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Settling into a new home

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The Museum & Study collection at Central Saint Martins houses the college archive and is the keeper of the institution’s rich history. I have been looking after the archive since 2008, at which point my office was still based in the old Central School building on Southamptom Row. I knew the College was moving to Kings Cross in 2011 but for me it felt incredibly important to have an opportunity to inhabit the old buildings for three years. It gave me a real sense of connection with the amazing people who had worked or studied there during the past century.

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Central School building early 20th century

The Central School of Arts and Crafts was founded in 1896 as an experiment in art education and by 1908 the college had moved into permanent, purpose built premises at the top of Southampton Row – a new boulevard designed to link The Strand with Kings Cross to the north. Back in 1908 the Central School was one of the first organisations to inhabit the newly developed land and we have photographs of the Central School building standing proud amongst the emerging architecture.

Looking back through the archive I can start to piece together what life was like in the early days of the Central School. The college’s first principal, W R Lethaby was an incredibly broad minded educator, championing female students and arguing for design subjects to have the same status as the ‘high arts’ – architecture, sculpture and painting.

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Douglas Scott (designer of the London Bus) teaching Industrial Design in 1955

By the 1960s Lethaby’s philosophies were firmly entrenched in the ethos of the school, which specialised in practical subjects such as Costume and Theatre Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design and Textile Design. Even for an experienced historian it’s hard not to see the past through rose tinted spectacles and from the photographs we have in the archive it looks like the 1960s, 70s and 80s were a lot of fun for staff and students at the Central School. The annual pantomimes, the parties in the car park and of course regular outbursts of student protest.

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Party in the car park, Southampton Row, 1980s
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Student protest, 1970s

In 1980s the Central School joined forces with St Martins School of Art to form Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The Sculpture and Graphic Design courses went first, followed by the complete merger of the Colleges in 1989. The merger caused some anxiety but ultimately breathed new life into the College. These were fertile years for CSM with the Fashion department going from strength to strength.

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Joint Sculpture exhibition 1986

There was a lot of sadness when we moved to Kings Cross in 2011. Many of my colleagues on the teaching staff had been students at the Central School or St Martins and it felt a real wrench to be leaving the old buildings behind. As the Head of Museum I was one of the last people to leave the old buildings on Southampton Row. By the end there was eerie silence in the corridors... just me and the removal men.

Then, as in 1908, the College was one of the first organisations to inhabit a new development and I have memories of that first winter traipsing to work through the rubble and scaffolding to a place where there wasn’t a coffee shop or a cash point. But the building was amazing and it was great to have all our staff and students housed under one roof rather than spread over multiple sites.

Now things couldn’t be more different – there are lots of wonderful places to eat and the public spaces of Granary and Cubit Squares are home to all manner of festivals and events. And it’s interesting to see how the presence of a major art school influences the atmosphere of the surrounding area. Our degree shows spill out into public spaces, our staff and students work with local businesses and community groups and there is often someone performing out in Granary Square.

It definitely feels like Kings Cross is home now.


Article by Judy Willcocks