In Conservation with Emily Boxall

At A·R·T, we’re continuing to champion emerging artists’ creativity and support recent graduates, even throughout this restrictive “new normal” period of lockdown. 

Most recently we spoke with Emily Boxall, a multi-disciplinary designer, focused on the power of community and design for social innovation, about how the pandemic has proved to be a huge motivation in her work.


(Above) The McDermott Community Larder, Peckham, London. Built in June 2020. (Emily Boxall 2020)

Tell us about your experience of graduating during a global pandemic?

I have so many different reflections and thought about graduating during a global pandemic. My first, instinctive feeling was of deep disappointment and sadness that after nearly 2 years of working our socks off, I couldn’t finish my masters with my classmates. The big-celebratory bang of the degree show, where we could come together to congratulate one-another was one of the main things that I believe was keeping us all going throughout the course.

Practically, of course, not having access to workshops or materials was challenging however, unlike some of my friends, I was lucky in the fact that at the core of my project was a sense of D.I.Y and ad hocism that fitted in with a new ad-hoc-lockdown way of life. I tried to utilise both the rediscovered sense of unity that swept through communities and the birth of countless mutual-aid groups during those first few months of lockdown. Both of which became invaluable sources of energy, support and materials. 

 (Above) The Choumert Community Larder, Peckham, London. Built in May 2020. (Emily Boxall 2020)

Your ongoing community larders explore the notion of commensality in an urban context. What interactions have you noticed as a result of your works being introduced? Has this motivated the communities you work in? 

Commensality: the practise of eating and sharing food together, a term I came across during my extensive research, became a bit of a mantra. It sums up everything that I believe about how food should be and could be enjoyed- with one-another.

 (Above) Tin-can Labels, original design by Emily Boxall 2020

The term commensality specifically describes the human relationship to food: despite differences in diet (influenced by culture, location, upbringing, religion, tradition and taste to name but a few) we all need to eat. It is a universal truth that food tastes better when eaten with others.

The idea of sharing food is not new, rural communities have always shared spare food: gluts of home-grown produce, surplus eggs via an honesty-box, but this concept of sharing food feels unfortunately alien in urban environments. The first community larder, The Help-Yourself-Shelf that I placed at the end of my road in Peckham, South-East London in February 2020, was in itself, a bit of a social experiment. I had no idea how something like this would fare, but the best way to test these things (and a bit of Material Futures motto) is to do it, show not tell, ask for forgiveness not permission. 


 (Above) Margaret sharing food, Mcdermott Community Larder, Peckham. (Emily Boxall 2020)

After a dramatic initial interaction with an angry neighbour, a bizarre conversation with a team of bewildered police-people the angry neighbour rang and then some even more confused calls with Southwark Council, I was allowed to keep it in situ for one week. 

Throughout this observatory week, to my delight, there was a constant flow of food in and out of the shelf. During my regular checks where I photographed the changing contents of the larder, I was also approached many times by locals or people passing by to discuss my project and was met with overwhelming support. One of these conversations was with  the vicar of the local church and community centre where The Help- Yourself-Shelf was relocated to and is still in constant use to this day. I can not thank them enough for providing me with a rare corner of public space and their tireless enthusiasm and belief in the project.


 (Above) The Choumert Community Larder, Peckham, London. Built in May 2020. (Emily Boxall 2020)

The Help-Yourself-Shelf kickstarted the design, making and installation of the subsequent community larders, all of which happened during the nationwide lockdown. As those who could, stockpiled and staples like eggs and flour (that we have become used to being in unlimited supply) became scarce, food became one of the most talked about things in the country. The pandemic highlighted how unstable, critically flawed and unequal the UKs food system is. As people become more aware of this problem, the lockdown shook up people day to days routines and ‘normality’ was flipped upside down, many peoples focus turned to food- ensuring those who couldn’t afford or access it, had enough to eat.

 (Above) The Help-Yourself-Shelf, Copleston Centre, Peckham, London. Built in February 2020, full of food during the nationwide lockdown in April 2020. (Emily Boxall 2020)

This was highlighted in the mini-project I launched in the first few ‘exciting’ weeks of the UK lockdown, The Doorstep Foodbank Project. This encouraged people to make mini food bank boxes, filling them with whatever food they could spare and placing them on front walls, on public benches or on doorsteps so that others could help themselves. I was amazed by how many people joined in with this project- perhaps spurred on by the feeling of helplessness or acute boredom- and in doing so helped alleviate the stresses of going hungry for many people. 

(Above)  The Doorstep Foodbank Project: a few examples filling the streets with free, shared food. @doorstepfoodbank (Emily Boxall 2020)

Can you discuss in more detail how you design with social and sustainable innovation in mind?

A third of all food produced in the world is wasted, whilst approximately 1 in 5 people in the UK are food insecure. This means that they do not have regular access to adequate, nutritional food. Food is one of the most paradoxical and complex systems that shape our world. It is also one of the least sustainable. We need to drastically rethink and redesign this system that so that it stops exploiting and depleting the planet and feeds everyone more effectively and healthily. To design is to communicate. I believe that design can be a wonderful tool to turn complex and difficult subjects into more understandable and easily digestible conversation points that include, not exclude people. This is particular relevant when we discuss or dissect the complicated system that gets food from field to our plates: there are so many factors, steps and people involved that we rarely consider. Design can be used to bridge this gap of understanding and provide people with the power of knowledge. This knowledge can shape our human relationship with food for the better. And whilst mega-corporations and conglomerates have ultimate economic power, I believe that individuals and communities can ultimately shape the future of food collectively to make it more inclusive, equal and sustainable. 


 (Above) The Choumert Community Larder, Peckham, London. Built in May 2020. (Emily Boxall 2020)

When it comes to materiality, I focused on using found and scavenged materials wherever possible-this presents certain challenges when it comes to design as the materials you are able to obtain dictates the limits of the design process, but it is a challenge I delight in. It also helps minimise the material impact of projects. There is so much stuff out there- if we could get more into the habit it reusing existing materials over buying brand new, virgin materials, we could send less to landfill and conserve raw materials and environments. Hungry For Change is not just about these community larders, it is an open-source manual that enables any community to recreate their own. Aimed to utilise inexpensive, found materials and designed to suit people with any practical or literacy level, the manuals themselves become some of the tools required to build a community larder. They also provide all of the relevant information and contact numbers to install these larders in public locations. When designing and building something that is going to be placed in public locations and (hopefully) used by, to help feed everyone, considerate design is key. The community larders I have made are designed to be functional; pest proof, easy to clean and, crucially, accessible. Placed in public locations, they are open 24 hours a day, to anyone who may need them. Unlike many food aid initiatives, they do not require any sort of validity check, or referral slip. Food is not signed in or out and no-one questions what you take. The anonymity is, I believe, the key to their success, transforming them from charitable objects for ‘those without,’ to community objects for everyone.

In projects like 'Solar Ovens' you interrogate sustainable futures. What lessons do we as a society need to learn in relation to climate change? 

This is such a huge question that I’m not even sure I know how to answer! I think the biggest human-made problem we face is how disconnected we are from our planet. We are so cushioned by convenience and comfort that it is too easy to forget to think about how and why we consume in the way we consume; food, energy, natural resources, land, air, the list goes on. We urgently need to rethink our relationship with the earth and transform it into something rooted in respect and patience. Humans are animals and should be in symbiosis with nature, not separate or higher beings. The power of the sun, the wind and the waves are far beyond anything we can create…and they are free!


(Above) Solar Ovens (Emily Boxall 2020)

I have always been fascinated by ‘scavenged energy’. Using the forces that surround us to rethink processes that humans rely on- like cooking. My project ‘Solar Ovens’ looked at the power of the sun to cook with- removing the need for non-renewable energy or even a traditional kitchen. Like most of my work, these are not new ideas. In sunnier parts of the world, people have utilised the power of the sun for millennia, but in the UK, are moderate climate has failed to inspire us in the same way. And I must admit here, we do not necessarily have the right climate to be able to reliably cook just using the power of the sun! But this project was more about changing what people believe is ‘normal’ through experimentation. The unique ability of humans to innovate, imagine and invent has shaped, changed and damaged our planet. But this innovative and imaginative hunger is also the key to changing the course of the future and helping restore balance and protecting our home. Altering how we perceive ‘normal’ requires a change in cultures and behaviours. I believe this shift is happening- all be it slowly: we have the facts, we are experiencing the changes in climate and we all appreciated how fresh the air felt when planes were grounded in the first few weeks of lockdown. Now we need to take this momentum and act on it collectively.

How do you believe as a society we can create long term change in reducing food poverty? 

Like most huge societal problems the world over, food poverty is an outcome of inequality. There is so much food in the world and so much that is wasted. Our supermarkets are full of variety and choice but this choice is a luxury that too many people do not have the means or access to. I began this project enthusiastically and naively believing I could single handedly solve world hunger. The more I delved into my research, working with many food charities and my local food bank (run by The Trussell Trust), I began to appreciate the scale and complexity of this challenge. There is no simple, easy solution or answer. 

There are so many possible ways we could help reduce food poverty in the UK ranging from logistics and access to food, attitudes to food waste and freeing up green spaces and land for community growing schemes allowing people to become more self-sufficient.

I believe in an even simpler starting point. If we were more open to discussing the huge inequalities and structures of our society that create food poverty, we could begin breaking down the stigma that is associated with it. Pre-pandemic, 1 in 5 people in the UK experienced food insecurity. Those numbers have risen dramatically in the last year. But the shame of hunger means that most are oblivious to the struggles that many people in our own communities face- it is not something that we know how to discuss with our neighbours. If we can create spaces where, those who are able to, can share surplus food, and those who struggle to eat can access free, safe food without judgement or enquiry, we could dramatically alter many peoples’ daily fight with poverty.

Do you have any upcoming news or projects to share?

Aside from continuing to keep an eye on the current community larders, and marvelling in t heir continued use, I am currently working with a local community group in the early stages of finding the perfect spot for a new community larder in Nunhead in South East London. 

I am currently working freelance for the design team with Policy Lab, a team within the UK government team that aims to bring people-centred design approaches to policy making. I am learning huge amounts in this position and look forward to seeing where this work leads!

Find out more on Emily's contributions to supporting the community and social change by visiting her  Website and Instagram.