5 Minutes with Rich With (Grow Co)

Salt of Southend-on-Sea

Last year we were approached to participate in the making of a very special book called Salt of Southend-on-Sea, commissioned by our local council to extol the virtues of living and working in our amazing borough. 

To tell the story we spoke to Rich With, Creative Director at Grow Creative, the design company who were tasked with the job of bringing this lovely book from concept to fruition….

So Rich how did the project Salt of Southend-on-Sea start?

I was approached by the council to create a book about Southend - there wasn’t a lot more to the brief. I think, because we design and edit Trawler Paper (an alternative local paper thetrawler.net) people know us as a team to create something from scratch. They’re rare, but the best design briefs are about coming up with a cool idea and seeing if you can make it relevant for the right audience.

The council introduced me to local photographer, Matt Crew and wanted us to work together. Fortunately, we got on because we were working in each other’s pockets for months.

The initial idea was to approach people with a degree of fame who happen to live in Southend, but we felt that this would end up being a personal promotion for them and the town would be more of a footnote. So instead Matt and I approached people from all walks of life that had a very strong connection to the town. Local businesses synonymous with Southend like yourselves, the Osborne and Oldham families, publicans, artists, athletes, dancers and even a roller derby club.

What approach did you take

We wanted it to be more than just a book about Southend - here’s the beach, here’s the parks - it’s already been done to death and it needed a fresh approach. I’ve always been attracted to storytellers - it’s pretty much ingrained in my upbringing. My Grandad never talked about the war, but he was one of the best raconteurs to ever come out of Shoreditch. He would regale amazing tales from when he used to knock about with the Kray twins, or the time he had a pint with an African warlord, or the time he knocked a policeman out and stole his whistle. Just this week, my nan who is 92, told me she was taught how to tap dance with Bruce Forsyth in a garage in Edmonton in the 1930’s. People can be utterly fascinating if you give them the chance.

Our first meeting was with local artist Paul Karslake - we’d never met but we both knew a couple of local n’er do wells and had a love of the same comic book (Batman: The Killing Joke) so we had something in common. His sister used to be married to one of the Rolling Stones and in no time he was telling us stories of rock n roll excess that while utterly hilarious (he even did impressions) could never be included in a council project. If you ever meet him ask about Keith Richards and the parrot.

He helped seal the tone for much of the book. Matt and I wanted to draw things out of people and represent it photographically. His studio is packed with ephemera, everything from posters of Sid James to sketches of Dastardly and Muttley. There was even a sword liberated from the set of Conan the Barbarian - we instantly knew it was going in the shot. We wanted to create a publication that wasn’t about council targets, road schemes and regeneration projects. This was going to be about the people that make the town such an interesting place to live in.

An open page of salt magazine of rollerskaters

Where did the name of the book come from?

Many of the people featured are salt-of-the-earth characters, and once you start analysing the concept that ‘Salt’ adds flavour and interest to something it seemed logical. Environmentally it’s all around us, in the air and the estuary - our local speciality is fish n chips so it courses through the veins of every Southender.

How did you decide on the locations?

It was a mix. There are certain areas of the borough that we wanted to photograph such as Belfairs Woods and serendipitously one of our subjects mentioned that her family would often walk there on Christmas Day so there was a logical connection. Others, such as The Dulakes run the most famous pub in Southend so why would we photograph them anywhere else? Matt is an amazing photographer so it was important not to waste his skills on dull headshots - we wanted something special and personal for each subject so he could really push his creativity.

We could show some people off in their natural environment doing their thing, while with others we could be more creative. We had this amazing ballet dancer taking part but a dance studio is too obvious. So we merged the high culture of ballet with the low culture of the ‘Golden Mile’ arcades. It was blowing a gale, the rain was coming in and the boy-racers kept photo-bombing while she’s pirouetting on cue but it’s ended up as one of my favourites.

In the space of a month we went cockle trawling, rollerskating on the seafront, did yoga at the end of the pier and of course walking the dogs down at Ruark’s very own beachfront bolthole. Again, we could show the contrast of the sleek and ergonomic beauty of high-end Ruark products next to a rustic beach hut and a couple of dogs all scruffy from rolling around in the sand.

The project kept growing as Matt and I stumbled across so many fascinating people we wanted to talk to that we ended up with 24 different individuals, families and businesses across all four corners of the town. We ended up with a 208-page book that shows off the town like never before.

An open page of Salt magazine of a ballerina outside the arcades

What was the overall reaction?

People really got behind it. I think before the launch there was a bit of reluctance from some areas as they couldn’t picture what the end goal was and how it was going to work, but once we unveiled the final publication and of course, the large format exhibition that’s taken place across the galleries, everything slotted in to place and they could see how beautifully it represented the town.

To me, Southend is a bit special - it’s full of creative people that get up every day and go out and make the world a better place in their own individual way. We wanted to embrace and celebrate that and I think we achieved it. The council were really pleased. They’d taken a chance on letting us ride off to create something and it paid off. That’s pretty maverick for a local authority and should be applauded.

Tell us about your studio

The Grow Creative Company or Grow Co (www.justgrow.co) as people tend to call us, is a full service creative agency based in Leigh-on-Sea. We like to work on projects rather than jobs. By that I mean we want to create work that inspires and excites us. We try to keep things moving and fresh so we don’t get bored. Every day is different. One day we’re running social media workshops for clients, the next I’m up at 3am to do a video shoot out at sea. There are constants though.

Every Friday afternoon is ‘Gin-o-Clock’ where we sample a different gin and as far as I’m concerned the only radio station that’s allowed on is 6Music. I had a day off last December and came back to find the station had been switched to Magic Christmas. Funny way of handing in your P45.

I suppose I should mention we listen to all this on our lovely Ruark R1!

An open page of Salt magazine

Will there be a Salt of Southend-on-Sea 2?

It’s something I’d love to do. I’ve met even more fascinating people since we did the first book so it’d be amazing to include them in a sequel publication!

What’s next for Grow Co?

For me it’s about keeping things moving in all directions so that it doesn’t get stale. We’re doing more and more video work which is great fun, and we’ve some major plans in motion for next year in terms of social media. Matt and I still work together a lot which is a nice by-product of working together on ‘Salt’. I love working on brand identities and we have a few exciting ones we’re working on now. I keep threatening to produce some new issues of Trawler so I’m going to have to get my head around that too at some point, and we’re always trying to push our skills further in terms of web design and development.