From bamboo sculptures to bespoke pub snacks - the latest project from Oh OK Ltd is enticing creatives into NOMA

Have you ever wondered what lies just behind the Printworks? Probably not. Venturing beyond all that conspicuous neon isn’t something that would occur to most people - unless they live or work there. Yet it’s an area with massive historical importance: where England’s first balloonist James Sadler made an ascent in 1785, accompanied by a cat (he landed in Radcliffe); where the original Co-operative was based almost a century later; and where Arkwright launched his revolutionary mill. It is also where Tina Turner and Jimi Hendrix played in New Century Hall during the sixties.

It’s an area with a great architectural legacy, where Edwardian Baroque rubs shoulders with modernist towers and developments like 1 Angel Square - complete with its sculptural ‘earth tubes’ out front - showcase some of this century’s most innovative design. 

This is NOMA, a place that its marketing manager Nicky Moore describes as ‘the last jigsaw piece in Manchester’s regeneration.’ In the manner of Soho, NOMA was coined from the words ‘North Manchester’ and marked the start of a lengthy redevelopment scheme managed by Hermes Investment Management and the Co-op - beginning in 2010 with construction on 1 Angel Square, now used to house Co-op employees who once populated the surrounding buildings. Expected to complete by 2020, the scheme will see many of these buildings refurbished and a 20-acre area comprising ‘new homes, offices, hotels, retail and leisure space.’

If NOMA is indeed to be a creative, independent area that buzzes with innovation, then it needs places like PLANT

For now, one of the main challenges is drawing people to this ‘hidden’ district, and animating its existing public spaces. The NOMA team’s solution? Creativity. Perhaps the area’s most notable project to date is the The Pilcrow Pub, built piece-by-piece by the public in collaboration with professional craftspeople over a series of (invariably sold-out) workshops: a quirky concept resulting in Manchester’s first ‘handmade pub.’ But creativity can also be found woven into the most unexpected places, right down to the building site hoardings written in code.

PLANT is the latest initiative, a neighbourhood design studio run by Oh OK Ltd; the team who worked with NOMA on The Pilcrow Pub. Comprised of Jess Higham (communications), Ben Young (director) and Joe Hartley (design), the trio launched their design consultancy ‘around a shared belief that places work better when everybody is involved with building them'. 

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Launched in April, PLANT boasts facilities for woodwork, ceramics and sewing - with plans to offer jewellery making in the pipeline. Craftspeople are welcome to drop in and use the space for free, although most people come for the regular calendar of events, which now even include yoga and circuit training in the adjoining Sadler’s Yard.

Workshops are naturally PLANT’s staple, often delivered in association with other local organisations. Most recently, the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair held a weekend of maker-designer sessions there - spanning leather embossing to metal engraving and cotton braiding - while the team’s commission for Manchester International Festival saw them work with both MMU students and public to create original seating for its Albert Square hub. 

Upcoming events include screen printing with local artist Nell Smith and a Korean-themed afternoon with Grizedale Arts and Castlefield Gallery; promising the likes of bamboo sculpting with three master craftspeople and tastings from unconventional chef Sam Buckley (whose Stockport restaurant Where the Light Gets In continues to get critics in an excited tither).

Oh, and they’re all completely free.

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NOMA is expected to complete by 2020
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Sadler's Yard jam

As well as exhibitions, PLANT also put on the annual Sadler’s Yard Summer Jam (coming up this weekend) and were busy constructing the festival stage during my visit. In short, they’re a busy bunch. 

“We feel like it’s important to have regular events, particularly at weekends,” Higham tells me. “We get a lot of people from the Co-op and the nearby Green Quarter, but many people still don’t know about NOMA. PLANT is all about creating a community, while raising awareness of the area.”

PLANT’s next step - and the brainchild of Young - is to open a small vegan coffee stall selling single origin filter coffee. He knows his stuff, having once been an espresso machine salesman before owning an art gallery-coffee shop in the Northern Quarter. “It was 2009-10, before the coffee fever really took off, and was just a temporary project I launched with a friend. We ended up giving a lot of our equipment to North Tea Power. But I’ve always enjoyed coffee so it’ll be nice to get back to it.” 

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It’s a good idea. PLANT is accessed round the back of the building, from Dantzic Street, and can first appear a little bewildering if you’re not familiar with carpentry and a toolbox - a forward-facing coffee counter will no doubt encourage people in (especially with plans to eventually offer some freshly-baked treats from their friends at Blawd). It will come hand-in-hand with a small design shop, selling pieces made at PLANT that have been left behind, with all proceeds going to local charities.

PLANT is situated on the ground floor of Redfern, a building that’s otherwise unoccupied and earmarked for development. As such, it’s currently destined to be an eighteen-month project, though both NOMA’s Nicky Moore and the PLANT crew are hopeful it’ll merit a longer stay.

So do I. If NOMA is indeed to be a creative, independent area that buzzes with innovation, then it needs places like PLANT. I for one am looking forward to see what this unusual space comes up with next.

PLANT, Redfern Building, NOMA, is open Tues-Sat (9am-6pm)