BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX
Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway run a multi-award winning design company that has touched everything from fashion to interiors. Now they are revolutionising house building, writes David Fearnhead
One day Wayne Hemingway looked out upon the country and didn’t like what he saw. Britain had become boring. Row upon row of identikit homes which lacked any sort of individuality or individual expression were blighting the landscape.
In an op-ed piece he penned for The Independent he coined the term, ‘the Wimpification of Britain’. It was an opinion which struck a chord with many and brought him an unlikely ally when he appeared on BBC2’s flagship current affairs show Newsnight.
Jeremy Paxman was known for his testy interviewing technique. His eviscerating encounters had scarred many a politician’s career. Who can forget the time he asked Michael Howard the same question 12 times in just 90 seconds. Yet on this occasion the nasal sneer of contempt was notable in its absence. He thought the designer from Blackburn was on to something.
“There was a debate with me and some senior people at the top five house-builders. He [Paxman] did what he often does. He sided with somebody in the debate, and he sided with me,” Hemingway explains.
“Within a few weeks of that Hemingway Design had been contacted by the chairman of Wimpey Homes, Peter Johnson, who had some sympathy with what we were saying. He asked if we’d be interested in coming to see a site that he had in Gateshead, which is where he was from.”
“They’d had it for 12 years and had not been able to do anything with it. We went up to see it thinking he just wanted myself and my wife Gerardine to do a few prototype houses.”
To Hemingway’s consternation Wimpey actually wanted them to design all 760 properties on the site: “Gerardine agreed, even though we’d never designed anything but our own family home in terms of housing before. We just went about it like we do with anything. We went out, researched it and built a team around us.”
With Gerardine leading the design team, Staiths South Bank became a runaway success, and set a new benchmark for what was possible in design-led housing that was priced to appeal to the local community.
“We were in our late thirties, so we were not naive. At that age you start to take to things in your stride. We knew what we had to do to deliver it and we’ve always had the philosophy that if a job is worth doing it’s worth doing well.”
“We’ve also got a pretty good understanding of what is good and what is not good. I don’t think we had any doubt it was going to be great. The only thing that was going to stand in our way was if the developer, Wimpey, got cold feet on the bravery that it would need from their side to deliver something that was a long way from the norm of what they usually delivered.”
“It probably is a career highlight of what myself and Gerardine’s generation of Hemingways have achieved.”
The business has now become generational with daughter Tilly and son Jack, now in their thirties, who are both partners at Hemingway Design.
Though the business is now based not far from Wembley Stadium, Blackburn Rovers’ supporter Hemingway has never shied away from his origins. There has been no attempt to lose the accent, or to ever pretend he was anything other than what he is. It’s an authenticity which has brought him many fans, and he’s often cited amongst young northern design students as an inspiration. Wayne Hemingway was brought up in Blackburn. A town he’s still holds a lot of affection for.
“I owe Blackburn quite a lot,” he says. “When me and my mum came to Blackburn we had nothing. We lived in Queen’s Park flats, which have been demolished now. I passed my eleven-plus and was lucky enough to get a full-scholarship to QEGS – which was a great school.
“Blackburn also gave me a lot in terms of being able to see David Bowie in 1973 and then the Sex Pistols at the Lodestar in 1976. All these things were pivotal in my development.”
“I just had an amazing young life. I can’t imagine being brought up anywhere else and having more fun or being more cultural.”
“I know it doesn’t sound like Blackburn today, but we used to go out six nights a week to different nightclubs in the area. These were supercool with nationally famous DJs playing at them. We saw bands that were part of music history – The Ramones, Motorhead and Blondie, I could just go on and on forever. All these bands played Blackburn, and played some of their first gigs there.”
“For northern soul, funk, disco, punk, new romantics – everything that happened, happened in a big way in Blackburn. It was a pretty special time,” recalls Hemingway, who met his wife at Angels Nightclub in Burnley back in 1981. Thirty seven years later they are still together, running Hemingway Design, both having been awarded an MBE. Their latest project is Green Hills in Blackburn, which is changing the perception on what is possible with design-led new housing – it is a project that reflects a true love for the town.”
“We work hard on everything we do, but you’re going to work extra hard if you love a place. That’s why on Green Hills we’ve tried as much as possible to work locally,” Hemingway adds.
For the build they’ve partnered up with local builders Kingswood Homes, and their development director Paul Jones. It’s a remarkable site, where every house is treated as an individual home. Care has been taken to ensure this is not the profit-led box-bashing so despised by Hemingway.
Here windows are placed to where affords the best light and view, houses are even individually orientated along the row in order to face the most pleasing aspect of the surrounding countryside. It’s as much an engineering feat as it is a love letter to the future of the residents. Of the first 60 houses released, 41 are completely individual.
“They do feel as if they’ve had care and love put into them and not just in terms of the design. There is something uplifting when you get a set of builders who are quite clearly doing more than just turning up for work. There is a camaraderie on that site of Lancastrians who are working for a Lancashire company.
“Kingswood are putting a lot of love into this and a lot of bravery. But the sheer love that Paul and his team are putting into this, and when you see there is a landowner, the Feildens, who are respecting that their DNA comes out of Blackburn and they’ve chosen to work with a young developer like Paul and his team, that’s what makes me really proud.”