Them and Us

For British designers, it’s hard to resist the lure of a job in New York. Liz Farrelly talks to six defectors about their reasons for moving to the US and the work opportunities they found there

We’ve all heard the old lament about British design. The best education system in the world pumps out talented designers, year after year and, while the lucky few land “real” jobs, the rest eke out a precarious living as freelances, languish on the dole, or take flight to pastures new. The grass is permanently greener because British industry simply doesn’t appreciate British designers.

Regardless of the extent to which you buy into that argument, the fact remains that British designers are happy to work abroad. But what’s life like for a creative ex-pat? Are great expectations of fame and fortune actually fulfilled, or do “cultural differences” cause enthusiastic creatives to come a cropper? In the first of two features focusing on British designers who chose the US as their promised land, six émigrés to New York reveal the nitty gritty of working in the city that never sleeps.

“If you can make it there…” promises the old song. But that maxim may be more true of London. Luke Hayman, design director of ID (the US design magazine), explains. “Whereas in London I knew some really talented designers who nearly starved, I don’t think the recessions or booms are as extreme here. There’s work around and not enough designers and that demand bumps up salaries. It might not be the greatest work, but it’s out there and that’s comforting…”

Stuart Harvey Lee, who launched his own consultancy, elaborates from a product designer’s standpoint. “America is a huge market compared to everywhere else so there is a greater turnover of products and even when the economy isn’t booming there’s stuff that needs redesigning (and packaging and advertising). New products come through all the time just to satisfy the home market and economic growth doesn’t depend on exporting,” he says.

Across the disciplines, Europe, in general, is looked to for innovation, and Lee estimates that more than 40 per cent of all designers working in New York – “if you count fashion” – are from Europe. Valerie Wickes left London group Din Associates, where she was head of graphics, earlier this year to become a creative director at ad agency Arnell Group. She comments: “Fashion is big here. It’s showy and it effects all aspects of design. So design isn’t about spontaneity, it’s about good taste. I’ve seen a lot of portfolios which are ‘nice’ but a bit ‘so what’.” Wickes may be lamenting America’s design education system, but she’s well aware of one advantage to designing in the US. “In the UK there isn’t the budget to do a Tommy”, she says, Hilfiger being just one of the megabrands which Wickes has worked on.

As far as fashion and cosmetics go, New York is undoubtedly the world’s capital, and all six designers I spoke to are connected, to varying degrees, with one or other of those industries. Deborah Camplin, trained in both fashion and textiles, is a designer at BabyGap. She realises that in the UK she’d only ever be freelancing for print studios. “But I wanted to be in charge of the whole design process rather than simply selling a print on paper,” she explains. “I knew America was the place where I could do that, fast, because there are so many big corporations here.”

In the US big means big – Gap Inc is worth $7bn (4.375bn). However, working with mega-corporations, either in-house or as a design consultant, isn’t simply a matter of enjoying enormous budgets. Martin Perrin, a senior designer at Straightline International with a Time Warner annual report under his belt, is unabashed about the pros and cons of going corporate. “Get as much corporate work as you can because that’ll never hold you back,” he advises. “A lot of work goes into the management and production of a project and I’ve dealt with all the political nonsense, and I can handle it. The design might not be spectacular because when you appeal to two million shareholders the common denominator is lower. But I’ve enjoyed a great choice of photographers and printers,” he says.

Living and working in New York can be a lot of fun. Wickes calls it “the ultimate city”, and everyone interviewed admitted to enjoying comfortable lifestyles. The pace, however, may be distracting. Darren Nolan, a three-dimensional designer working for Peter Marino Associates, proffers a word of warning. “You need a plan, you need to know why you’re here, otherwise you can be literally worked to death. There’s a ridiculous work ethic which emphasises the amount of time you put in rather than the effort,” he says. That Puritan hangover is fed by another cultural difference. Nolan says: “Design is business in America. It’s straight, it’s serious, and it’s about providing a service, not a solution to a problem.” That means the buck stops with the client, so forget prima donna antics – at least until you’ve attained superstar status.

If you can deal with the suits and fancy a trip then take Perrin’s advice and “brand yourself. Looking for a job in America you can’t be haphazard. Think about your presentation and have transparencies of all your work, because whoever’s looking at it will be busy.” And for information about getting US working visa, contact the US Embassy.

Stuart Harvey Lee

Prime

When industrial designer Stuart Harvey Lee arrived in the US, after a stint in Japan, he realised his BA in engineering gave him an advantage, “…because the level of technical understanding of US graduates wasn’t as good.” Having “RCA” after his name also helped. “People like Tucker [Viemeister] were impressed by its reputation,” he explains, “and within two weeks I was working at Smart Design.”

Lee witnessed Smart evolve. “There was no hierarchy and I had a lot of responsibility and worked on a bit of everything – for Daewoo, Oxo and Cicena,” he says. “The emphasis was on making products fun and Smart came out of its geometric Post-modern aesthetic into an more appropriate organic style.”

For Lee, cultural difference was a definite plus. “There weren’t so many Europeans in New York then, and we were a novelty,” he says. “For one project the partner I worked with asked me to do all the presentations because my English accent sounded more convincing!”

Hitting Smart’s glass ceiling, Lee left to form a partnership, Able Design, with Martha Davis. “We were being paid top rates by Johnson & Johnson – I must have designed about 3000 toothbrushes in my career – but we were turning into its service bureau. That’s a real danger for small firms with a big client. Because it has down-sized its in-house department, it needs you to do everything.”

Lee left Able to set up Prime. “In New York there’s a danger you can get sucked into the luxuries of life and forget moving on, which is why I made myself jobless and homeless earlier this year,” he says. He describes Prime as “a strategic design consultancy. Rather than just design another product and walk away, I look at a client’s entire line in relation to competitors and figure out what makes it sell – or not – because I see myself as a business man as well as a designer. And because I’ve now got good contacts with manufacturers in Asia the next step is to launch my own line of products.”

Darren Nolan

Peter Marino Associates

“I’ve never had a full-time job in Britain. That’s a weird reflection on the industry,” ponders Darren Nolan. After graduating as an engineer and industrial designer in the late-Eighties, Nolan gained experience prototyping at Allibert, a French furniture company, and worked for Philippe Starck before touching down in New York. He admits “that opened doors. Initially Peter Marino hired me for one project because I had done retail design at Perspectives (a subsidiary of Estée Lauder) and I spoke French.” That was two-and-a-half years ago, and the project was Dior’s flagship store in Paris. “It was like designing another Barneys (another Peter Marino job). Every department had a different theme, and there were two designers plus myself and Peter coming up with concepts. That’s a lot of design work and, because the budget wasn’t an issue, we built a complete prototype in an empty office block.”

Peter Marino Associates specialises in high-end retail, domestic and museum projects, and Nolan currently has a free hand developing a new luxury retail concept. But, looking to the future, he says, “I’m working out the details of my plan. I aimed to work across furniture, product, interior design and architecture. In four-and-a-half years in New York I’ve achieved that flexibility by freelancing for Eric Chan at Herman Miller and the product designer Laura Handler, and by working with an architectural practice. Now I want to incorporate (register as self-employed), sponsor myself and design for European manufacturers, because I miss the relaxed way Europeans do business, and I miss the process of solving production problems which makes for good product design.”

Luke Hayman

ID

Luke Hayman suggests that the reason European designers are so well thought of in New York is because “they’ve been exposed to more sophisticated media and, correspondingly, their repertoire is more sophisticated.” Working almost exclusively in the field of publication design, Hayman has consolidated that advantage into a successful career. He’s adamant: “I’m staying here: I like the work, the city and the opportunities.”

Since leaving London group Esterson and Lackersteen in 1992 he’s worked at two of New York’s most respected design institutions and freelanced widely. His first stint at ID was as associate art director working with the maverick Tony Arefin. “Tony had a sense for ‘news’ and Chee Pearlman (the editor) allowed him to influence the magazine,” recalls Hayman. “And, because it’s a design publication, the art department is listened to and has a lot of power.”

Offered the post of senior designer at Design Writing Research, a consultancy specialising in book, magazine and exhibition design, Hayman couldn’t refuse. “I think Abbot Miller (the boss) is one of the most amazing designers in America, and I learnt so much. There are consultancies in New York which specialise in particular areas of design, like DWR, Arnell and Straightline, where you can really gain some expertise,” he says. Hayman worked on the Guggenheim Museum’s magazine, Architecture Magazine, and with Vitra and Geoffrey Beene. Being so knowledgeable about design Hayman was the natural choice to take over as design director at ID when Arefin left last summer.

Deborah Camplin

Gap Inc

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1990 Deborah Camplin has worked around the world, in Italy, Hong Kong, and now New York. “A friend I’d met at Esprit in Germany had moved to Gap and said to call. So I called and was offered six months’ freelance work doing T-shirt designs for BabyGap.”

“The company was expanding rapidly and a new post came up. Gap like to recruit in-house, to help staff progress, and I was asked to apply. I did an unpaid project, which took three weeks of moonlighting, I’d never had to do that before, but I got the job,” she says. “Three years on I’m the designer on three lines – unisex, new born and sleepwear. I buy print designs from UK studios, because they’re the best in the world, and collaborate with my team of associates, freelances and merchandisers (from head office in San Francisco) to produce four themed and coordinated collections a year.”

Camplin earns nearly double what she did in the UK, and is adamant that Gap is the best company she’s ever worked for. “Design is very important at Gap. We have a good research and development budget so we can travel and get to know our audience.” And, she adds, “the design department moved to New York, because that’s where the talent is”.

Valerie Wickes

Arnell Group

After a decade at Din Associates, Valerie Wickes, the design director of graphics, needed a change. Realising she knew of no comparable consultancy which worked with big-name fashion clients, Wickes decided to break out of London’s creative bubble. “I had to see what else was out there because I wasn’t learning any more,” she says, “so I got in touch with (headhunter) Roz Goldfarb in New York who sent me straight to Peter Arnell.”

Wickes admits she knew little about Arnell Group, “but I could tell the minute I got in the door that it was going to be a number!” Based in the heart of SoHo, Arnell Group is an ad agency with a design consultancy’s eye for detail which specialises in fashion. Arnell formulated the “Power Brand” strategy which Wickes explains as “how to change a brand like Next into a Nike”. Multidisciplinary teams creatively apply a core idea, which often comes from Arnell himself, for both mass and niche brands such as DKNY, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Hanes Hosiery and Samsung. Recent coups include the giant and extremely picturesque Samsung banners on Sixth Avenue, and a TV ad which installed Hilfiger flags and models in the Oval Office.

Wickes is one of a handful of creative directors – team leaders with a lot of responsibility – in a 24-hour office. She explains: “The working environment is tough, but creative people come here because it’s a unique place, because we work on more than one project at a time and because anything can happen, and it does.”

Martin Perrin

Straightline International

Having won two distinctions from the Art Directors Club, and made it into the top ten of the Annual Report 100 Show, Martin Perrin can legitimately claim to having cracked that perennial design problem. “There were only 5000 entries,” he adds, nonchalantly.

After three-and-a-half years in what he describes as “my first real job” at Straightline International, a sizeable graphics consultancy specialising in corporate design, Perrin has rounded out a London-centric, arts-biased folio into a body of work bristling with major league clients. Perrin has designed annual reports, catalogues and print ads for Time Warner, Bayer, Swatch, Nine West, Brioni Menswear and Amfar (Liz Taylor’s AIDS charity).

He could also lay claim to knowing how best to pitch innovative design to inherently conservative US businesses. “The client may not be sympathetic to your ideas, but they have far more experience in their field of business than you do,” he explains. “The designer should aim for a happy compromise, win their confidence and gradually persuade them to accept more creative work.” So, in annual reports designed by Perrin you’ll find abstracted photography, multicoloured text and poetic visual metaphors next to diagrams, figures and the chief executive officer’s portrait.

When asked about returning to Britain, Perrin explains what he calls, “the great irony. In the US corporate clients are willing to invest in design. And, while in the UK design, music and fashion move really fast, here it takes five years for something new to filter down to the mainstream. So, you can either do innovative work for no money in the UK or you can attempt to push the boundaries in the US.”

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