Arts centre grows from bleak Edinburgh office block

Card makers Urbantwist use a laser cutting process to make specialist cards and artworks at the Art Complex. Picture: Complimentary

Card makers Urbantwist use a laser cutting process to make specialist cards and artworks at the Art Complex. Picture: Complimentary

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ARTISTS’ studios sit shoulder-to-shoulder with fashion, interior design and textiles ventures in the converted seventies block, reports Claire Smith

FROM the outside, the Seventies office block is one of the ugliest buildings in Edinburgh.

But appearances are deceptive, and if the capital has a Design Quarter this former NHS office building in London road could be it.

Inside the warren of converted office space renamed Art’s Complex you’ll find artists’ studios alongside up-and-coming businesses specialising in fashion, crafts, textiles and interior design.

On floor three mural artist Chris Rutherford is creating a massive wall painting celebrating Rangers. “It is about the passion of a goal,” he says.

The 48ft mural has been commissioned for a five-figure sum by The Bristol Bar in Glasgow. As well as famous supporters and players, the crowd incorporates portraits of pub regulars.

“I keep getting them to go out and dance in the street to pretend a goal has been scored,” says the artist.

Rutherford is one of a new generation of commercially- minded artists.

Dressed as a ringmaster, he created a giant Christmas mural in John Lewis this winter – working inside the department store windows. He says Art’s Complex is a bit like “an art college without teachers”.

I’m given a tour by business manager Dale Gibson, who set up the project five years ago with sculptor Derek Gray.

“Derek had been looking for years for a studio and decided to get a block of studios. I was looking at redeveloping the Odeon and was going to make artist’s studios part of the plan. When that deal collapsed we started looking for other buildings.”

Art’s Complex was formerly an NHS office and the headquarters of the Registers of Scotland. It was used for anti terrorism training – which is why you’ll sometimes find scorch marks on the corridors.

Inside, it is surprisingly bright and spacious and has been converted into flexible spaces which can be expanded when a business gets bigger.

The building will eventually be demolished but the current owners have been happy to rent to the Art’s Complex in the meantime. The project is self-financed – paid by the artists’ rents. There are currently 350 people working in 99,000 square feet and there are 145 people on the waiting list.

Eliza Moody came in 2011 to make hand-printed wallpaper. “It’s great here. I was working at home but wanted to move out. When you are working in an office you get the social side of things. Here it is a bit like that but with less politics.”

She is working on a range called Secret Music, inspired by the workings of an old organ she found at Sam Burns junkyard in East Lothian. Her company, Moody Monday, has been invited to exhibit at the London Design Festival.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Katy Carmichael are hard at work at Highland Angel jewellery. Specialising in personalised and engraved wedding jewellery in silver and pearls, the company was recently asked to design a set of cufflinks for presenters and performers at The Brit Awards.

Highland Angel now employs six people and has been expanded to become a “six-window” office and workshop space.

On the same floor, in a one- window studio stuffed with comic books and sci fi paraphenalia, is Will Phoenix, who makes engraved copper-fronted scrapbooks and who has made props for TV and major feature films.

Phoenix, who sells his work online and at specialist conventions for between £30 and £120, says: “The arts and crafts scene in Scotland is a different kettle of fish than it is down south.” But he says: “The internet has changed everything. You find your niche and perfect it.”

Over at UrbanTwist, Cameron Pitcairn and Glenn Hogg are thinking big. Their speciality is laser-cut greetings cards and artworks with cut-out designs featuring words, simple images and well-known buildings. Pitcairn is the designer, Hogg the engineer. They have just got a commission to create artworks for the Mercure hotel chain and are in negotiation with John Lewis.

On the fifth floor Lubi Lykan has a bright yellow and burgundy space full of pot plants, sewing machines and bolts of tweed. The slovakian-born designer, who is married to a Scot, specialises in embroidered Harris tweed couture, with every design unique.

She is one of the go-to names for bright silk shorts and trousers for boxers and kick-boxers, decorated with the names of champions and would-be champions.“I never thought I would be doing something like that,” says Lykan.

Also working in the fashion world is Jyoti Sigouin, whose walls are decorated with swatches of colour and whose bookshelves are piled with books of fashion, architecture and design.

Sigouin sells her ideas to high street fashion houses such as Monsoon. She’s been here four years.

“It’s great here and people work together. I get my website done by another company which has an office here.”

As we walk around the building we pass a life drawing class and peek into spaces used by a pottery, a storyteller, a soap- maker, a burlesque dance group and a disability arts group.

As Dale Gibson shows us out he greets a group of mime artists just back from working in Thailand.“When you look at the building from the outside it is so Seventies and monolithic. But once you get inside there is so much going on,” he says.

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