Individual commissions – Swiss Cottage Children's Library, Laura Ford, London Borough of Camden

Theme: integrating art into a public building

Swiss Cottage Children’s Library, opened 2003, Laura Ford, John McAslan & Partners, JW Projects. Photo by: Stephen McLaren

Swiss Cottage Children’s Library, Laura Ford, John McAslan & Partners, JW Projects, opened 2003.  Commissioned by London Borough of Camden.  Arts consultants: Modus Operandi. Photo by: Stephen McLaren

Best practice in: engaging with an artist early in order to develop a site-specific work embedded into the redevelopment of a public building.

In 1998, Camden Council decided to redevelop an area in Swiss Cottage, north London, into a new cultural quarter and mixed-use destination for local residents and others alike. The site already had existing cultural venues and sat in close proximity to the tube and the retail offer and businesses of Finchley Road, but needed unifying and ugrading.  At a cost of £85m, funded through public and private investment, the redevelopment was completed in 2007.

As an integral part of the site’s redevelopment, Camden Council appointed public art consultants (Modus Operandi) to research and write a Public Art Development Study and strategy for the site.  These recommended a number of new artist commissions, including one for a new children’s library as part of the refurbishment of Swiss Cottage Library – a 1960s listed building designed by architect Sir Basil Spence.  Architects John McAlsan & Partners led the refurbishment with JW Projects, and worked with artist Laura Ford to create a new tailored space for children.


  • Act as a focal point within the renovated building by John McAslan & Partners and respond to the library’s original design by Basil Spence.
  • Create a unique and stimulating environment for existing and new library goers aged 0-12 years, their parents and carers.
  • Create an environment that would encourage pride and ownership in local residents.
  • Provide artists with the opportunity to contribute to an urban improvement scheme.
  • Creatively respond to the practical requirements for book shelving, a seating area and children’s work stations.

Approach and Development:
Having a public art plan in place early on ensured that decisions could be made effectively to integrate the commission. The artist was commissioned with enough time to work collaboratively with the architects to integrate the work into the re-design of the building, making for a more successful commission with budgets and opportunities maximised.  The specialist team was also in place to oversee the selection and commissioning process. Ford was selected through competitive interview by a panel which included representatives from the library, Camden Council, the architects and project managers. 

Laura Ford’s design draws inspiration from Ordnance Survey maps to create an environment encouraging children to explore the world of knowledge. The contoured carpet features familiar map references and the library activity areas continue the theme of trails, with a mountainous green leather sofa for storytelling, floating island-shaped computer desks and red-stained ply wigwams with natural light for reading.  The Children’s library has proved very popular and is actively used by local residents and children, with activities and events taking place throughout term-time and in school holidays.

“There was an immediate positive response from the children themselves. Adults appreciated the dynamic and inspiring spaces, in contrast with the architectural simplicity of the rest of the library spaces.” Mark Osterfield, former Library Manager, Swiss Cottage Library

Facts and Figures:
Key factors for success:

  • An integrated and considered approach by the local council to commissioning art as part of the wider redevelopment scheme.
  • A clear strategy and set of proposals and commissioning artists early on. Through appointing a specialist public art consultants with appropriate expertise
  • Close collaboration between the artist and the architects, John McAslan & Partners and construction managers, JW Project Services, as well as representatives from the library and council.

Funding streams:

  • London Borough of Camden provided the full budget of £30,000 for the commission.

Bob Gryspeerdt, Library Group Manager, Swiss Cottage Central Library, 88 Avenue Road, London, NW3 3HA
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Open Space: Art in the Public Realm in London 1995 – 2005, Jemima Montagu (Ed.), Arts Council England and Central London Partnership, London, 2007. Buy a copy of Open Space.