Glossing over the facts

Design is receiving record Government attention. But, warns Hugh Pearman, we must remember the Eighties, and that superficial quality gives short-lived rewards.

Without wishing in any way to seem Eeyore-ish, I find myself more and more resistant to the lure of supposed high design, just at the point when design finally seems to be making something of a breakthrough in Government circles.

Peter Mandelson, as we all know, is a closet design groupie, to the extent of having his flat designed by the distinctly modish modernist Seth Stein. Mandy’s seemingly inexplicable desire to direct what we are supposed to call the New Millennium Experience (let’s call it NME) down in Greenwich is a further proof of his interest in this area. Who else would take on such a job, and put his reputation on the line for it, when the obvious course of action would have been to kill off a project spawned by the previous government and plough all that lovely loot into schools and hospitals?

Just having a grandad, Herbert Morrison, who had been a prime mover in the 1951 Festival of Britain was not reason enough to follow suit: the “Lord Festival” story to me smacked a little too much of spin. No, I see a gubernatorial design victim there.

Natty Mandelson – who saw, earlier than most, that male Labour MPs and candidates needed to remove their facial hair in order to inspire trust, and who led by example – is presumably behind the latest wheeze: getting fashion star Paul Smith in to help smarten up the Cabinet. My heart sank when I heard the news.

Not that I have anything against Paul Smith – anyone who can sell rather ordinary clothes at such startling prices in so many parts of the world commands my respect, and besides, I have one or two things of his myself – but the whole move feels so very much like the late Eighties. Some of us remember what happened to what is still sometimes called “the designer decade”.

Design – of a sort – was seen as the panacea. Not by the Thatcher government, true (who now remembers John Butcher, a junior minister who got rather interested in design early on and was never heard of again?), but by business. Particularly by retailers, which were persuaded that the quality of stock was a secondary consideration when you had acres of beech flooring, an ever-so-slightly personalised shopfitting system, and loads of fancy graphics. As for the corporate sector, the Eighties was the time when the art-directed annual report was born. Sadly, no designer anywhere is able to make a plunging balance sheet look good, let alone make a load of sub-standard merchandise walk out of the shop.

Now I am no fan of Gerald Ratner, the erstwhile head of the eponymous cheap jewellery chain. But before his self-inflicted downfall, Ratner was regarded as a retailing guru, his profits enviable. At the time this puzzled me, since the most casual glance would tell you that Ratner’s stores were an entirely style-free zone at a time when every other nationwide chain was commissioning designers as if there was no tomorrow. I rang Ratner up when he was at the height of his success and asked him what he thought of design – like, had he ever considered it? He told me no. The design thing was wholly superficial, he said, and an unwelcome extra capital outlay. The way to profitability was simply to provide what people wanted cheaper than the competition.

Ratner, as we now know, was too honest for his own good, particularly when describing the quality of his own merchandise. He was, however, right in one thing: “design” at the superficial level could not save a retailer that was going down the pan fast. When the recession hit, designer stores and non-designer stores all took exactly the same hammering: arguably the ones with the “designer” tag, which generally took a higher profit margin, went to the wall first.

This time round, we are sometimes told, we have learned the lesson. The Eighties were not about true design at all, just a designer gloss. This time it is for real. Oh yes? When the Government takes the line that well-cut clothes for the Cabinet will somehow compensate for, say, slashed student grants? That a scattering of fashionable names at the Greenwich NME will set the Dome’s turnstiles spinning with millions of eager visitors? That the rest of Europe will think we really mean business when we hold international summits at the top of the Canary Wharf tower instead of at Chequers?

Sorry everyone. Designer labels are back, the purveyors of superficial style are once more holding the reins. That means fat fees today. As for tomorrow… just don’t spend those fees all at once, right?

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