A missed opportunity

With Liverpool in the limelight this year as the European Capital of Culture, why is there only one large-scale design event planned? asks Emily Pacey


Liverpool’s year-long cultural jamboree kicked off this week, promising a year packed with more than 350 exhibitions, concerts and other events, and yet design does not appear to feature widely. The Liverpool Capital of Culture 2008 programme has a heavy visual arts and performance bent, offering just one large-scale design event.

Design Show Liverpool is the first ‘international’ design show to be held in the North West of England. It will exhibit the work of more than 150 furniture, fashion, homeware and jewellery designers, about 60 per cent of whom will hail from the North West.

The show is being organised by North West business support agency Design Initiative, and funded by the Liverpool Culture Company (£100 000), the Arts Council of England (£50 000) and the North West Development Agency. The Design Council is conspicuously absent from its list of financial backers.

‘Design Show Liverpool will stimulate the local market for consumer-facing design,’ says DI development director Sarah Elderkin, ‘but neither have we forgotten commercial design. There will be a platform at the show, although we are still consulting design groups on what form that should take.’ A programme of seminars and two design awards – one for schools and another for university and college students, will supplement the exhibition.

However, with just one significant design-focused event, comparisons with previous Capital of Culture design programmes leave Liverpool’s offer looking threadbare. In France, Lille – which held the title four years ago – dedicated four months of its schedule to design and architecture. It held about six large-scale events, with design organisations and groups from all over Europe participating.

Liverpool’s design groups say that the Year of Culture is failing them. ‘The programming process has bypassed the design sector in Liverpool – there is no framework for us to fit into,’ complains Smiling Wolf managing director Simon Rhodes. ‘The art events sound pretty exciting, but they need to be supplemented by design events. Design works closely with both the music and visual arts sectors, but you would never guess this from Liverpool 08’s programme of events. If this was Manchester, things would be very different.’

Having worked closely with LCC, DI is impressed by its engagement with the creative sector. Elderkin declares that, ‘LCC has been proactive and very supportive of our venture’. Likewise, Liverpool 08 branding consultancy Finch is forgiving of the programme. ‘The year is trying to provide a very broad range of events, the big deal being to get everyone involved and not be too heavy on one element or another,’ says Finch partner Duncan Frazer.

However, Liquid managing director Chris Mitchell protests that many people have been excluded from Liverpool 08. ‘Local business has been badly informed and not kept engaged. Had it been, then the creative industry would have pointed out that there should be more design events going on this year,’ he says.

The Design Council was not involved in any aspect of Liverpool 08. Design Council chief executive David Kester highlights this as a failing on the part of LCC.

‘The Capital of Culture programme should be a terrific opportunity for design, and it is a shame it is not better represented,’ says Kester. ‘It is well known that the Liverpool programme has had a difficult birth, marked by political problems and changes of leadership. This may be one reason why they failed to consult with relevant national partners.’

A potted history of LCC’s life reads like a Phil Redmond story line. The TV executive was parachuted in last year by Liverpool City Council to head LCC. No stranger to melodrama, the man behind Brookside and Hollyoaks said that preparing the event had been like ‘organising a Scouse wedding’. A series of senior resignations betrayed the bitter infighting going on inside LCC. In 2004, chief operating officer Kevin Johnson resigned after two months, followed in 2006 by artistic director Robyn Archer. In October last year operations director Chris Green quit, while chief executive Jason Harbarrow has spent months signed off sick, following allegations that he abused his position over a music competition.

It recently emerged that the Year of Culture has left Liverpool City Council with £20m of debt, and has even banned its workers from reading a blogspot that exposes LCC’s failings.

Frustrated by LCC, some Liverpool design groups claim that they are taking matters into their own hands. ‘I expect there will be quite a few independent design events that will get tagged on to the main programme,’ says Rhodes. He hopes ‘to get a couple of exhibitions of our work off the ground, and do some collaboration work with landscape architects’.

In addition, DI is encouraging design groups to approach it with ideas for Design Show Liverpool. The show’s co-creative director, Della Tinsley, says, ‘If people come to us with ideas, then we will do our utmost to find a space for them at the show.’

Elderkin is passionate about the Liverpool design scene. ‘Liverpool has developed a mix of mature design consultancies doing international work, exciting new talent coming through from Liverpool John Moore University and people returning to the city to set up businesses,’ she says.

‘The Year of Culture is not solely responsible for excitement about the city’, Elderkin continues. Liverpool has such a creative night-time economy, with exciting bars and clubs that are giving work to emerging interior design talent in the city. There is a tangible feeling that Liverpool has a strong, design-savvy culture.’

Hopefully, Liverpool’s famous fire and independence – which may have contributed to problems within LCC – could come good to create an interesting design fringe for the Year of Culture celebrations.

Design Show Liverpool

When:19-22 June

Where:Crypt of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral

What: • 150 furniture, fashion, jewellery, homeware and accessories exhibitors

• An as-yet-undecided event for commercial design consultancies

• Business seminars offering advice to designers

• Merseyside Schools Design Competition

• Student Design Awards

• 7000 trade and consumer visitors

• A ‘design map’ of Liverpool, marking design-related events and buildings of architectural interest

• A ‘plastics pavilion’, celebrating 75 years of plastics design

Who:Organised by North West business support agency Design Initiative with Momentous Events and funded by Liverpool City Council and the Arts Council

Design Initiative is trying to secure funding to make Design Show Liverpool a permanent fixture in the design calendar

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