Setting Out Your Stall

How the UK’s premier architectural firm Foster + Partners set their sights on the market stall.

Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

The historic market stall has been reinvented by leading British architects Foster+Partners for Old Spitalfields Market. We spoke to the architects behind the new stalls to discuss the design process, inspirations and craftsmanship involved.

The project focused on balance – Foster + Partners wanted to challenge the existing market layout and improve the functionality and appearance of the stalls, while being flexible enough to cater to individual retailers. Importantly, they wanted to maintain the essence of Old Spitalfields Market, and the qualities that make it a unique and lively public space. The result is a beautifully imagined, flexible background setting for a variety of market traders and their goods, which now take centre stage.

Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Designed as modular objects, the new stalls can be orientated and combined to suit different product displays.

Tell us about the inspiration behind the market stall design?
“Our brief was to raise the bar for both retailers and customers by creating a better display framework and improving the overall experience of the market. The stalls had to be flexible and versatile so that they could display a wide variety of merchandise in a range of layouts.

“Designed as modular objects, the new stalls can be orientated and combined to suit different product displays. From over-the-counter to u-shaped configurations, with multiple racks and shelving, they are customisable by each retailer and set up for their individual needs.”

The stalls also incorporate storage at the base, also integrating electrical connections and lighting. In the evenings, they can be easily folded up and stored elsewhere if the space is required for events, or used as tables for informal drinks.

What does London’s historic East End of Spitalfields mean to Foster + Partners?
The East End is such a unique and exciting part of our city. It marks a point of confluence, where the life and energy of East London meets the more structured order of the city and creates this fantastic vitality.

Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

How did the architecture of Spitalfields influence the design?
We were fascinated by the original architecture of the old market. We began by investigating the materials and manufacturing processes, looking at the tools which were used to design and build at the time. Objects such as the timber and brass hinged rulers, were very appealing. The craftsmanship, durability and use of materials, meant these items were long lasting and aged wonderfully. These were qualities that we wanted in the new stalls.

What materials are the market stalls made from?
We wanted to use materials that will age well, gradually acquiring a rich patina over the years. We chose ash timber, which has a light appearance which will darken over time, while the hinge details, trims, hanging rail and accessories are made in brass, which develops a beautiful dark finish as the metal oxidises over time. Ash timber is also known for its strength and lightless make it ideal for portable, hard-wearing use in a market stall.

Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Where are they made?
The stalls have been manufactured by Benchmark, with whom we have worked on several projects previously. They have a deep appreciation of materials and manufacturing processes, which was a great asset throughout the design process. It was a very rewarding process to work with their craftspeople at their workshops in Kintbury, Berkshire, testing and refining the designs.

What are Foster + Partners’ favourite pieces of architecture in the Spitalfields area?
There are so many great buildings in the area, from the wonderful Christ Church by Hawksmoor to the magnificent houses of Fournier Street. But, to us the market is actually the most powerful. It is a functioning social place – always active and constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of the area around it.

What makes the activity of shopping at a market so unique?
It is the best way to buy because it is so personal. You are engaging directly with a trader, making decisions on the spot and trusting your own judgement. We think everything you buy like that – from food to vintage clothes – is exciting, no one ever went away and celebrated something they put in a shopping trolley!

Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

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