Hackney People: Tom Piper

Stoke Newington resident and co-creator of the famous ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London

"AS a teenager, I thought I would discover a cure for cancer,” says Tom Piper, theatre designer, Stoke Newington resident and co-creator of the world famous installation at the Tower of London, which saw 888,246 ceramic poppies gradually flood its moat last year. 

“I went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. The trouble was, I discovered that coming up with a cure would actually be quite difficult,” he adds, laughing. 

“As a child I’d always loved to build things. I made treehouses and puppet theatres. And then one day, my friend Sam Mendes said he was going to direct a play. I said I’d build the set for him – and it started from there – though he ended up far more famous than me!”

By the time he left university, Tom had worked on over 30 productions, and abandoned science in favour of the arts. From Cambridge, he went to the Slade School of Art, London, to study theatre design, via a detour to France. 

He says: “I ran off to Paris before the course ended, when I got my big break: a chance to work with theatre director Peter Brook on his production of the ‘Tempest’ in 1990.

“What I love about theatre design is that it’s collaborative. Through the costumes, the set and the rest, theatre designers create the world of the play.”

Given the success that followed, including being appointed an associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2004, it would be easy to assume that Tom would want to slow down. But he is driven to open theatre up to new and diverse audiences. 

He says: “I think the Hackney theatre scene is great. I’m far more interested in what goes on here than I am in what’s opening in the West End.”

Tom has just finished working with director Michael Boyd on a production of ‘Orfeo’ – the first opera ever to be staged at the Roundhouse in Camden. He says: “East London Dance collaborated in the show, so kids from the schools in Hackney were working alongside the professional cast, doing some amazing work.”

Nothing, however, prepared him for the huge audience that the installation he designed with artist Paul Cummins at the Tower of London – ‘Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red’ – attracted last year. 

“Over five million people came to see it,” he says. “And then think of the number who didn’t see it directly, but engaged with it through the media. It was overwhelming.”

For a man used to working behind the scenes, the limelight that accompanied the installation – which marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War – was unexpected.

Tom says: “It has been great to see people think more about the nature of theatre design itself because of it. And a vast number of people saw the poppies who wouldn’t usually go to see an exhibition or the theatre. But I don’t think we’d anticipated how much it would become a pilgrimage.”

He continues: “You can’t escape the impact of the wars here, you can see the bomb damage everywhere. One of the key starting points for the project was the fact that within weeks of the First World War being declared, the Tower’s moat was being used as a training ground for 16,000 members of the ‘stockbrokers’ battalion’, the City workers who had signed up in droves. Some might have come from nearby Hackney. 

“The 888,246 poppies, one for each British and colonial military death during the war, certainly give a dignity to those soldiers from poorer communities and lower ranks whose individual sacrifices had previously gone unmarked publicly.”

Its impact was made even more dramatic for Tom by the fact he was away for the final three weeks of its installation, returning on 10 November. 

He recalls: “I was astonished by the crowds and the strength of the colour in the winter sunshine ... Nothing like that will ever happen to me again.”