Cult Shop: the irreverent genius of House of Voltaire
In 2010, Studio Voltaire, the not-for-profit exhibition and studio space in Clapham, south London, opened a fundraising festive pop-up shop. A success from the outset, it saw a raft of celebrated artists contribute not just special prints but limited-edition tree decorations, tea towels, blankets, T-shirts and quirky, irreverent knick-knacks. Queues went around the block.
The studio had been producing artist editions to raise funds for its artistic programme since 2006, but the pop-up set a new tone. “We wanted to have some fun with the name, so it was initially slightly ironic to make it sound like a fancy fashion house,” says Studio Voltaire director Joe Scotland of the shop’s irreverent moniker. “I don’t think we expected House of Voltaire to take off as much, or that people working in fashion and design would be quite as engaged.”
House of Voltaire has been hosting regular pop-ups and selling online ever since – the shop now generates 30 per cent of Studio Voltaire’s annual income, and next month sees the opening of its first permanent premises. Studio Voltaire’s entire space has been completely remodelled by architects Matheson Whiteley to accommodate the shop and 40 artist studios. Seven of the studios will be designated for artists supported by The Loewe Foundation, and there is a huge exhibition space, a café, and a courtyard garden designed by Turner Prize nominee Anthea Hamilton.
The shop’s contemporary classic aesthetic has grown from that first pop-up – midcentury and workshop in feel, with pared-back oak furniture, hand-painted signage and artists’ cashmere blankets hanging on the walls. “We took a lot of influence from the Bloomsbury Group’s Omega Workshops and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop,” says Scotland. Items for sale change constantly but always include a colourful, unexpected and playful array of unique artworks and print editions, alongside artist-designed clothing, homewares and objects. You might find a canvas tote designed by Jeremy Deller (£30), salt-and-pepper shakers by Olaf Breuning (£190), a scalloped gilt sconce by James Rigler (£1,000) or washing-up gloves by Wilma Johnson (£85).
“House of Voltaire doesn’t follow suit. They’re unique,” says artist Scott King, whose contributions have included sweatshirts (£75) with “Nostalgia Is a Disease” emblazoned across them. New commissions for the launch include pieces by Kaye Donachie, France-Lise McGurn, Jonas Wood, Phyllida Barlow and Rachel Whiteread, together with new homeware ranges by designers John Booth, James Shaw and Jochen Holz. “We have collaborated with more than 250 artists and designers over the years, so there is much on offer,” says Scotland.
Scotland also regularly pairs artists and fashion designers to create House of Voltaire collections; the first was a 2008 collaboration between feminist collage artist Linder and the late designer Richard Nicoll. Sacai, Chloé, Simone Rocha, Roksanda, BLESS and Matty Bovan have subsequently taken part. “Joe is very good at creative matchmaking,” says Linder, who has designed everything from porcelain pots and prints to tablecloths and drinking glasses. “We’re both mutually excited by the infinite possibilities of questioning and queering the home. Every edition is an adventure into the unknown.”
But, at its heart, House of Voltaire remains more than just a fun endeavour; its mix of humour, beauty and creativity funds one of the most interesting independent art institutions in London, a place that “supports artists at a very crucial stage in their career – through their first institutional show, and presenting opportunities they wouldn’t normally have”, says Victoria Siddall, global director of Frieze Art Fairs, who has been the chair of the board of trustees of Studio Voltaire since 2014. Yes, it might just be a £4 magnet or badge by The Neo Naturists or a £8 matchbook by Pablo Bronstein, but it’s one loaded with cultural significance.