Elder statesmen can help steer direction of UK design

We have yet to learn the full story behind his dismissal, but Michael Wolff’s shock departure from The Fourth Room has unleashed yet another high-profile mature designer on to the market.

So far this year, the main shifts have been from the client side. Raymond Turner, erstwhile design head at airport operator BAA, has gone largely solo, Douglas Cooper ostensibly quit The John Lewis Partnership after 23 years of exemplary design management and earlier this summer stamp design guru Barry Robinson retired from Royal Mail, after 25 years.

Of these three, Turner has got it most sussed, with overseeing BAA’s prestigious Terminal 5 still on his agenda, along with a directorship at Marketplace Design, among other things. Cooper, meanwhile, retains a design management role at JLP-owned supermarket chain Waitrose and is planning a long-term painting trip. Only Robinson has yet to show his hand with his plans for the future. But whatever they do now, collectively they have fantastic experience – and a number of years – to offer the industry.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Wolff’s dealings at The Fourth Room, he too remains one of design’s more inspiring figures. Like one-time partner Wally Olins, who has found new direction after quitting Wolff Olins last summer, he has shown great vision over years, though he hasn’t shared Olins’ ability to pursue his vision from one main base.

One thing that has remained intact over time is Wolff’s close link with John Sorrell. He gave Sorrell a break at an early stage in his career and they have stayed in contact since – Wolff was even a non-executive director in the last year or so of Newell and Sorrell, before it threw in its lot with Interbrand in 1997.

Sorrell too quit his consultancy and, among other things, now aims to boost social conscience in design through the charity The Sorrell Foundation he set up a year or so ago with his wife Frances – something Olins too is striving for through his work with Madrid-based Saffron on the image of social housing. Sorrell is also a driving force behind the bid to mount the London Design Festival, to promote the creative talents in the capital at home and abroad – significantly Wolff was present at the official launch of ‘Big D’ last month.

Wouldn’t it be great though, if these eminent design figures, Wolff included, could get together with other ‘elderly’ activists to put design more firmly on the map. If they could bring their experience to a brainstorm with younger designers on the direction that the industry should now take, and see the outcome through, design might finally attain its rightful status at the heart of UK business.

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