Why are three young architects spending their spare time photographing south London fried chicken shops?
For Nick Blomstrand, Jens Kongstad Olesen and William Molho, a fascination with lookie-likie branding of their local takeaways has snowballed into a three-year (and counting) project leading to the documentation of 50-odd chicken outlets. They have an exhibition, Morley’s or Less, in the newly opened Gareth Gardner Gallery in Deptford and there are plans for a book.
‘We all live in south London and started noticing the imitation ones. We decided we’d make it into a collection,’ says Kongstad Olesen. ‘Apart from the similarities, it’s a good opportunity to document south London and take photos of areas we wouldn’t otherwise visit. All show a bit of context and life as well.’
The project started when the Bartlett-trained architects noticed striking similarities between the appearance of local chicken shops to the distinctive red and white branding of chicken shop chain Morley’s. The names and design details may have been different - Monkey’s, Mowleys, Monley’s, Metro’s - but, at a glance, could easily be mistaken as Morley’s. Fascinated by how such a relatively modest brand could inspire such similar branding, they began to analyse the characteristics of the typology.
The more the trio looked, the more they found, sparking an odyssey around the south London hinterlands to document each branch from Catford to Croydon, Lewisham to Loughborough Junction. Almost all are south of the river, with the few outlying exceptions including sites in Walthamstow, Worthing and Ipswich.
Initially the trio were researching online to supplement the outlets they’d spotted out and about. Fuelled by an Instagram site for the project, they’ve increasingly been sent suggestions. However not all pass muster - to qualify they must have sufficient quota of the essential graphic elements although in particular circumstances even the ‘M’ isn’t always essential - Brixton-based Norley’s still made it in on the strength of other branding similarities.
For architectural photographer Gareth Gardner, the project was the ideal opening show for his bijoux exhibition space, designed along with his adjoining studio by Studio C102. He has long admired the typological work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who famously documented industrial structures such as gasholders, and also has a fondness for ‘the vernacular and the un-designed’.
'I particularly like the work of the Bechers and those photographers who obsessively capture a certain architectural typology - the slightly nerdy pursuit of a particular, often quirky idea followed to the nth degree,’ he says. 'The chicken shop project was a perfect fit. It’s not high-end glossy photography of buildings, but there is a local resonance that chimes with the audience I’m trying to develop.’
As they went about their urban exploration in pursuit of suitable shops to document, the architects had little difficulty getting permission from the chicken-shop owners to photograph their premises.
‘Once they realised we weren’t a threat and were celebrating what they were doing and once they heard about the plans for a book, they were really supportive,’ says Blomstrand. Some even threw in a few free nuggets.
Each chicken shop is photographed face on and arranged in a grid formation in the exhibition - the rigour of the display allowing for closer comparison of the similarities and differences. Where possible, the trio have included customers and passers-by to evoke a sense of place.
'As well as the obsession of photographing them all, it felt like a good opportunity to frame a time and a place through centring a shot to capture a south London street,’ says Molho.
Morley’s have been down to see the exhibition and taken it in good heart - proving the adage that imitation really must be the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the time since they were photographed, some of the outlets have changed their branding to something less like Morley’s.
‘It’s interesting that they grow up and find their own identities. It might be for the better,’ says Kongstad Olesen.
Nonetheless with sightings of the lookie-likies showing no sign yet of drying up, there will be plenty to occupy their weekends for some time to come. Not everyone would have the dedication for the task, but perhaps the trio think their architectural training has given them the necessary patience to sustain such a long and unlikely project. And, says Blomstrand, they’ve had fun along the way. ‘We’ve had some great days out on the Morley’s trail.’
Morley’s or Less is at the Gareth Gardner Gallery, Enclave 10, 50 Resolution Way London SE8 4AL. Open weekends in January and otherwise by appointment. Instagram: @morleysorless