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Once in a lifetime: in conversation with The Office Group’s Katrina Larkin

From the world of festivals to the world of coworking: Fora co-founder Katrina Larkin on new adventures and curating experiences.

13/04/2023

5 min read

Katrina-Larkin-The-Office-Group-TOG-and-Fora

Katrina Larkin, The Office Group

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #224

At The Office Group’s on-brand HQ, a short turn off Tottenham Court Road, we meet Fora co-founder Katrina Larkin in a calming, egg-yolk-yellow room, monochromatic down to the golden curtains and shelving. On her beginnings in the industry, Larkin laughs: a very easy person to laugh with and the sort you might find yourself drawn down a conversation rabbit-hole with. “It’s a bit like that Talking Heads song: ‘you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?’”

Considering the vast success of flex workspace brand Fora, including its merger with The Office Group, it’s surprising that Larkin started off in such different shoes – or more accurately, wellington boots. A pioneer in the festival world, she co-founded The Big Chill in 1994, curating escapism for 16 years before moving on to new challenges in a completely different market.

 

“I left the Big Chill at a point where I needed a break, it was very intense. With design, things get delayed, deadlines get pushed back. You can’t do that at a festival, you have to produce something no matter what’s thrown at you – and then you have to take it down at the end. That really toughens you up, it is a risky business. It’s also a really good business to learn about and to understand people, to learn resilience, to think on your feet and to be constantly new – because you can’t repeat. Of course, people come to you for a certain curation style, they trust that if you put it together it will be good. But they’re relying on you to bring new things, new adventures and new experiences. That keeps you on your toes.”

Sounds familiar. Drawing parallels between the world of work and a festival experience has made a successful career for Larkin, who moved to Market Tech, which owns Camden’s four main markets, working on the redevelopment, rebranding and curation of Camden Lock Market – with great success. When approached by Brockton Capital, who were interested in moving into the office market, Larkin initially declined, with thoughts of grey carpets and rows of blank white desks swirling in her mind. Of course, coworking and flex working didn’t hold the same interest as they do now.

“I spent my life telling people to run away from the everyday. It was a challenge to look at that [proposition] and think, can we change the way people work and, as importantly, the experience at work? But that’s what sold it to me.”

Larkin was introduced to Enrico Sanna, a global hotel executive who managed high-end hospitality at Deutsche Bank – and the rest is history, as they say, each taking their experience in hospitality to create a workplace offering that aimed to be different from the rest: better service, better design.

“It’s not like I sat up one day and said, you know what, I really want to work in real estate, or I really want to go into flex workspace. Like all things in life, it’s the joy of one small turn and then a door leading from another door; the quite marvellous adventure that is life.”

A self-professed seeker of the ‘new’, Larkin attributes her ability to adapt and change to her childhood, moving from North London in the late 70s to the remote west coast of Ireland at a young age, and turning her life on its head.

“Suddenly I was learning Gaelic in a classroom with no heating in a little school on a peninsula,” she says. “So I always had to find ways of adapting. You adapt to find the best things around you, to latch on to and learn from. We didn’t have a TV, so it meant I read, listened to music. You couldn’t curate your own life. You had to accept anything coming your way and finding the best parts of it. I really learnt to daydream, which I think is one of the big skills missing in life. Now, you have to block out time in your day for doing nothing – it’s about wellbeing. When I was growing up there were big periods of nothing. Which led to brilliant ideas.”

This deep-seated sense of wellbeing is clear in Fora’s workspace approach. Since its launch on Old Street in 2015, the Fora network has grown to 17 locations across London – including Soho, Spitalfields and Borough – recently moving further afield to Reading, Cambridge and Oxford. Positioning itself as forward thinking and a brand reimagining the working day, Fora’s offer comprises thoughtfully designed spaces and, crucially, a curated programme of events. The brand hosts an annual ‘Restore’ wellness festival each year, featuring sessions and activites on a myriad of topics from meditation to gut health classes, taboo-tackling talks and beyond.

Although individually designed by the likes of Modus, Hassell, Oktra and Piercy&Co to name a few, Fora spaces have a clear design language, even if Larkin describes it as a constantly evolving recipe.

“If you’re sitting there waiting for it to be perfect, you’re never going to launch it. And until you’ve launched it you don’t know what perfect is, or what the market needs to be out there.”

Last year, Fora joined TOG to become The Office Group, bringing together two complementary businesses with similar cultures and high quality, design-led workspaces. Despite the merger, Fora retains its own personality.

“One of the big things that has changed since Enrico and I started Fora is confidence. We went out with all these insights from the market and what we’ve gleaned is that the idea we wrote down on the back of an envelope is still what people want.”

A recent example is the newly-launched Montacute Yards – a stone’s throw from Shoreditch High Street and designed by Ben Adams Architects, the space is typically ‘Fora’ in style, flirting with bold maximalism and Scandi minimalism. Found down a bijou path and set on its own freshly named courtyard (named for a 14th century nun, we’re told), a creative, cool Shoreditch vibe is apparent in the use of block colour and natural materials, with Mutina’s Nathalie Du Pasquier-designed tiles, statement rugs, lots of fresh greenery and wood furniture. Sustainability is prioritised, including solar panels contributing to 100% clean electricity, zero VOC materials and ethically sourced timber.

For Larkin, success in workplace design is ultimately centred around the people that use the space. “Unlike a festival, a workspace is here permanently and people get to enjoy and experience them. It’s also not a transient clientele like a hotel. We have to work really hard to entice people in and give them support so they can be the best version of themselves. There are loads of Katrinas and Enricos out there in these workspaces, who have dreams like those we have,” she enthuses. “It may sound fluffy, but isn’t it amazing?”

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