Lifelong Hackney resident Nate, tells ReFramed about his creative practice; building spaces that communicate culture and knowledge and how the businesses he built at 16 still resonate: with him today. 

ReFramed: Bring me back to school days a little bit. When you think about how you got here today, share your reflections with me.

Nate:  Okay, I've had a realisation recently that I have a really big pivoting moment every five years and I'm literally getting towards the end of mine now. It just feels like the time every five years. Since I was about 11, I've always been kind of eager just to find new ground and to explore new interests. When I was 16, I would say that I found my feet within creativity a lot more.

ReFramed:  Yeah, and what do you mean by that?

Nate: I was building my own things, I started my first business at 16 called Untitled Events. My parents were really strict, I wasn't allowed out. For me, it was like, I had to make it work almost. I had Untitled Events as a thing where I'd gone to so many squat raves with my friends, where I saw madnesses and I saw people's fingers get chopped off. There's a lot of mad stuff. It was disgusting and I wasn't allowed to go to these spaces. I was telling my mum I was staying with my friends, so I wasn't allowed, but I also realised that I needed space that I actually felt comfortable in as well. So I just started, I went up to one Uncle on my high street. He had this place called Question Mark Bar, literally 20 minutes from my house, and I was just like, “Yo, I'm trying to go to Uganda to do a charity project, I wanna raise money by doing a club night. But for teenagers, I want it to be safe, I want it to work out. I haven't got a lot of money, got £200, but I'm sure, we'll turn over more than that from the night on the bar, even with no alcohol, we'll make sure it's safe for any people with wristbands to get alcohol. And I’ll sort the security, it'll be good”. I threw the first event and literally 1,500 people turned up on my high street, literally from colleges all around North London.

ReFramed: How did you promote it?

Nate: Facebook, you know the whole posts on the wall  and it was like a fiver. Everyone knew where the money was going, because it was so I could go to Uganda and do this community project I was looking to do and yeah, 1,500 people turned up and I could only fit 250 of them in the club, so yeah, it was crazy. But I guess from there, I had these new doors open, really. It made it super easy so that every time I did put a night on, it just blew up. I was a 16 year old promoter for school ravers basically! I was just making loads of money for that before I went to go to a charity project. But that year, I was doing economics, I was using price elasticity to try and work out how much I could sell, how much money I could make. I made a network of promoters around the different colleges who were sick people known to do bits, to basically sell tickets on the ground and then did some light bits on social media back in the day. And it just blew up. That year I made £10,000. I was 16 and I made £10,000. Yeah, it was mad that I was just so confused, but I just feel like I broke out the matrix day one, like I broke out. I failed college that year, but I went to Uganda. The project was amazing, it was incredible being in Kampala.

I was learning a lot and just had this realisation of my positions within different spaces and how to deliver through them, both socially at home with school and friends and stuff, but also across the Global South in terms of in the real world as someone who wasn't adult yet but knew how to make money and knew how to play around culture. It was just really interesting. I was just super young to be learning all of that. Then me and my friends brought out a clothing brand the next year - well I helped them start it. They came up with the idea first and then we got all of the prints,  then we went to my school and we printed them all on heat presses and then it started bobbing up. I got involved because my brand was doing really well as well and I had lots of sick ideas - the best selling products that we made came from me. So then I joined that and we grew Lightwork as a clothing brand and we got kind of big in the streetwear scene. We were at Crepe City with The Basement lot, really tied in with them in the early days by 2012, 2013, 2014 even. We were going until about 2016 really, but I guess yeah, the other two that I was working with wanted to build a career, so they went to University. One of them got into Leeds and one got into Oxford and it was like, well, what am I going to do? So you kind of let it die almost. I wish I didn't, but I let it die a little bit.

I was going into doing digital marketing and learning about data science and I learned a lot about marketing. I learned a lot about just finding insights, starting from data. That was where I guess I got into strategy insights from data. But yeah, I wish I hadn't left the other stuff because Untitled and Lightwork really were blowing up. And we did bootleg before Sports Banger. We founded a lot of our work off of bootleg and caricature and using that kind of childhood references, mixing it with cartoons and shit to make it interesting. We had this hat that blew up, the LV hat. Because our logo or our name was Lightwork, rather than having LV, we had LW and they just did bits. We had all of these different little things that kind of were blowing up and were really quirky.  I guess through both of those brands, I learned how to work within the stairs of culture and creativity.

ReFramed: That's big man.

Nate: Thank you.

ReFramed:  Right, you just said the whole kind of drive was to create a safe space. And it's very much parallel to what you’re doing now. It's like the red thread of, since you were 16 to how old are you now, 10 years later, 26?

Nate:  Yeah, 26. It's always been a safe space for us, but I don't know. I think it's just more, the ritualistic spaces or focusing on specifically if you know, you know, right? It's safe because when you're in a community or you are in a group of people that are following one ritual or practice, you are contracted into behaving and acting a certain way within it. So as much as it was about creating better spaces or safer spaces, I guess it was more about.

ReFramed: The art of gathering.

Nate:  Yeah and familiarity and actually about communing around things as opposed to saving everyone from the outside world. There's a madness going on inside too.

ReFramed:  So what do you think when you think of these very formative years of communal gathering and creative exploration, creation and also production…What do you think your bigger kind of realisations were when you think of how they're still connected to what you do today?

Nate: I think my best work comes out of a place of hyperfocus. There's a clear intention, there's a clear problem as well and I think it's taught me to make sure that I always have those moving forward because some of the biggest work I've done, like Gaia’s Garden was big but the strategy I did for Footlocker on Raise The Game to help support performance culture around Jordan's brand, was probably a more impactful project. There's like, I think five or six public pitches built around the whole of Europe. One of them is still going with Hoops Fix who have blown up. So some of my brand work is just as impactful, but might not be as grassroots. I think carrying that clear full process of intention and having a clear problem to solve or finding a problem to solve is kind of the red thread. Because for ages, I didn't know how to describe myself. I think when I got into advertising and D&AD I was so happy to find the term creative because it felt so all encompassing. I think it goes to a lot of people these days, but I don't know if it even kind of talks to my practice too though. I think it's more about what you create and how you create then how you define yourself. You know what I mean? 

ReFramed: In terms of being a creative and creativity in general?

Nate:  Yeah, a hundred percent. I don't even know if I'd say I'm a creative by what the industry goes by. Well, maybe in the society creative way, I see myself as more artistic there, it's different, but maybe industrially in the creative industries, I don't know if I fit into a lot of what that role means. Yeah, I do ideate and stuff, but it's always born of some insights or born of something else. 

ReFramed: When do you feel like you might feel most creative? Do you feel like there's certain moments, obviously there's things that you apply yourself to, that you feel maybe are more creative than others, but.

Nate: I feel more creative when I find a will, a problem or perspective on something. My perspective is everything, I think if you don't have that, then you don't really have much. I think I like to draw my perspective out of the real world so that I can always come back to it with these factual modes of thinking that you can just bounce off of. I think that's when I’m most creative. 

ReFramed: I feel you because then it opens up a whole door of curiosity where you're like, oh wow, I didn't really realise this problem and then you start to explore it and start to think of ideas around it or what it could look like.

Nate: Yeah, what kind of things do you need to be creating around it? What does it look like to build? It's sick. I think the only other thing that makes me feel creative though, is hyperfocus or pressure, which is something that I really want to change because I always feel like I’m living by ‘pressure makes diamonds’. It doesn't feel sustainable for the future if you know what I mean? Yeah, I feel like rest is important and now I'm trying to work out where the balance is. So that hyperfocus and anxiety and pressure don’t become the making of my diamond. 

ReFramed: Going back to your story, you did these things, you awakened to these two possibilities of how to make money, how to gather people and then you went to University?

Nate: I failed my first year of college and then I had a very turbulent childhood with my parents. When I had my final exams for A2, I pretty much flaked and I didn't do very well. So yeah, I couldn't do it -  I didn't go to University. I wanted to be a data analyst,I'm good at maths and yeah, economics was one of my strongest subjects and a lot of writing with English as well. I was looking to do data analytics at LSE, but I just had mad turbulent teenage years in my family. Then I just flunked. I was working at a bar, I was learning how to code and I met this guy in Michael Wallace. He's a legend, and we just got chatting while I was working on the bar and put it out there. “Oh, well I used to throw parties and do events and stuff and just work at a bar” and told him what I was passionate about. He was like, “oh shit, I know someone you should chat to”. And then he got me a job at his client Brompton to work in digital marketing, which I did for nine months. Then I created my first exhibition and it was the strong and stable election party. So I curated a bunch of social political works the night before the elections so that everyone could look at them, use them as stimulus to talk about things like mental health and welfare, austerity, all of these issues and then all you had to do was bring your polling cards you got in for free.

Then I was working at Arcola and that's when I did a small business incubator in Bootstrap, which is a coworking space above Arcola. That's when I came up with the idea for Play Nice, I was so gassed, I thought Play Nice was perfect because I could celebrate my culture and do all these things in a way that was cool and appealing to everyone, not just the hipsters, not just the older people and I was looking to start Play Nice at that point as a way of bridging that gap a little bit. 

ReFramed: But you left there, you did D&AD, went to the Kennedys and then you kind of just went solo.

Nate: Yeah, the opening just blew up from there right. But it's funny though, when I found D&AD was when the world opened to me. I've been at events at some of these spaces like The Basement before, but I'd never really seen these scenes and spaces. I'd never been into these spaces and seen how people manoeuvred, what they were creating. So that was a very new experience. That was when I guess the doors opened to where I am now, that was when I was 21.

ReFramed: So if you had to describe your job, what you do to a kid who had no idea about the creative industry, how do you think you would describe it? 

Nate: I guess I build spaces that produce culture and knowledge. I communicate lived experiences through interesting things, could be a garden, could be some product, could be an event.  I communicate better ways of doing that for brands and institutions to just make better work in terms of marketing and outreach and R&D, Research and Development for the future ultimately. Yeah, that's what I tell them.

ReFramed: Cool, and how would you paint a picture of what a day in your life looks like? How's it start? How's it end?

Nate: Chaos. A day of my life, I guess I wake up, I have to bang on music though, I need music to get out of bed. I need music to get up and active. I need a theme tune to wake up and get showered and ready, and then just hit the ground running on something that I'm working on. I guess I could be designing decks to communicate some projects I'm trying to do. I could be doing research for some consulting that I'm putting together, those are the two things I think that mainly underline my day to day life. It's rare that I get into the making, I want to be more tactile. I want to do more with my hands. I want to get into more screen printing and tangibly putting some of the things I'm finding into physical art events. But for now it's generally a screen.

ReFramed: Yeah, yeah. I hear that, fucking boring.

Nate: Yeah, man. It's just the experience and the context of it as well, where you find that thing, how it feels, how good the paper is or the textures to textures, the experience of something is so memorable, I think because I'm a connected learner as well, I’m just tactile with things. I've been thinking even recently it'd be sick to put some of the insights and stuff just onto t-shirts, drawing a diagram and just making a t-shirt of it.

ReFramed: So I just want to move on little to a little bit around the past two and a half years. I'm very interested to learn more about how the past year has really shaped your idea of success and your own aspiration right? You started Play Nice a couple years ago, you're now leaving it and starting your new venture. So I'm curious what that means to Freeform, the new kind of idea

Nate: Yeah. I feel like the last two years have been crazy. I think I'm only just learning to rest now. I'm only just starting to find it. I feel like I've been reading Bell Hooks recently and she talks a lot about men who self actualize through work. Unfortunately, I think I've only just realised that I've been one of those people. I've been someone who's just found their identity through the things that they create and as great as the things I create are, it still leaves you void at the end of the day. It is still so much of your emotion and experience to unpack with or without those artefacts you leave behind, right.

So yeah, I think the past year has been really interesting for me because I feel like I've seen some of the stuff I'm interested in kind of get blown into the mains. When I was talking about Community and learning from Community and building with Community, I think everyone was like, “oh, that's a good thing for you” but it took the pandemic for everyone to realise what my interests were and why I wanted to do that. And I think over the past couple years, I've seen the language around specifically that word kind of get drained and conflated with loads of other things.

And so now I guess, I'm less interested in this notion of community because I think they manifest in so many different ways and a lot of people conflate the idea of community with the word audience. Now, I'm starting to think more about how the things that I can create with this next venture are more ritualistic, are more founded in holding space or creating space for organic change so that I'm not always burning myself out by being a key stakeholder in its development. I kind of want to create things that allow themselves to grow naturally. I also realised that, we all share a planet, but we all live in very different worlds and as great as it is the notion of playing nice and putting everyone together to share space and to be reciprocal in their relationships, our experiences of the world are not reciprocal.

I think it's now time to start looking at ways of creating more equitable worlds, these different worlds that people live in, more informative and direct worlds so that they can play nice so to speak when they overlap, as opposed to expecting them all to jump in the sand pit and get along. And so, yeah, I'm trying to work out what that looks like. I know that it still means me being a facilitator and I've been doing that for years and I know that there's moments I have to lead or inject energy. But I want to start making sure that it can be done in a way where I don't have to be in it all the time, where something can exist and can grow and can ultimately be sustainable without me. Well, I want to encourage people to imagine those solutions, to imagine futures that of their own accords.

Maybe the things I create can be a trigger and I found in the past, that's been one thing that I've definitely felt proud about in my work that inspires a lot of people, engages them. And I feel like there's something cathartic around things, especially with Gaia’s Garden, there was so much catharsis, and almost spiritual relief that came out of people. If it wasn't building it, then it was some of the programming. I know that's what I'm good at. I can create, so I hope to do more of that. So that the knowledge that's created in those moments can be put into direct action. I'm really interested in how some of it can be used to inform policy or to change the way people see things in everyday life. I’m really obsessed with the idea of public space right now because Gaia’s Garden. I essentially built it so it could be that even though it was a private space and just learn so much about what we see of this space that's supposed to be for everyone, and so often none of us claim, none of us see as appealing, none of us really enjoy our time or use it for anything other than getting to A to B. So yeah, I hope that the projects are a spark of what can be, as opposed to the complete solution. I once believed that it was possible to be the solution, but I burnt out trying to get there.

ReFramed: I think every project is going to be like that, right? It's like when you're kind of a creator like you are, we're full of optimism when you strike gold on an idea, but I think it's a big reality check for anyone trying to build something, especially something that's huge and scalable. 

Nate: There's a big testament for being able to change the loads of lives at the same time. I mean, the testimonies I've got from Gaia’s Garden almost made me cry, man. It was intense to really take in the impact of it. I guess for me now, oh, what's the legacy of that instead as well, because you know you can inspire into sparking most people to create the same sort of change that you are doing, how do you enable them from there? Obviously the knowledge and the perspective and the way of thinking is enough. You could really just stop there and I'm down for that but I'm also like, yo, okay, if we do want to scale, so to speak, it's about giving the thinking and the resources over so that the people can create something bigger, better, different in a generation. They can become legacy, and I want to do some of that. I want to do a little bit of that, so I can also sleep!

ReFramed: When you think about your legacy, what kind of legacy do you want to meet behind?

Nate: I just want people to think differently, I want to encourage people to question everything. My parents never answered my questions, ever and I thank them for it because that's why I asked so many of them. I just want other people to feel like they can do the same. To have a child, I guess, naivety to ask these blanket, super generic questions that question the way that we condition ourselves to think. I think now is a good time for building new systems, there is no such thing as a good system, the only good sort of system is a sound system. Other than that, all systems have some sort of negative effect in the world. But I think encouraging people to reimagine the systems that they're in is what I'd like to do. Allowing people to feel they genuinely can do that would be sick.

ReFramed: So I need to go into a little bit about your neighbourhood, your relationship to Hackney, Stoke Newington. Tell me a little bit about that, you're maybe the first person I've spoken to who's born and raised, and still in ends.

Nate: In the ends, yeah. I'll never leave ends. They'll never kick me out because people love to buy my shit, so I've always been lucky enough that I've been able to hold my support around here, but it hasn't always been that - the area got really expensive at one point. First place I lived in after I got kicked out was a windowless room in Stokey; I lived there for nine months. I think I'm lucky. I think I read something somewhere about how interestingly, when you grow up in an area of mixed classes, social mobility kind of rises dramatically.

Stokey has always been a little bit middle class, but it's also always been blocks on top of Victorian houses and everyone in the mud together. I think you look at people from Stokey, we just move different. People from Stokey they ultimately can manoeuvre in any space, any kind of class of people and I really think that's quite unique to us. Yeah, I love my area. I've loved it for so long, but gentrification's really interesting because I feel like it's starting to come to the end of its tether. A lot of the public planning has stopped the development of any culture spaces outside of anywhere. So I'm seeing a big change in my area that I'm not too sure if I like, but it's all I've ever known. I love our parks, I live just off of Lea valley. So I go walking in Millfields park across there quite a bit. There's these waterbeds in Lea valley. That's like my favourite nature spot to be in. It's just really beautiful. I feel like my area is just my heart, but the change has just been so interesting to see. 

ReFramed: Tell me a little bit more about your favourite places in Hackney man.

Nate:  My favourite place is in Hackney. The food, cultures, the vibes has been something I've always loved. It’s such a hospitable and open kind of space and I think that's also part of why I love Hackney because it's always just been a mixture of cultures. I've grown up learning the cultural competencies of different groups as I turn every corner. And I think it's very rare you find that in a lot of spaces. I think it's very rare, you find a lot of people able to adapt to spaces that they're in like that and my area's always given me that. So I love it for that. 

ReFramed: Are there any actual spaces that have shaped you and are still continuing to be a kind of staple part of your life?

Nate: Yeah, so that the cultural quarter, that part on Ashwin street where I coded there or I'm bootstrapped in. It opened my mind so much in order to help me, A, start my business and come up with the name for it and then B, also develop new ways of engaging with culture on Dalston roof park were incredible spaces in my development. It used to be an old paint factory and it's just really beautiful. Where else is there? Clissold park, I spent lots of my childhood in Clissold park with my friends catching vibes by the skate park. I think the Skate park was my first understanding of the community space properly.

ReFramed: What about favourite spots today? Favourite eats, favourite coffee? Favourite chill out?

Nate: Z cafe is my favourite brunch spot, I love going there so much. I went there yesterday and had a menemen. I feel like Earth is a really good sport as well. That's really underrated, I've seen everyone there from Marla to Nala St. Pharaoh, that spot underrated. Gillette square and NTS where the parties are incredible, chef's kiss! Now those are the spots that get me really into Hackney, yeah.

ReFramed: Nice, nice. And when you think about home, talk to me a little bit about what that feels like and what it means to you now.

Nate: I feel like my home right now is the most I've ever felt at home ever. I feel like I've moved a lot through my childhood, I spent a lot of my childhood with my different parents and stuff but now here in Clapton, I'm equally between both of them and close to my friends and it just means a lot right now to nurture the space.  So home right now is about really laying foundations for the future, I feel like I'm trying to get cosy and just making so I can catch vibes. I think a lot of the time when I've been working really hard, home has been a sanctuary away from the world. But I'm now trying to get into a place where it is the place that my world comes to. I want to have barbecues and parties in my garden, I want to have dinner nights and everyone comes over to just eat. All the rituals I want to bring into my practice, I want to experiment with the foundations in my space. So I think home's just really important in that sense. And that's where I want to get to and want to get more comfortable in it that way, yeah.

ReFramed: Last question, your kind of most sentimental items, tell me, if you count three of the things and why those things.

Nate: Yeah, so this is one of them. This is made from a piece of a raw Brompton bike. Brompton makes their things by braising it. So to bond the metals is not just done by welding, it's braising, which is where they use a metal bond. In my first week this was my first job ever or my first proper job. The first thing that I could define as a career and reminds me of building my own spaces, it's kind of a trophy of my ability to create and make space for myself because it's just made out of spare parts to make me do what was there and create something beautiful out of it.

I have this picture of me and my Dad when I was young. So July 96, so I was like three months old or so, but yeah, me and my dad have a really tight relationship now or we're so similar in what we're doing. I'm starting as a lecturer soon and he's already doing that. So he's been giving loads of advice. We're both into building spaces and the public realm. So that's been a massive connecting point and just our viewpoints, just social innovation and stuff really tied together. So yeah, that's been a really strong point.

ReFramed: That's cool, man. I love that. 

Nate:  This last item is about Gaia’s Garden, this was taken by Ed and he wrote something to explain the project, 300 photos, June 2010 and 2021, documenting the process from building the garden in the hottest week of the summer with the urban growth team and 80 plus volunteers, to the weeks of rainy events in August and eventually the new rituals in September, the physical space that captured the hopes and imaginations of thousands of people until it meant more than the plants and soil, a place to play, sit, relax, laugh, connect, inspire, and create our urban oasis. There's a lot of key people in my life here, a lot of people who built it, who are really amazing and just vibes. Even my dad is here. It was a really beautiful journey because it goes all the way from the first days of building all the way through to the very end and I think it's a nice reminder of what it takes to build spaces for people and to let them build something for themselves within it as well.