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Meet Laura Wellington | Part 1

Laura Wellington is the Co-founder & Director of The Wunderkind Group; responsible for Duke Studios, Sheaf Street & Duke Makes, and In Good Company and has made many things happen in the City.


Since its foundation in 2011, Duke Studios has proved to be a vital resource for creatives in the city, providing both a coworking haven and a community hub for its residents and the surrounding area.

Recently, we caught up with Laura Wellington, Co-Founder of The Wunderkind Group. We talked about everything – from street art to belt buckles – as well as her plans for the future (there’s plenty of them to talk about).

For us, this has been one of the most exciting tenant features yet, and we’re so glad to be able to share it with you.

King & Co.: To kick us off: Who is Laura Wellington? Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Laura: That’s a big question!

I’m the Co-founder & Director of four companies: Duke Studios, Duke Makes, Sheaf Street and In Good Company. I have my own design company (that’s also called Laura Wellington), and I’m always busy in my own time making products.

 

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Plus, I’m the owner of two nightmare dogs, and I’m also an interior designer.

 

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King & Co.: What prompted you to found Duke Studios, in the beginning?

Laura:: Basically? We scratched our own itch.

In the beginning, I was a lighting designer, and my partner, James, is a photographer. When we started up, we couldn’t find studio space that benefitted us both – this [Duke] type of space didn’t exist in Leeds.

So, when I did my dissertation in 2008, I proposed a hypothetical version of Duke – and our dreams became a reality in 2011. Originally, we started at Munro House, on Duke Street, and grew it from there, before we moved into here (Sheaf Street) in 2015.

When we started Duke, there were creative people, but Leeds’ creative scene wasn’t as established as it is now. Back then, we noticed that a lot of people were complaining about the way things were being done and what was happening. That’s what prompted us to kick-start the Duke revolution. In essence, we could have moved to a city that already had an established creative scene, but, instead, we decided to stay and build the thing that we needed, while also encouraging other creatives to stay in Leeds.

Duke’s mission has always revolved around graduate retention. Whether that’s been through keeping people in the city, by making stuff happen, or finding new ways to bring the community together – we’ve always been huge advocates for Growing Stronger Together.

Ultimately, we were coworking before it was cool. We established a new form of agency that concentrated on everyone working together – without everyone being on our payroll.

 

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King & Co.: So, the “Growing Stronger Together” message is reinforced throughout Duke Studios, and the other businesses?

Laura: Yes, “Growing Stronger Together” is the complete message. We’re a business with purpose – everything we do is about the people we work with, and the community we’re building.

The Duke message has always been “People first, business second”, which is our general life ethos, really. At this point, I’m not sure where the business lines start, and the people lines stop – it’s all blurred into one!

King & Co.: As you’ve already said, the Duke journey began at Munro House, and then you moved here [Sheaf Street]. How did you make Sheaf Street work for what you wanted it to do?

Laura: When we were at Munro House, we had enough space for twenty-eight companies, which was split across coworking, desk rentals, and ten studio spaces.

Then, when we moved here [to Sheaf Street], we instantly doubled the size of the business. Not only did the capacity for coworking increase to accommodate 75 businesses, but we were also able to expand the offerings of the business to include the café/bar, events space and hireable meeting rooms.

The space we had at Munro House was on the first floor of the building – so we didn’t have space to show that it was ours – we had to rely on people getting in the lift and remembering the password for the door. So, when we moved here, we were able to put a front of house on Sheaf Street, too!

It’s great to have a front of house at Sheaf Street. From the minute you walk through the door, it’s all Duke. It’s controlled by ‘us’. We’re giving our visitors the experience we wanted to provide them with at Munro House.

King & Co.: Do you believe the space you provide at Sheaf Street works for everyone who works here?

Laura: At Duke, we’re big advocates of the European model of business – the idea that the building works for you (and not the other way round).

Sheaf Street, when possible, for 20 hours a day – from the café opening at 8am to the events space closing at 4am. Even though our residents don’t technically live here, we want to make sure they can work and play here (if they want to)!

Plus, the building also serves our local community in so many ways. Every day, we see people who come for food, who come to work, who come for events. We recognise all of the communities that have formed between the businesses blur together. So, when you see that, it’s rewarding for us.

Sure, it’s a lot of work – but it’s worth it!

King & Co.: Can you tell us a bit more about Duke Makes?

Laura: Duke Makes has been a fundamental part of Duke from the beginning. At Munro House, we had a workshop, and the laser cutter was one of the first significant bits of kit we bought. The laser cutter helped us build Duke – we used the tools we had to build the spaces, the studios and the signage.

As I’ve already said, I’m a maker, so the workshop was mine, and we built a studio out of the workshop. When we moved to Sheaf Street, there was no room for the workshop. That’s why we branched out to Butterley Street at the end of last year – it’s going to be a dedicated space for our fabrication work – and a permanent home for our #MotherFrickinLaser.

Did you know that Leeds is the only major city in the UK that doesn’t have a fabrication lab? Our local, independent manufacturing has suffered massively as a result of this. Duke Makes is our way of giving back to the city – giving it the fabrication lab it needs and deserves. Plus, we’ll also be benefiting local manufacturing – we’ll be helping to create creative jobs – not take them.

We’re not only doing this for us, though. Leeds is a city that’s screaming out for more creative jobs. When it’s all up and running, Duke Makes will do the same for Leeds as Duke Studios has already done for our creative sector. Basically, we’ll make Duke Makes the front of house for manufacturing – some people say that when we created Duke Studios it felt like we put a front of house for Leeds’ creative scene, which is a massive compliment, and we hope to achieve that with Duke Makes too – an interconnected eco system of makers and manufacturers.

The big plan revolves around people using Duke Makes for micro-manufacturing. If they can develop their prototypes with our equipment, and then go on to mass-manufacture their products in the region, then I’ll be a very happy lady!

I mean, it is all basically about helping the city everything we do is to contribute to making the City better.

 

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King & Co.: You mentioned the ‘European model of business’ earlier – is this something you want to see Duke Makes implement, too?

Laura: The European model of business is ingrained across The Wunderkind Group – it’s the way we work.

Right now, there’s no footfall around Butterley Street – nobody is going down there. But, once City Park is finished, Duke Makes will also have a café, and we’re planning on putting on many activities that go from day to evening.

I suppose I should mention that there is plenty I can’t talk about, too. There is a lot in the pipeline!

King & Co.: There’s an educational opportunity for Duke Makes as well, isn’t there?

Laura: Definitely. When we were in school, we weren’t told that we could do these types of things.

There are hundreds of people running non-traditional businesses, that aren’t corporate and aren’t what you would have been expecting to do at school. Young people – school-aged children – don’t know that, they don’t even know we’re here.

I have a lot of ideas for education as well, but I can’t discuss those either – yet!

King & Co.: Is In Good Company your side hustle?

Laura: In Good Company is a passion project, not a side hustle – my personal making is my side hustle, really!

In Good Company is about me doing my civic work. In the past, I’ve always worked a percentage of my week for free. I’ve sat on civic trust boards, council boards, Leeds 2023 boards, Leeds inspired, etc.

I’ve been trying to make change the traditional way – by turning up at meetings and giving people my thoughts and ideas. A lot of people don’t like my thoughts because I’m not a ‘yes’ person. If I think an idea is terrible, I’ll happily productively tell people, James and I have a process of working through every initial idea by ripping it apart and rebuilding it together to be better – Its an incredible way to work but I’m not sure everyone likes it that way – we have zero ego and belive its better to cocreate, test and adapt.

I’m an independent voice, but, unfortunately, I always felt like I was banging my head against a wall while carrying out my civic work. It didn’t stop me doing it for five years, though!

It all came to a head, really, when we did a big disco (we brought the world’s biggest disco ball to Sheaf Street). I spent a really long time trying to get all the key stakeholders on board and unfortunately a lot of them couldn’t quite wrap their heads around what we were trying to achieve, it was quite hard having given a lot of them my time over the years, so that was when I decided to move away from that work – but it’s my civic duty, it’s ingrained into me. When it all stopped, I felt like a part of me was missing.

In Good Company is to feed my civic brain. It’s:

  • Art In Good Company with Artists – bringing local, national, and international artists to Leeds
  • Art in Good Company with Businesses – talking about the local independent businesses who are based around key pieces of art.
  • Art in Good Company with Developers.

The main point of In Good Company is that I’ve been doing this for many years for free for organisations in the City. As soon as someone says they’re going to pay for something, they believe they’ve got a right to influence the design. With In Good Company, there’s no design by committee, people just have to put some trust in my instincts – I know what I’m doing.

Now, we’re looking for new and exciting ways for people to navigate the city, while also creating new landmarks. Take Graphical House, for example. Back when I proposed the design, some people weren’t fans. We painted it anyway, and now look at it – it’s the most-Instagrammed piece of street art in Leeds.

 

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King & Co.: What’s your big idea for In Good Company?

Laura: I want to turn the South Bank area – including The Calls and Sheaf Street – into a public art gallery.

Currently, Leeds is a twenty-minute city; nobody realises that, if you don’t venture over Leeds Bridge, then you’re missing out on a massive part of the city.

That being said, I feel like the next decade will be pivotal for Leeds’ image. Once City Park is completed, people will have a reason to come down to this area of Leeds. Ideally, it would be nice to take the public art gallery further out than the South Bank, towards the river.
There are so many cool buildings as you go down towards Thwaite Mills, not to mention the number of stunning riverside walks and bridges – but I feel like they are a bit of a hidden gem. We want to take people to the places they wouldn’t usually go, while also showcasing the independent businesses and architecture in those areas.

I feel, to do this, you need to bring internationally-renowned artists to Leeds – but I’m not saying that we’re going to push local artists out. In all likelihood, one in every four artists featured in this project will be local, and then they’ll be shown along with global artists.

The best way to market a city is through its people – it is genuinely ‘people-powered’. Take Graphical House for example, again. We brought Mr Penfold to Leeds from Bristol. He lived and breathed everything Leeds for a week, and took the experience home with him. So now, whenever someone asks him about Leeds, he’ll have nothing but good things to say.

Here in Leeds, culture is our capital. No matter what’s coming, we’ve got time to perfect our image and how we want to be perceived on both the national and international stage.

I hate to sound old, but we [Duke] have been here for ten years, and in that time we’ve witnessed Leeds’ creative scene explode with potential. Unfortunately, some companies have exploited that potential, and appropriated our creative culture. Thankfully, I have faith – I think there’s going to be a revival of people getting fed up, and creative anarchy will ensue.

We can hope!

King & Co.: What’s next (that you can tell us about)? Are there any cool projects coming up?

Laura: Currently, we’re hopefully getting sign-off for three more sites – but I can’t say anything more than that.

There’s also a mini-project in the works – that’s all I can say on that one, too.

Here’s a question for you: Have you noticed that there isn’t any merch of Leeds? I have. One day, I’d like people to be able to buy prints of our work – like Graphical House and the gable-end of 32 The Calls (once it’s completed).

Everywhere I go, I always buy work that’s been created by the designers in that city. So, my house is full of this fantastic work that’s been created by so many people, and I have nothing but positive emotions and memories associated with it all. That’s the experience I want people to take away when they visit Leeds.

King & Co.: We were waiting for you to mention your house! How have you found the time to renovate your house, in addition to everything else?

Laura: I suppose people talk about a work/life balance; for me, it’s about a work/life integration.

As I’ve already said, James and I are partners – we live and work together. The house represents everything we do – including the DJ kitchen island (which the neighbours aren’t fond of).

We’ve recently started working on the outhouse, and I’m really excited to be working with Benjamin Craven (who painted Flote) again! He’s going to design the stencil, and I’m hoping to paint it myself.

The house links back in every way to our work. As I said earlier, I do commercial interior design, but I’ve found that a lot of my clients are scared of colour and don’t want art to feature in their spaces as much as I would like. So, in a way, the house represents what I want to do for clients.

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I also want to demystify everything surrounding house renovations – even if we’re on a break with it at the moment. I want to show that if I can do it, anybody can! I may have been on a product design course once, but it didn’t really teach me practical skills. So, if I can pick up a tool, I’m sure you can too.

I also want it to be a resource for people as well, answering the questions about renovations that you’re a bit scared to ask, like “What’s a CNC?”.

Ultimately, if you want to cut something for your house, you should be able to go to a fabrication lab (like Duke Makes), and make use of our CNC to create something. Anyone can actually do the doing of a house renovation; you’ve just got to believe in your abilities and utilise the school of Google.

King & Co.: Last year, Duke Studios was named as the most ‘Inspiring Space’ as part of Prolific North’s Inspired Spaces North. What did this mean to you and the business?

Laura: It was great for boosting the profile of the business, and putting our names in front of more people. We won five awards in 2019 – more than in any year before – which has been great for our public image.

In all honesty, though, the real achievement last year was the Business Insider front page. Being named as a workspace pioneer was huge for us – the Business Insider audience is typically quite corporate, and we were on the front page with yellow hair and neon jumpers!

Our achievements over the past twelve months have been great for reflection as well. When you think that we built the whole of Duke Studios ourselves, to see it win against people who were whose budgets were probably 10 times ours is really gratifying.

 

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King & Co.: So, we’re going to move onto some quick-fire questions now. First up, what’s your favourite piece of street art that you haven’t been involved with?

Laura: I love JR – bringing him to the city would be monumental for me. He is at the top of my want list!

King & Co.: How do you stay creative?

Laura: How do I stay creative? I just can’t help it.

For context, I worked from home for six months last year (when we started renovating the house). During those six months, I was able to spend a lot of time in my own space, just making and doing. I’ve got a studio in the house, and creating things for it has really helped to reinvigorate my creativity.

The house has also been a great confidence booster. Before we started the renovations, I don’t think I had any faith in my design work – client restrictions prevent you from feeling fulfilled by your work – and the house just lets me be free.

 

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I just want to do everything, which is probably half the problem. How do you have a personal brand that truly reflects everything about you? To me, making jewellery is just as important as sitting on public panels. It’s a tough nut – but I’m hoping to crack it in the next few months.

King & Co.: Who has been the most exciting artist to work with, so far?

Laura: You’re not allowed to ask me that question – I can’t have favourites!

Let’s work across the board – it’s a hard question!

I have always been a massive fan of Mr Penfold – I’d been watching his work for a long time before we managed to bring him on board for Graphical House.

Then, I watched Ben (Craven) and Jenny (Beard) grow as they came out of university. To see them go from where they were a few years ago to where they are now has been really special for me to see.

 

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And then, there’s Anthony Burrill.

I’ve always been a bit of a flier, so I messaged him on a whim one day, not expecting anything to come of it. That development (the gable-end of 32 The Calls) is going to be huge. It’s the perfect story for him too – he studied here, he still has family in the North – when we did the recce last year, he remarked that it felt like a homecoming. This project is as just as big of a deal for him as it is for us – which is a really lovely feeling.

 

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I’m so excited for that project to come together – it’ll be the largest piece of public art he’s ever completed – and it’s going to look amazing.

King & Co.: Thanks a lot, Laura!