Camille Walala on bringing joy to the city
WORDS BY CHRISTINA DEAN
The East London-based designer known for her bold geometric patterns and playful installations took on her biggest project yet during lockdown. Except it wasn’t quite real.
The first national lockdown was a chance for Camille Walala to slow down, to not work so much and to not feel guilty about it. She used that time to reimagine what Oxford Street could be like, creating a speculative vision of the thoroughfare of tomorrow - totally pedestrianised, filled with plants and colourful bold structures, including street furniture and a huge fountain. And it’s to be enjoyed in that most 2020 of ways; virtually.
Speaking to her as we emerged from lockdown 2.0, she explains how lockdown 1.0 provided the inspiration for the project, “we just really enjoyed the city when there was no one around and the fact that you could actually hear birds. I went to Central London, normally I really don't go, especially on a bike, so it was really just the freedom of engaging with your city. I think it was really exciting to go on Oxford Street and there was no one there. I thought it was such a shame that there's not enough space in the city for the public. Instead of just using the city to go to work and spend your money in some crap shops it would be really nice to bring more public art and space where people can actually just relax and enjoy the city”.
The fountain is the centrepiece of the project and though the whole thing is very much a projection of the future, for this element Walala drew on the past. “I love fountains in general, this old ancient quality like the agora in Greece. My dad is an architect and he knows so much more about history than me, he was saying to me that apparently back in Greece all of these buildings were really colourful as well,” she says. “Now we just see ruins but at the time it was really full of colour and it was engaging and bringing people together, so I was almost going back to this culture and bringing it back to London.”
The pedestrianisation of Oxford Street has been a topic of discussion for years - there was even a time in the not so recent past when Walala, along with other design studios, was contacted about responding to a brief on it though it ultimately went nowhere. Could her 2020 vision ever become a reality? “I don't know if it could happen, I mean the fountain was really enormous. It would be amazing to have something even if it's not like that,” she says.
“You might as well go and make art and something that probably won't happen but you might as well dream something like this, so we went to the studio and I worked with my team and it was great to push it. How far can we go in terms of creativity and to imagine people actually sitting around and enjoying the space. And you never know, sometimes when you just dream big something happens.”
Creating a sense of joy has always been at the heart of Walala’s work. She uses colour, pattern and structure to provide a place where people can interact and enjoy themselves, which in turn fosters a sense of community in public spaces. This is best exemplified through the landmark projects she’s created for London Design Festival.
In 2017 she did Villa Walala, essentially a big bouncy castle plonked into the middle of Broadgate. “When I did the big inflatable in the city...it was just quite mad to see how people actually use the space, like normally no one is coming in this area and we just created this really big inflatable sitting space and people were coming, having picnics, doing hula hoops, it was becoming like a central point where people went and gathered together,” she says.
For the 2019 edition of LDF, she transformed South Molton Street into Walala Lounge, installing a series of patterned benches and planters along the street. “At the time I did these benches it was a pedestrian street but there was nowhere to sit. It’s nice, there's no cars and it’s a relaxing street in the middle of crazy Oxford Street, so I was like ‘actually do you know what? Let's do some benches, a bit of public art and maybe people are going to engage’ and I think that's what happened,” she says. “It was really nice to see different people, younger to older, sitting on the benches, like an old lady having her sandwiches and workers were sitting with her. It was a space where people can actually communicate a bit more.”
This year (though not for LDF) she took on another street, High Road Leyton, and created Walala Parade, painting murals on a 150m long section of shop fronts. “It was quite simple but I just wanted to create a unity in the street. The pattern is a bit of a signature work but instead of on a flat floor or flat wall it was really interesting to take into consideration the restriction of the windows and the doors,” she explains. “Leyton was really nice because it was community-based and I’ve never really done anything like this before. I think this one in terms of bringing community together was really exciting and just to make them proud of where they live and I love that for this.”
The idea that places can be 'as emotionally enriching as they are practically functional', a notion that Walala expressed in her Letter to London (a companion piece to the Oxford Street project), is something she has tried to translate throughout all her work. She examines the relationship between mental health and urban environments by “creating a space where people have the opportunity to be together and communicate”. And doing something joyful and positive often starts with a simple concept.
The best example of this is the Dream Come True building in Old Street, which Walala did in 2015. It’s so named because it was the culmination of her dream to paint an entire building in the city and it’s what made her famous. “I just wanted to create a really dynamic design where you can have some excitement on the facade. The building was really ugly, usually the uglier the better, because you just need to give them a second life where they are going to be noticed instead of destroying it. I think giving something back by painting and pattern it's quite powerful if you just apply it right,” she says.
"It was a really playful design and it was just really nice when people say ‘this makes me smile every time I see this building, it made my commute to work so much more enjoyable’. It was just quite amazing to have all of this feedback from people. It was almost eye-opening to see that's what I want to push, to bring joy in the public space.”
The mural, which is still there, wasn’t supposed to last this long. The owners of the building were approached by a company who wanted to advertise there, offering £10, 000 for a banner on the facade. Though a bit of advertising did eventually go up, Walala’s piece has stayed put all this time, providing excellent advertising for herself and her work.
Typically with murals and street art there’s never any guarantee of the permanence of the work, though this is something Walala is accepting of. “I'm not too precious about it because that's my kind of background. When I started after university I used to be doing street art. We used to paint these massive patterns and I used to do this big collage of women around 2009 and I used to go and paste them up on the street. I would spend quite a bit of time painting them and it would disappear the next day. Obviously it's illegal so fair enough, they're not always staying for long but sometimes I literally paint for a week or two and then I go there in the morning so I can take a picture in the daylight and they were gone so I'm used to it," she says. Though she loves doing murals she’s now looking for something more lasting, “ultimately to have something more permanent and something which is also useful or can be used by the people, I think that would be amazing.”
Does that mean working on a building from scratch? “I love working with architecture, I love working with volume and I think it's great to bring a second life to buildings especially when they’re ugly but I always get excited when I see a bit of interesting volume or some repetition. Like the one in New York [Walala x Industry City for NYCxDESIGN in 2018], the building was really flat with the same style windows. It was quite simple and I just saw a nice repeat pattern that would work nicely with this building so I like the challenge, I like to come up with a design responding to the building. But more and more I'm starting to be in communication with architects, to work with developers and architects to come up with some concepts with them, I'm really excited to do that,” she says.
"I’d like to work with tiles, to work with pattern but applying it in a different way, not always painting. To bring a bit more longevity into the project as well. I like both but I can't wait to have something a bit more timeless. You know sometimes when you go to a tunnel and you see a really dusty tile pattern from the 70s and now you still love it even if it is fifty years old. I think I would like to be able to create something like this.”
Seeing as she’s already taken on Oxford Street, where else in London has she got her patterned eye on? “A tube station would be really nice,” she says. So Sadiq Khan, if you’re reading this...
Check out Camille Walala's Oxford Street project and Letter to London here.