Julio Thomas: Designer on a Mission

“Who is to blame in one country? Never can get to the one; Dealin’ in multiplication; And they still can’t feed everyone…

“Oh no, we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue; And then we’ll take it higher…”

Brixton. Much maligned in recent years for playing home to the knife-wielding “hoodies” of anti-Cameron London, now the latest yuppie fad, is just one of those places. Rich in a history that most people don’t give it credit for, it has had a cyclical journey, through middle-class suburb, through Windrush immigration and, arguably, back again.

But none of that really explains its pull. There is a reason why so many different communities have been conceived in Brixton and there is also a reason why so many of those who leave end up, eventually, boomeranging back into its folds.

It is an amalgam of many of London’s best, worst and most interesting qualities… Many of which are summed up in Eddy Grant’s ode to one of its most famous streets. Grant laments the existence of a microcosm in which some of the hardest workers are also the rejected and the dispossessed. And he criticises the failure of a government to do anything about it. Electric Avenue is an emblem of something different. As the first market street to have electricity, it represents light, hope and progress.

Brixton is the original source of the London “melting pot” society, thanks to post-war immigration. So many of our current influences stem back to SW9.

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People have been up in arms about its re-gentrification. The appearance of new deli: Champagne and Fromage, has occasioned a vicious (and completely ridiculous) counter-attack. And although calling for the “yuppie infidels” to “choke on their rancid fizz and vintage death cheese” is more than faintly stupid, it isn’t entirely unreasonable to consider the consequences of Brixton’s transmutation.

What will happen to the communities that have helped to shape it into it’s current, celebrated form?

Enter Julio Thomas stage right.

Julio Thomas BrixtonJulio is the Jamaican, the Brit, the working class, the middle class, the graduate, the businessman and the grafter rolled tightly into one, very eloquent package.

He is the man that slips fluidly from eulogising “artistry in architecture” into an amusing tribute to a large, African woman in a “batty rider”. He is the tie between so many worlds.

He recognises that we owe it to Brixton and similar areas, places that have supplied London with some of the best parts of its culture, not to fob people off with platitudes and promises. With dull council houses and deportation.

The Charming Mr Thomas

Julio is an architect who I met while he was training at the Glasgow School of Art. He was a friend of a friend, and a heart-throb among my flatmates (I don’t think I’ve actually ever told him that – well Julio, you know now).

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But it was only recently I discovered that he is so much more. Since graduating, he’s turned his hand to almost everything in the design world – products, furniture, graphics and even fine art. In that capacity alone, I thought he’d make a good subject for our “entrepreneurs” section.

It is Julio’s idealism, though, and his spirited identification with the community in which he lives, that made him one of our most interesting interviews to date.

We went for lunch in Brixton village. I expected a chat. I got a re-education.

Rock Down to Electric Avenue

I love Brixton of a Saturday night – bit of 90s hip hop at Plan B, followed by late night KFC, winning – but I’ve never felt particularly attached to it. Julio knows literally everybody. In one afternoon with him, we met waiters, chefs, owners of vintage stores, purveyors of the vegan way of life, market traders. He doesn’t just know them, he knows their mothers, their stories, their plans for next weekend. In Brixton, he is thoroughly invested.

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“You have to know your community, in order to be able to serve it,” he says.

And with that investment comes the fire and anger which fuel his current projects. When it comes to the young and the immigrant population of Brixton, he doesn’t mince his words.

“I wanna swear. It makes me wanna swear. It gets me angry that a society can be this hostile to the people that it needs to defend. You have to defend the young because that is the lifeblood of this whole nation”, he proclaims.

“Words fail me,” he says. Except that they clearly don’t. Julio goes on to elegantly verbalise the issues in which most of us have found ourselves at one time or another enmeshed.

“Young people like us are the generative power behind every ounce of progress. It is our energy that pushes through change. Forcing young people into dead-end office jobs turns that energy into commerce and monetises it, but it also drains it and removes its ability to take society further.”

“I have friends who are just getting out of university. These guys don’t want to consign themselves to 50 years in a corporate career – that’s like a life sentence, two life sentences! So they’re thinking ‘where can I go?’, ‘what can I do before the burden of responsibility hits me?’”

“They should be looking at it the other way around. They should be up for getting out into society, because society should afford them the patience and the time they need to develop and to become good architects, designers, good road sweeps, whatever.”

Julio’s Contribution

Design idealists are a dime a dozen. Everyone has some big, often unfeasible idea, founded on art rather than any latent need…The Shard, anyone?

Julio is certainly the romantic kind of designer. His furniture is fun, quirky and would be at home in any modern, (dare I say it) hipster dwelling. But behind almost everything he does, he is driven by a fierce desire to solve problems.

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He is currently trying to address a particular aspect of the housing crisis – namely, that most people, especially us youngsters, won’t ever be able to afford one!

His latest project is an affordable housing concept. A way of mass-producing interesting, design-led houses that are inspired by the sort of spaces that young people need – particularly social ones. Essentially it’s flat-pack furniture on a much bigger scale.

“The idea is that they will consist of ten panels, forming a weather-tight structure. They can be erected in a day, a whole street in a few days. Relatively uniform on the outside, but with flexible, multi-purpose interiors,” he explains.

I won’t say too much more about it – Julio is yet to patent the concept, he’s already locked in an interesting bidding battle with potential investors and the idea is, after a lifetime leading up to this point, uniquely, deservedly his.

Who Do You Think You Are?

“I am as much a product of my Jamaican upbringing as I am of the British education system, and of my friends in South London. I am a product of this country,” says Julio.

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As such, he is potently aware of what each of these facets of his existence means to him. As a young, educated guy, he is aware that he and many others in his position have found themselves a little at sea, without any real support.

As the descendant of Jamaican immigrants, he is conscious of the confusingly prevalent lack of hospitality in inner London towards a people that have now been part of its genetic makeup for nearly a century.

“The ‘Go Home’ vans turned up again recently. You know, the ones that try to get people to grass on people who don’t have status to be in this country?”, he asks. Actually no, I hadn’t seen these before. Maybe I just haven’t been looking, which probably speaks volumes.

“They round people up and put them in holding prisons whilst they wait to be sent back to where they came from. The damage that this does, that even seeing these vans on the streets does, is huge. I work within communities that are affected by these vans, and I couldn’t see anyone slacking.”

“Brixton is becoming re-gentrified. Fine. But what happens to the people that don’t fit into that demographic?”

“I don’t know whose side I’m on, but I don’t think I’m on the government’s side on this one,” he concludes.

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Idle Hands

Without sounding like a member of the unofficial Julio fan club, I’ve just got to say a word for his work ethic. The man is always working. And half the time, he’s not even asking to get paid.

If he’s not trying to figure out how to incorporate the Jamaican love of a good party space into his housing project, he’s designing a logo for someone’s restaurant, or light installations for a fashion label. He doesn’t sit still. I’m not convinced he sleeps.

He is an example of exactly the kind of entrepreneurial renaissance that he is asking society to make space for.

“I actually think people were more entrepreneurial way back when”, he says. “People were wheeler-dealers, they were hustlers, all of them! We really had to rub sticks together to make fires back in the day.”

“We’ve become inured to a lifestyle of corporatisation. Everything has been commodified and that breeds a certain type of individual. A complacent one, adverse to any struggle or fight.”

He’s confident, though, that the ability to change this lies with us, the young people of London. And the hotspots for this kind of change, he thinks, are in places like Brixton. Places that play host to the lifeblood youth, places that house the most diverse of London’s cross-sections, places that don’t just pander to the privileged, to those sedated by commodity and consumer culture.

It is here in the Brixton village, among the market stalls, that true grit and real graft are still bountiful. Electric Avenue, still an emblem of hope and the future, not yet extinguished.

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What About Us?

A last word from one visionary to others:

“Work. Learn your trade. Work. Read everything you can get your hands on.”

“You never know when it will all start to make sense – it could be months it could be years.”

“And the work has to be your own. Don’t appropriate the work of others. There is no such thing as having a different spin on someone else’s idea.”

“If you choose to be an entrepreneur, you’re in it for the long run.”

Head to Julio Thomas’s site FORMinVOID for a glimpse of some of his furniture and to find his contact details.

WORDS: Natasha Bird

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