‘Leaving the ladder down’ is a phrase perhaps best understood in the context of climbing the career ladder yourself – and taking a moment to ensure the talented, hardworking souls that come behind you have the chance to take their first steps too. It’s a generosity of spirit from those who had to build their own ladder to success and don’t want others to experience the same hardships.

It’s perhaps best seen in the corporate world, where successful men and women can act as mentors and guides for the next generation, but how does it work in an industry typified by independent creatives, designers and makers, who aren’t part of a more easily comprehensible corporate culture?

The founding team behind Chester Design Foundation, ōH, has come up with its own template for leaving the ladder down, and it’s one that can be replicated nationally.

‘ōH Foundation is an independent social enterprise committed to supporting the growth and development of the creative industries in Chester,’ Monika Swindells, one of the founding members explains. ‘It started with a pop-up shop, on Lower Bridge Street, led by my husband, Tony, and me.’

Monika and Tony, along with Stephen and Nicol Morris, own and run OpenHome, an architect and design agency that seeks out unusual and extraordinary properties in and around Chester to redevelop into beautiful, one-off homes or businesses. It was one of these developments that led to their pop-up shop, where they hosted independent designer-makers promoting their wares.

‘It was a great success,’ Monika says. ‘We hosted interior accessories from brands with sustainable credentials that we knew and liked. Then local people started coming to us looking for a platform, and we realised it had potential to be something far greater – in physical size and impact – than we could manage just ourselves.’

Great British Life: Chair of the Chester Design Foundation, Bense BurnettChair of the Chester Design Foundation, Bense Burnett (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Monika gathered a group of like-minded individuals who came up with a concept and then put it into action. The team, consisting of Monika, Tony and Stephen, with Bense Burnett as chair, and administrator Aki Noda-Roughley, pitched their idea to sponsors from across Chester and soon created a bricks-and-mortar space – a physical shop on Bridge Street, where designers – interiors and fashion – can showcase their work and learn about how to discover and grow an audience, make money and balance the books.

‘One of the challenges for Chester is the recent dip in the numbers of independent creatives in retail spaces,’ Bense adds. ‘The ōH Concept Store is a step to redressing that. It allows us to take a wraparound approach – our designers can engage with an audience, test new ideas, designs and products, use the atelier space to make their designs and interact with each other and mentors who can help them develop the life and business skills they need to find success, to smooth their route until they can take their next steps.’

Monika adds: ‘People can come in, browse the items, have a coffee, talk to the designers and makers and touch, feel and try on the products. We don’t sell online, as then people need to come to us, engage, meet the designers and cherish what they find and buy here – and understand how important their spend is to a young designer. Equally, the young designers we support can get feedback and can see what works and what doesn’t.’

ōH Design Foundation wouldn’t be possible without support from corporate sponsors, and some of Chester’s biggest names, including Grosvenor Estates, Chester University and Chester Race Company are committed to supporting its work.

Great British Life: Shoppers can discover unique pieces while supporting local designer-makersShoppers can discover unique pieces while supporting local designer-makers (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

‘Local government has been hollowed out in the last decade and that situation isn’t going to change,’ Bense says, ‘so it was important for us, alongside any support from Chester West and Chester, to collaborate with other organisations in Chester such as Storyhouse, Chester Great and Small, Grosvenor Estates, Chester Race Company, etc. that are focused on making Chester a great place to live, work and visit.’

Finding the right venue into which they could build the ōH Foundation store was one of the group’s earliest challenges.

‘We ran our pop-up for one year,’ Monika says. ‘But really it was unsustainable in that form. Our premises were too small – we had seven designer-makers on the top floor, so were responsible for them and their businesses. We need more space, more help; it was a matter of go big or go home if we wanted to make it matter, to do more. We knew we needed to make it a foundation-type organisation (not a charity, as charities are more restricted in their finances and we are here to help our designers sell their work) that will allow us to access different aspects, such as finance, services, mentorship. And we needed a different location, more accessible and with more passing traffic. So, we approached Louise Stewart, the CEO of Chester Racecourse, which owns this building.

Great British Life: You can find homewares, art and fashion at ?H Concept store, on Chester's Bridge StreetYou can find homewares, art and fashion at ?H Concept store, on Chester's Bridge Street (Image: ōH Foundation)

‘OpenHome are the architects for the redevelopment of this building, and they were very happy to help as part of their objectives for adding greater value to the city, and this is now one of many routes they’re pursuing.’

While Chester Race Company was amenable to the idea, it then meant an extremely rapid turnaround for Monika, taking the ancient building from shell to functional atelier, shop and coffee bar in just eight weeks.

The building, like so many of Chester’s traditional, heritage buildings needed stripping back, which revealed what lay hidden behind the walls.

‘You have to be very understanding with these medieval buildings’, says Monika. You have to reveal the layers, and allow for future interventions, so we have designed for disassembly and for circular architecture – future-proofing if you like. Everything can be moved or removed to allow for change, and every decision was made on sustainability and circularity. It’s now a flexible, wholly accessible space where we can run workshops, talks, classes, events, fashion shows and operate fully as a shop, coffee shop and studio workspace for the designers.’

Chester Design Foundation now supports 16 young designers, with a mix of age and experience.

Great British Life: Ariadne Evans with her crochet bagsAriadne Evans with her crochet bags (Image: ōH Foundation)

‘Because each one is different and make different things and are at different stages in their career, they need different things.’ Monika says. ‘Some are here full-time, some come part-time. Some drop in for help with marketing, or to seek introductions, or for business advice. We try to tailor everyone’s experience to their individual needs, making it a very flexible, responsive and agile programme to help each designer as they need it.’

Bense adds: ‘It’s all about helping them understand where they want to go on their journey and help them achieve that. It’s also about exposure and allowing them to fail, to make mistakes and come back, not to be knocked so far back they can’t try again, which is what happens with so many independent creatives. It’s our aim that at some point each member of the collective of designers outgrows us and is ready to leave – and then comes back to share their learning and success with the next designers coming through.

‘It’s not just about supporting young designers, however,’ Bense says. ‘It’s about reclaiming, redefining the high street – there are so many empty spaces on our high streets that could be filled with designers, makers and artists. It’s about mentoring, nurturing and helping designers find and fill those spaces, about making Chester a creative city, a unique place without the homogeneity you see in towns and cities across the country.

Great British Life: Neil Keating working at ?H Concept storeNeil Keating working at ?H Concept store (Image: ōH Foundation)

‘The Chester Rows were designed and built to support small, independent businesses,’ Monika adds. ‘In the Middle Ages, you had the shop below and then lived above, all the family and servants dedicated to maintaining that single business.’

The concept of The Chester Design Foundation, and the ōH Concept Store, is scalable, and repeatable in towns and cities across the region, and the nation.

‘We want to be one of many,’ Monika says. ‘Tony and I set ourselves a huge challenge when we first started this, and now with ōH Foundation we have a template that can work on a smaller or larger scale, bringing the next generation of designers into a place of success.’

Bense agrees: ‘We’re right on the cusp of something, here. We can all feel it.’

ohfoundation.uk, 22 Bridge Street, Chester


Meet the makers


Be Positive Taylored Brand, run by husband-and-wife team Ben and Natalia Taylor, offers sustainable made-to-order outerwear collection using ex-MOD parachutes along with deadstock fabric.


Great British Life: Creatures, from Felt MistressCreatures, from Felt Mistress (Image: ōH Foundation)

Felt Mistress

Louise Evans is a Welsh textile artist who creates a range of one-off bespoke creatures with her partner, illustrator Jonathan Edwards.


Great British Life: Oscar Munroe with one of his bags made using discarded seat beltsOscar Munroe with one of his bags made using discarded seat belts (Image: ōH Foundation)

Oscar Munro

As a designer and maker, Oscar has created a capsule range of denim trousers, jackets, coats and travel bags at the store.



Lettie and Sally Pattinson specialise in creating beautiful handmade, one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories using only dead-stock materials.


Woodspring Co.

Woodspring Company’s soy wax candles are lovingly curated in their workshop in Tarvin, using essential oils and fragrance oils in apothecary-style amber glass jars.


Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan is a critically acclaimed illustrator, comic artist and toy designer.


Great British Life: A Lili Sipeki designA Lili Sipeki design (Image: ōH Foundation)


Lili Sipeki is an award-winning fashion designer who experiments with various application methods to re-purpose waste denim through hand painting, bleaching, patchwork and applique techniques.


Great British Life: Works from Alfie Munrow at Objective StudioWorks from Alfie Munrow at Objective Studio (Image: ōH Foundation)

Objective Studio

Alfie Munroe is an industrial designer with a particular interest in biophilic design.

I: @objec