Living and working in Essex

Top designer David Pocknell hasn't missed out on family life thanks to living in a home that's also his office. Christopher Middleton reports
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The Independent Online

He lives in the middle of the countryside, gets up every day at sunrise, and puts in two or three hours of honest toil before breakfast.

But David Pocknell isn't a farmer, he's a designer, running an international studio employing up to 14 people at any one time. And whereas most firms like his are based in central London, his headquarters are out in the wilds of Essex and have been for the past 30 years.

Try to find them, down narrow lanes from the nearest village, Blackmore End, and you may get lost. But the minute you're there, you know you are in design country. One glance at the elegant glass and clapperboard frontage of Readings Farm, and you know this isn't the residence of some muddy-booted pig breeder.

Inside, pointed white ceilings soar upwards, supported by ancient wooden crossbeams that look like ploughshares; below, furrow-browed designers work quietly in front of plasma screens. Carry on to a snooker and darts room, then to a meeting room with chairs like seashells.

At which point you come up against a blue porthole door that marks the boundary between the Pocknell Design Studio (clients include NatWest, the National Railway Museum, the Flying Scotsman and Seattle Coffee Company) and move into the Pocknell family home.

"It's quite a gentle reminder, don't you think?" asks the boss, fixing a moustache and a pair of mild-mannered specs upon you. "It makes it clear you're at a junction, but hopefully it doesn't tell you too loudly.

"When people first come to work here, I think they find it a little hard to grasp, but after they've been here a while, they get the hang of how it works."

And the way it does work is that if staff want to go into the domestic part of the building, they knock. Here they're likely to find David's wife Sally who, as well as cooking lunch for visiting overseas clients (Stansted is only 10 miles away), boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of post office opening times in the area (she's in charge of mail despatch).

"I was 31 when we came to Readings Farm, and in the early days, it was just me, Sally and one assistant," recalls David. "During the Eighties, we went up to 30 staff, but in recent years it's been 12-14 maximum. There are pros and cons to running a business out of the same building you live in; in the beginning, I used to feel very guilty about sloping off home early when some of my staff were still working. That was when I had to walk across a courtyard to get to the house; today, I only have to walk through a swing door and it doesn't feel so bad.

"Sometimes if people are working late, I'll take a bottle of wine out to them; however, beyond a certain point in the evening, I get a bit irritated if they're still here. I mean, there's impressing the boss - and there's overdoing it!"

Another big bonus of working from home is that David got to see his three sons growing up. "Unlike other dads working long hours running their businesses, I had breakfast every day with the family, and was usually able to pop over for tea.

"I realise how lucky I've been when I have to go to London to my office at the Conran Organisation (where he's executive creative director). I leave home at 7am and get back at 10pm, and can imagine only too well what it would be like having to do that five times a week."

So happy has the job-home juxtaposition proved that two of David's sons, Harry and Will, still work on projects for their dad (one doing IT, the other doing copywriting, or "tone of voice" work). But doesn't it all get a bit claustrophobic, this proximity of work and play?

"Physically, there's very little spillage over from the studio into the house", says David. "As you can see from my filing cabinets (and geometrically dug vegetable patch), I'm an obsessively neat person by nature.

"As for mental crossover, as a designer you're always thinking about your work; it makes no difference if you live next door or an hour's train ride away.

"We couldn't afford the house without the studio, and we couldn't afford the studio without the house. The two make each other financially feasible. That said, we have to keep separate tax accounts for the home and the office. We've got one boiler for the house and one for the studio; the same for electricity."

A well-oiled system. Which makes it the more surprising that after three decades, the Pocknells are about to go and start all over again, just a few miles down the road at Great Sailing.

"I've found a Grade II-star listed, galleried barn, dated 1385," says David, excitedly. "Yes, it will be a wrench leaving, but I'm always looking for a new challenge."

The Pocknells will have another work-live situation, though this time David plans a more self-contained studio - a glass house à la German architect Mies van der Rohe. As for Readings Farm, he's selling it to a property developer who wants to use it as both home and office. "He's not got much choice," says David . "Under the terms of the deeds, the building has to be workplace and residence; that's how we got planning permission."

Will he have made money on the deal? David gulps.

"When we came here, these barns were in ruins. We bought this place for about 1 per cent of what we're selling it for.

"Today, everyone wants to move out of town, and office space like this [3,000sq ft] is going for around £40 per square foot in this part of the world.

"Yes, it's all very busy and buzzy to work in a big metropolis like London or Leeds, but provided you've got access to a big city, you can be just as creative out here as at the urban hub."

Pocknell Design, www.pocknellstudio.com, 01787 463206

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