen had landed in a silver rocket with a tin-cloth bag, because if it had been a modern moon they could have just transmitted them to Earth, the way Human Studios transmitted them to Tokyo.
“We called the exhibition Sheffield to Tokyo With Love,” says Nick. “I had read about how in the 1980s David Hockney used to send faxes to people for exhibitions. He would fax drawings from Los Angeles for an exhibition in Saltaire, then destroy the originals, so the faxes became the art. I liked that idea.
“So what we did was send 3D faxes from Sheffield to Tokyo. We designed these objects here and sent them as files that could be 3D printed in Tokyo. It relates to the virtual reality work we’re doing; once you can model things in 3D you can now either print them out or build a virtual world.
“People at the opening night of the exhibition in Tokyo were fascinated. 3D printing hasn’t taken off there. I was speaking to someone from Makerbot, who said the technology leaders are in the USA, but in terms of pushing forward on what you can actually do with 3D printing, the leaders are in the UK. Which was a big surprise to me.”
Through design you can control the shape of the future, but you can’t retrospectively direct its past. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Damon Fairclough describes the first time he held an object from Japan: an electronic calculator, in 1975. ‘It felt like it had been handed to us from the future … we poked at the keys, then pressed “=” … and there it was. The number “4” … [we] would remember how it felt for… the rest of our life.’
“At The Designers Republic we were very well known for taking inspiration from Japan,” says Nick. “Although when we worked with Japanese companies they thought we were very British, because it was our take on what they had. In terms of graphic design it was always the boldness and the simplicity of the letterforms; put some characters from katakana together and they just look like a logo to me. But a logo from the future. Most graphic designers my age talk about Blade Runner and things like that, but Japan was the one place I always wanted to go.
“I first went there just over ten years ago, and when I went back this year, I found it hasn’t changed much. They’ve had a recession lasting seventeen years, and parts of Tokyo do feel quite worn down; I think they feel like they’re not as far in the future as they used to be. But to me it still is.
“You can contrast it with places in China like Shanghai, where between visits in 2009 and 2010 they built parts of the city that just weren’t there the first time. Everything has happened so fast, but there are parts of Shanghai where you could be anywhere; you could be in Frankfurt, because there are shopping centres with all the same stores.
“Japan developed quickly but it went its own way, with its own identity and culture, and it still has that. Other cities have probably caught up with Tokyo’s development, but it is still out there on its own. It’s still a magical place and I see it as almost like a parallel universe. It still feels like the future.”
Sitting in Nick’s office at Human Studio in Park Hill, gazing through the window at the busy city below, listening to the whirr of construction machinery outside and the whizz of designing brains within, felt like being in a particular kind of future Sheffield that we had caught up. Before we left, Nick gave us a pristine white flexidisc, made by his record label Computer Club, as if sealing in the real a fantasy of life as lived in Heaven 17 videos in 1981. It’s not entirely accidental. Human are working with Sheffield City Council on the design and engagement elements of the council’s masterplan for the city centre, and with the University of Sheffield on their efforts to engage and integrate with the life of the city. In Nick’s office is a large artwork by Florence Blanchard, whose work can also be seen in the windows of the Millennium Gallery, and out in the street covering a building on Sidney Street; a consistent style unifying the street, the exhibition hall, the office; the city recognising and embracing a powerful visual language the city has been known for, elsewhere, for years.
“We are starting to do more and more in the city,” says Nick. “I’m not sure why. At one time the only work we did in Sheffield was for the University and some of our artist friends. I don’t know if there’s more money, or it’s just because of our experience, that people have seen what we’ve done and are asking us to get involved. We have a lot of experience from outside the city that we can bring back here.
“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve invested a lot in this city. I could have gone elsewhere but I stayed here. And I think some of the institutions get that I see the city differently to them, that I see things they don’t and see the potential in things, and they trust me to know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen things come along and not happen, and I’ve seen some things happen quickly, and sometimes it’s easy to get overexcited and think everything is going to be changed, when actually it takes longer; there’s a longer game. And to see that, but still have the drive and not lose the enthusiasm, is quite difficult sometimes. But I have a track record and a CV that helps them have trust, and that’s what it’s all about really: trust.
“We always try and work with people that we get along with, that we like and who have similar goals; you always find people have different opinions and that’s healthy, but if there is someone you get on with and like then it makes sense to do more work with them. And it’s sometimes surprising who the people are that have similar goals and thoughts to you.”
The goals and thoughts that Nick has about the future increasingly reflect the name of his studio: Human.
“I chose it just because I thought it was a good name at the time,” he says. “It’s actually turned into a much better name than I imagined. I think that generally people have become more caring and more thoughtful and less self-serving in the last ten years. Even the greediest people. I think the recession was a really humbling experience for some people, who came out the other end realising what’s really important.
“When I listen to my children and their friends, they’re teenagers, and it sounds like the things that are important to them are very different to my generation. I designed for Pulp twenty years ago and you can look at the effect Jarvis Cocker has had on the culture; if you had thought he would become a major pop star you’d have been laughed at, but now he’s embraced as a real cultural icon; even people who don’t like his music think he’s alright. Look at Jeremy Corbyn, wearing a jacket that doesn’t match his trousers and still getting elected. I think we’ve become more humanistic.”
And while it has become easier to visit Tokyo, or London, it has become less necessary to live there to work there. Now that faxes work in three dimensions, you can send them from where you are.
“I’ve got two children,” says Nick. “It’s interesting being a parent because I grew up in Rotherham, and I couldn’t wait to move away. As soon as I was eighteen I escaped. I couldn’t really see how I could stay living around here and doing what I wanted to do, to get an interesting job and be paid to do it and be able to survive.
“I went to Essex, then London, where it was very obvious I was a northerner. And people let me know about it. When I worked at a design studio in London, people always knew it was me when I answered the phone, and I realised it was an accent thing. I began to realise that’s part of who I am, and it’s something I shouldn’t try to get rid of like a lot of people did, but make the most of. I think more people think like that now.
“I trained as a designer in the late eighties and always thought I’d end up living in London. I was told that if I wanted to do anything creative I had to go to London to do it. But I think Sheffield as a city has always seen the importance of creativity; the music and bands that have come from here shows that. People have always encouraged art here and I think people who want to make a difference or express themselves find Sheffield a good platform.
“My children have got no intention of leaving Sheffield. They want to explore the world and go to other places, but they’re quite happy to be here. I think they have a sense of civic pride that I didn’t have when I was their age.”
At their age, it’ll take Nick’s children some time to catch up with him in the future. And when they get there; moonrocks?
“I’m a visiting lecturer at colleges and art schools and they always ask about what software they should be learning to use to get a job. And I always tell them, just learn about design. Learn about craft. Because the chances are that by the time you are looking for a job, what you end up doing might not have been invented yet. Things are moving so fast.”
As we prepare to leave concrete heaven, to go and stand on platform one at Sheffield Station and look at up at Park Hill and try to spot Nick Bax’s window, we ask Nick if it’s exciting, to come to work every day with no idea what he might be doing ten years from now.
“Ten days,” said Nick, and we said goodbye.
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 4