How British do I feel? Or how English? Or how international? And does this feeling affect my response to design? Do I regard a Dyson with more affection than a Miele, for instance? Or do I take the instinctive view that if it is British it must be rubbish, while anything Italian or Japanese is, by definition, superior?
Two things got me thinking about this. The run-up to the General Election, of course, with all the stultifyingly competitive flag-waving that entailed. Plus a request from a persuasive editor on a glossy magazine to put forward a list of top ten Great British things. She sounded Australian, which gave things an agreeably ironic flavour. Transportation, anyone?
The design world is as international as it is possible to be. Go into any consultancy and you’ll find a polyglot workforce, drawing inspiration from a global range of sources. Nothing new in the influence thing, of course: for centuries, those in the design industry have avidly scanned publications from around the world in search of something new, something different, something they could be first with on their own patch. What’s newer is the direct influence provided by the backgrounds of the designers themselves. The world has come to us. We can cherry-pick any national characteristic we like.
In my world – the world of the critic – the cool thing is to be internationalist, to be associated with no particular country or city, to be a citizen of the world. That way, you rise above parochialism, avoid the Little England mentality, bring a beatific sense of objectivity to bear. Which is fine: the trouble is, you can get so used to the trek out to the international airport that you can overlook what’s happening on your own doorstep.
I first realised this with a shock as a teenager, by which time I had visited what felt like every cathedral in Europe, but – it suddenly struck me – had never peered round the doors of St Paul’s. Well, of course not. You don’t go to London for your holidays, do you?
I’m from the Kent/ Sussex borders. London used to stand between me and the rest of the nation. It really got in the way. As a result, I regard the North of England as an exotic place. Yes, I do feel English (not British). But despite my southern roots, it’s the north I like the best. My favourite cathedral is neither St Paul’s nor Seville: it’s Durham.
This probably colours my writing, and it certainly colours the thinking of designers in a similar position. Nottingham-born Paul Smith trades globally on it. Norfolk-raised James Dyson’s machines have that boffin-in-a-shed juxtaposition of components. Terence Conran’s furniture is redolent of gentlemen’s clubs and fine old cars. And I contend that Thomas Heatherwick, in his ingenious avoidance of the direct and the obvious, could only come from the country of Heath Robinson.All of which is lovely until someone misguidedly tries to put it all together and market it as in some way superior to the rest of the world. Which it isn’t.
Anyone remember the Design Council’s chequered swing-ticket of approval on Great British Products? Anyone remember Cool Britannia? Try to forget. Think about the truly international Great Exhibition of 1851 instead. Prince Albert may have introduced the curse of the Christmas card, but he was anything but parochial when it came to design.