From: Juliet and Jamie Gutch, August 2023

When we heard about the open competition to create a design for the restored fountain in the centre of the town where we live, Ilkley, we were intrigued, inspired, and also daunted by the responsibility. Having worked on large-scale projects before (but never a fountain), we felt that it was something that we could design for, but we also had a sense that it might take a long time to come to fruition and that as a public project it was, well – very public.

Public art, particularly perhaps public art in a local setting, is not an easy thing to pull off. How do you stay true to your artistic vision, yet also take into account the views of people who will see it every day and who will all have their own ideas of what a fountain should look like? How do you communicate what something will be like, without actually making it? Do you push an idea through and hope that people will come to understand it and like it? That approach worked for the Eiffel Tower which was initially going to be temporary and ended up becoming the icon of Paris. The Ilkley fountain is much less grand than this example, and nowadays it is very important that designers and artists of civic projects take people on a journey rather than just imposing something on a community. However, it is also important for us to look forward and to develop local projects which reflect and represent the concerns and values of our time, while at the same time still speaking to the past. This is challenging on many levels.

We have accepted from the start that not everyone will like our design, and that there will be others who think that there shouldn’t be a fountain at all. Whilst it is not possible to design artworks by committee, it is also important for groups of all kinds to participate in the process. There is, perhaps inevitably, a creative tension between democratic processes on the one hand and artistic processes on the other, but if each can find a way to move forward together the results have the potential to be really special. As is so often the case, the key is communication and time.

The one thing that has remained constant for us as designers throughout this whole process is that we feel that now is the right time to be celebrating the incredible properties of this tiny plant, sphagnum moss, which, in the formation of peat, crucially stores so much carbon. The aim of our design, therefore, is for it to be part of arguably the most important public conversation of our time: how do we live sustainably and with hope, and how can we shift our habits and our perspective to work towards living in balance, so that the generations which follow us can enjoy the world that we all perhaps take too much for granted?

Ilkley Gazette: sphagnum mosssphagnum moss

By taking a tiny sphagnum plant and turning it into a fountain at the centre of our town we hope to be part of that shift in perspective, and to celebrate the idea that small is beautiful, and that small things can make a vital difference when they join together. While collaboration between individuals and groups can often be complex and present challenges to overcome, we hope that the fountain will also be a metaphor for the power of effective community action.

From Juliet’s first conversations with the Improving Ilkley team, when we first heard we had won the competition, to the more technical meetings exploring the gravity fed water system and considering how water would actually run into and through the fountain, the interactions have been respectful, enjoyable, and constructive. Designers, artists, the trustees, an engineer, and an architect are all giving freely of their time and expertise in a way which has felt collaborative and purposeful even when challenges have arisen, as they inevitably will with a project of this kind.

Juliet has been kept up to date throughout the process of gaining local funding and support and we are under no illusions that there will be as many different views and opinions as there are residents in Ilkley. We welcome those challenges and questions – these are part of the process. The question for us as a community is whether we have the determination and collective will to crystallise a vision together, in the belief that risking the creation of something new is a positive gesture and a message of hope in itself.

If anyone would like to find out more about the design, the concept, and the fabrication process, we would be very happy to participate in a meeting. Please be in touch through the Improving Ilkley email address: