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    The Line’s co-founder Megan Piper, photographed at The Fine Art Society

    The Line’s co-founder Megan Piper, photographed at The Fine Art Society

    People — 10 May 2015

    Creative talent:
    Beginners’ pluck

    From popcorn to pop-up spaces, it takes grit to take a creative passion and turn it into a way of life. Meet five tyros whose ideas are changing our worlds

    Words: Bella Dickie Photography: Trent McMinn

    Megan Piper, 30

    Co-founder of The Line

    Young art dealer Megan Piper is a force to be reckoned with. ‘When I get an idea in my head, I’m single-minded in my approach and don’t like to take no for an answer,’ she says resolutely. She has harnessed this gritty determination to launch her latest project, The Line, an ambitious world-class sculpture trail linking the Olympic Park and the 02 Arena via the waterways of East London. ‘So much extraordinary art is hidden from public view in storage and studios,’ Piper explains. ‘I wanted to shine a light on this unseen world-class work through an outdoor exhibition that is free, accessible and open to all.’

    To kick-start the scheme, Piper teamed up with urban regeneration expert Clive Dutton and recruited an influential team of supporters, including photographer David Bailey, Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger and architect Lord Rogers. She also raised more than £140k in just seven weeks via a Crowdfunding campaign.

    Despite her age, Piper is practically a veteran of the art world and she has nurtured an entrepreneurial spark ever since her teenage years, when she ran a stall in Camden Market. After university, she worked as a gallery co-ordinator for art handlers Momart, looking after the Gagosian Gallery, White Cube and the Serpentine. But a visit to an exhibition on Seventies’ artists at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in 2010 inspired her to quit her job and set up The Piper Gallery in Fitzrovia. ‘A lot of young galleries showcase only emerging talent,’ she explains. ‘I wanted a space to celebrate and rediscover mature artists.’ The Piper Gallery closed at the end of 2013; however, Piper continues to represent the artists and holds talks and viewings at her Mayfair home.

    For now, though, Piper’s focus is on The Line, which is opening on 23 May. Nine sculptures, from artists including Damien Hirst and Gary Hume, have been selected by an independent panel for the first phase, and a curator has been enlisted to work on the future development of the programme – which Piper hopes will become a permanent fixture in the capital. ‘I’ve lived in London my whole life and feel very passionately about the city and its constant ability to surprise,’ she says. ‘Hence the fun of merging previously unseen artwork with the largely unexplored industrial and natural landscape of East London – it’s a totally new and fresh perspective.’

    The artist in his studio in Peckham

    The artist in his studio in Peckham

    George Butler, 30

    Artist and illustrator  

    George Butler is something of an anomaly in today’s reportage of conflict and current affairs. Whereas a war photographer documents with his camera, Butler sits quietly in situ with sketchbook, ink and watercolour, recording details of daily life around conflict zones in Africa, Syria and Lebanon. In August 2012, he walked with the Free Syrian Army from Turkey across the border into Syria, where he spent four days drawing the deserted, bomb-damaged town of Azaz.

    ‘I will never forget the road into Syria,’ says Butler. ‘We passed an exploded petrol station, houses blown inside out, young boys playing on burnt-out army tanks, and visited hospital wards full of children who had lost limbs. When I look at my drawings, so many memories flood back.’ Six months later, Butler returned to document the plight of Syrian refugees. His illustrations were printed in newspapers including The Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, and reported on BBC World News, CNN and BBC World Service.

    Amid the media scrum to provoke and shock with ever-more gruesome and violent images of war, Butler’s more subtle approach to record the personal stories behind the front-line horror is powerfully evocative. While visiting refugee settlements in northern Lebanon, he drew collections of the few possessions families had escaped Syria with. ‘Most of it was junk,’ says Butler, ‘but junk they couldn’t throw away because it connected them to their former lives: the TV remote control, keys for a lost motorbike, a photo of a son left behind so he could attend school. This was the reality of war.’

    And although danger is ever-present (Butler narrowly escaped being kidnapped while crossing into Mali in 2010), the rewards for the intimate observational reporter are compelling: ‘It’s an incredible feeling to immerse yourself in a civilian scene for a few hours. You have people looking over your shoulder, wanting to write their names on your page. You gain trust, and are invited into places you would never normally gain access to.’

    Further to his war reportage, Butler’s work has taken him all over the world: depicting elephants in India, oil fields in Azerbaijan, Saxon villages in Transylvania and even a neo-Nazi murder trial. He has won the Editorial Illustration and Overall Winner Awards at the V&A Illustration Awards and an International Media Award.

    Cassandra Stavrou at Propercorn’s headquarters  in King’s Cross

    Cassandra Stavrou at Propercorn’s headquarters in King’s Cross

    Cassandra Stavrou, 31

    Founder of Propercorn  

    The snack-food industry is a notoriously saturated and challenging market for newcomers, and yet Cassandra Stavrou’s Propercorn brand (‘Popcorn done properly’) has skyrocketed since its launch in 2011. Propercorn is currently stocked in five countries, the company sells more than two million brightly illustrated packets of hand-popped corn each month, and it is confidently predicting a £15m turnover for 2015.

    The idea was born out of Stavrou’s acute observations of people’s eating habits – and the snack options available – while she was working at an advertising agency in Soho. ‘I found it all so uninspiring,’ she recalls, ‘and wanted to create a genuinely healthy snack without the trade-off of bland taste and dull packaging.’ That same year, she gave up her job, moved back home and turned the family kitchen into an experimentation lab.

    ‘I ransacked supermarket shelves for every spice and seasoning under the sun, then invested in an oil spray to mist the popcorn. Pretty much the entire downstairs of the house was covered in a film of grease,’ she admits.

    An injection of seed capital in 2011 allowed the company to finally launch, but it was a steep learning curve for the then-27-year-old entrepreneur. ‘There was a lot of frustration along the way, because I really had no clue what I was doing – no idea how to deal with manufacturers or how to put together a business plan. However, on reflection, it taught me some valuable lessons – in particular about having business principles you’re not prepared to compromise on. Clarity and conviction are key.’

    It wasn’t long before Propercorn had won an impressive list of big-name brand accounts, which included Google, Leon, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose. And from there, demand has multiplied, each new stockist drawn not only to the quality and taste of the product (there are five flavours available so far), but the company’s sense of integrity – and the creative consideration that goes into every tiny detail. Even the cardboard supply boxes, which no consumer will see, are decorated with the same playful style of illustration of the individual popcorn bags.

    ‘We rarely outsource anything,’ says Stavrou. ‘Everyone under the Propercorn banner is involved in the process of everything we produce. It’s what keeps the brand fresh and exciting.’

    Appear Here founder Ross Bailey

    Appear Here founder Ross Bailey

    Ross Bailey, 22

    Founder of Appear Here

    Pop-up shops are the fastest-growing business sector in the UK, contributing around £2.1bn to the economy each year. And at the forefront of this trend is Ross Bailey, whose London-based digital start-up Appear Here has created a retail-letting platform that makes renting a shop as effortless as booking a hotel room.

    In the two years since its launch, Appear Here has disrupted the retail-property market and made costly long-term leases and muddling middlemen a thing of the past. ‘Renting through an agent is a lengthy process that will take, on average, three to six months,’ says Bailey. ‘But on Appear Here last month, we completed 50 per cent of bookings in just 48 hours.’

    The platform now has 10,000 brands using its site – from Marc Jacobs, Google and Net-a-Porter through to tiny independent labels – and has lured eight of the UK’s biggest landlords on board. The result is a smorgasbord of rental opportunities, from the industrial Boxpark in Shoreditch to Mayfair’s iconic Burlington Arcade. Even Transport for London has jumped in on the action, letting out its formerly soulless underground spaces to a thriving hub of pop-up juice bars and coffee shops. Bailey mentions that a restaurant is due to open in the former men’s washroom of Old Street station, urinals and all.

    One of the ideas for Appear Here actually came from Bailey’s own experiences of creating a pop-up on Carnaby Street during the 2012 Diamond Jubilee. Securing the space was a ‘nightmare’, and he was eventually banned by Buckingham Palace for selling punk T-shirts of the Queen, but the experience was invaluable. ‘Shortly afterwards, a big international brand called to see if I could source them a pop-up shop for the Olympics. I thought, hang on a minute, if they’re desperate enough to ring a random kid – and are experiencing the same stress that I went through – then this is definitely a problem worth focusing on and committing to.’

    After a seed round of £1.2m in 2013, Appear Here recently secured £4.8m of new funding and the company now looks set for international domination. ‘Our aim is to become global-market-based,’ says Bailey. ‘In the same way you can go on Airbnb and rent a room anywhere in the world, we want people to be able to rent a space, in any city, that will make their idea happen.’

    Rohan Dhir in his East London office

    Rohan Dhir in his East London office

    Rohan Dhir, 26

    Founder of Archibald Optics

    Young entrepreneur and design enthusiast Rohan Dhir is on a mission to disrupt the entire notion of retail as we know it. Starting with eyewear. ‘The concept behind Archibald Optics,’ Dhir explains, ‘is that we take the best product in the industry and apply a craftsman-to-consumer model to it – cutting out the middleman and sourcing the finest artisans in the world to make that product.’

    Pricing at Archibald Optics is highly competitive (from just £175 including lenses) and service is swift – once customers have ordered their eyewear online, the frames and lenses are then handmade and fitted in Japan, and shipped direct to the customer’s door within eight days. However, Dhir insists that, in terms of quality, his glasses are superior to offerings from well-known luxury specialists, and that an equivalent product on the high street would retail at around £650.

    At a time when many industries are sacrificing product quality to increase income margins, Dhir considers what he is doing as a return to tradition: ‘To buy a good-quality pair of shoes 200 years ago, people would travel to find the best cobbler. I’ve travelled to find the best craftsmen in the world, and I’m proof that you can offer the finest product at a fair price.’

    Eager to explore the full spectrum of the eyewear market, Dhir decided to travel to China, Germany and Italy shortly after graduating from Columbia University in New York, but he was disheartened by what he found. ‘Much of the manufacturing in Italy was just two screws going into a product from China. And when it comes to Chinese export manufacturing, they will cut every single corner possible.’ Dhir’s quest for master craftsmen eventually led him to Japan, and into the centuries-old Fukui community of optical artisans. ‘The story behind the optical industry in Japan is amazing,’ says Dhir. ‘They have been perfecting their craft for about 150 years, although they are often reluctant to work for foreign brands.’ It took him months to build relationships with the artisans, to help them understand the company and the fact he wanted to ‘take their art and preserve it’.

    Dhir hasn’t looked back since and, with the success to date of Archibald Optics, is confident he can roll out his disruptive business model across all sorts of industries. ‘As long as craftsmanship is valued and consumers are paying unfair mark-ups, we can break into any category.’