Political leadership would benefit design

Given that the Milanese consider a designer in their 40s as “young”, it is remarkable that so many much younger UK players have found favour with furniture manufacturers in Italy’s style capital.

Superstars like Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton have been in there for a while, having also wowed patrons from other design centres across the globe. But others, such as Platt & Young and Sebastian Bergne, have caught the attention of key design commissioners and there is every chance that UK participants in the youthful Salone Satellite at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair will do the same – designers such as Procter Rihl, Kazuhiro Yamanaka and ceramicist Julie Nelson.

One of the main reasons for the age gap between designers from the two countries is the tendency for Italians to kick off their careers with architectural training. Taking some seven years, it is much longer than most of the UK’s 3D design courses.

But the main difference stems from the Italians’ love of the atelier system, whereby a designer “sits at the feet of the master” for years before making the grade. It helps, of course, that Milan boasts so many established “masters” still practising 30 or 40 years since they found fame.

In the UK, entrepreneurialism is encouraged early on, which is no bad thing judging by the success of precocious talents such as Nick Crosbie of Inflate, who went into business while still at college. But most have had little choice, with UK manufacturers slow to pick up on the commercial advantages of design.

There are fantastic exceptions, not least furniture firms SCP and Allermuir, of individuals and companies backing good design – and young designers – as part of their company culture. Hopefully, their influence is spreading. There are also enlightened companies such as the UK arm of French car giant Peugeot which support schemes to identify fresh talent. The shortlist for the latest design contest run by Peugeot and London’s Oxo Tower are out this week (see news, page 6).

But we still need someone of greater influence to take a lead. The Design Council is mandated to interest big business in design and we look to its new chairman Christopher Frayling to make more of this. He has, after all, wooed benefactors for the Royal College of Art, of which he is rector, and broadcast his success on TV.

We also need political leadership, and who better to give it than new London mayor Ken Livingstone. We ask him to consider the capital’s wealth of 3D design talent as a way to build London’s global standing against the likes of Barcelona and Paris, and dole out patronage accordingly.

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