28 Aug, 2009

British design is not dead – it is overlooked

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The nostalgia for inspired public design ignores the fact that our contemporary designers continue to excel in the commercial world

Things ain’t what they used to be, and no mistake. This, more or less, is what Alice Rawsthorn, a well-known champion of modern design and ex-director of London’s Design Museum, told New York Times readers on Sunday. Modern British design is often not very good, she says. Whether she turns her eye to telephone kiosks, London buses or the “achingly embarrassing” 2012 London Olympics logo, Rawsthorn sees change and decay all around.

She needn’t have stopped there. She might have mentioned such things as Norwich Union’s potty decision to change its tried-and-tested name and logo to the meaningless and forgettable – sorry, I’m going to have to look it up – Aviva. Or she might have turned her unforgiving gaze on contemporary “street furniture”, from bus stops to benches, which are as ugly as they are banal.

Her American audience will no doubt lap up this act of British self-loathing. Yet Rawsthorn is right, at least in terms of public design. When she talks about such brilliant erstwhile design patrons as Frank Pick, chief executive of the pre-second world war London Passenger Transport Board – the man who gave Londoners, and visitors to the city, the very best in Tube trains, double-decker buses, maps, posters, station architecture and so much else – she is taking us into a past that has truly disappeared.

Why? Because in Pick’s day, public design was what mattered. Consumerism was in its infancy; marketing a toddler. Most British people neither owned cars, nor had much to spend their money on on beyond the basics of everyday life. Over the past quarter of a century, the public sector in Britain has declined while the private sector has boomed. And, as investment in public sector design has dropped, so retail design has enjoyed a field day.

Today, there are inspired British designers working in all sorts of areas. Many people will enjoy the quality of their work in contemporary furniture, book jackets, graphics and much more. Think of the success Jonathan Ive has had as the designer of Apple’s sleek iMac, iPod and iPhone. Look at the evergreen inventions of Tom Dixon, a prolific designer who began as a punky metal worker in the mid-80s and produces a wide range of his own lively furniture and lighting today. Or enjoy the intriguing fabrics and wallpapers designed by the Scottish duo Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, trading as Timorous Beasties, in which startling scenes of contemporary life are woven or printed into traditional patterns and materials.

There’s no doubt that at the hi-tech end of design engineering, Britain can still take on the world. The Rolls-Royce engine design team, led by Geoff Kirk at Derby, is one of the world’s very best. I can well imagine a designer like Jasper Morrison, with his cool, pared-down approach, working for a public sector client like Frank Pick; but, at the moment, there is little such work available.

Equally, much of what we buy as consumers in Britain is made overseas (mostly in China), so there is less and less of what we traditionally regard as British design, even in the private sector. I had a look at the Design Museum’s website a moment ago: in their illustrated list of recommended new chairs designed in the 2000s, Morrison is the only British representative, while the companies he designs for are not British.

So, it’s not a lack of homegrown design talent that’s the problem, but the way that the economy and our ways of life have changed since London Transport, the Post Office and other public corporations led the way in public design. British design is often very good; for better or worse, we have to shop around for it.

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