Hugh Pearman: British spirit brings cheer

Riding on the patriotic feelings in the aftermath of the Jubilee weekend, Hugh Pearman thinks designers and manufacturers need to be proud of being British

What do you do on a wet Tuesday when you’re bored? It’s always dangerous when you’re sitting in front of a computer. Me, I started the day by ordering another and better computer on-line, at sobering cost. Other dull Tuesdays lately have seen me order such things as a state-of-the-art digital camera, a stack of aluminium café chairs, a spur-of-the-moment air ticket to Dublin and so forth. Anything to avoid thinking about a clutch of looming deadlines. But this particular day, a phone call saved my credit card from further pain. It was Paul Priestman and he had just the best wet-Tuesday offer. Why didn’t I join him at the Exclusively Housewares show?

You just cannot turn down an invitation like that. I may baulk at going to the Milan Fair, Spectrum, 100% Design and all the rest of them, but Exclusively Housewares had a compellingly Victoria Wood ring to it. Before you could say snap ‘n’ seal, I was on the number 19 Routemaster bus to London’s Business Design Centre.

I hoped it would be a cross between a John Lewis basement and Lakeland Plastics, only bigger. And it was. At Exclusively Housewares, you ran the gamut of salad spinners, Thermos flasks, water filter jugs, wine racks, mops, coffee makers, pots and pans, pedal bins and – a special delight – those giant pepper grinders deployed in proper English Italian restaurants. Oh yes, it was a treat. Being a store buyer must be the best job in the world.

You may be wondering what Priestman, he of Priestman Goode, designer of express railway trains and airline interiors and covetable radiators, chairman of the Design Business Association and much else, was doing in a joint like this. I mean, it was fun, but shouldn’t such a high-profile character be doing some proper work on a Tuesday morning? Gently, Priestman guided me towards the Boa stand. The name Boa may not mean much to you, so let me elucidate: it started off by making the Boa Constrictor strap wrench, with which you untwist things that want to stay stuck. The company had recently bought up a struggling cutlery manufacturer. Priestman Goode has designed a new range of housewares for Boa, and will be designing many more (News, DW 30 May). They designed the stand, too, effectively a portable showroom.

The brief, from Boa’s director Brian Alexander, is not to reinvent things from scratch, but to make better products at a keen price.

This, it has done. The display oozed design ingenuity. There’s the Clam wooden kitchen knife block. It’s in two halves, held together by amazingly powerful magnets. So, unlike normal knife blocks, you can pull it apart and clean out the gunk which tends to gather in the slots. Priestman has used the same ‘rare-earth’ magnet technology for a plastic-cased wall-mounted knife rack. He’s designed the knives themselves, with satisfying ergonomic handles and best Sheffield steel. Another variation has a pull-out drawer of cooks’ knives beneath a chopping block. He’s done other kitchen utensils, most ingenious of which is a combined bread bin, board and knife, complete with crumb tray. Plus there’s his plastic Canpull which opens ring-pull cans by exactly mimicking the shape and mechanics of the nail-breaking pull itself – but bigger.

So what? Well, this stuff aims to compete with the likes of Alessi and Bodum products. It looks the part. Alexander relates how the store buyers start off by assuming Boa must be Italian or German, and are amazed when he says it is based in Croydon. The next thing they say is that the produ

cts are underpriced. This doesn’t bother him: he’s after volume high street sales, not design boutiques.

Will it work? Boa is going hell-for-leather for the design-conscious consumer with objects that are practical, high quality and good looking. This is what the best designers do: taking things of known usefulness and making them a little bit better, slightly more ingenious. Styling is involved, but it is styling to a purpose. They are solid, tactile things, produced using basic manufacturing technology. They ought to enjoy a long product life.

And there is something very old-fashioned about the venture. It is entirely British with an eye on international exports as well as the home market. I didn’t think anybody did that any more. Which is why my visit to Exclusively Housewares cheered up my dull Tuesday even more than I’d hoped. Who says I don’t get the glamorous assignments?

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