Cool Britannia does not tell the full story

How refreshing to escape Cool Britannia for a moment and hear an eminent Italian designer talking about the concept of European design. The claims by Alfa Romeo design head Walter de Silva that European car design is best (see Feature, page 12) might raise the hackles of creative communities further afield, but they come as a timely reminder to us insular Brits – not least those wielding influence in Government – that cultures exist outside our own and design’s strength lies in an eclectic approach.

The concept of Cool Britannia is itself happily flawed if you look at the makeup of the UK design community. Pentagram partner Daniel Weil, product designer Sebastian Bergne and artist/designer Ron Arad, for example, all originate from outside Britain, wherever they studied and whatever their official status here now. Yet all three are rightly represented in the Government-backed Powerhouse show in London, set up to promote the best of British design to visiting overseas dignitaries. Powerhouse closes on Sunday, so catch it while you can.

Closer to home, look at the cultural makeup of your own team. Key players in most design areas boast a healthy mix of nationalities as one of their strengths, and many have offices and alliances in Europe and beyond. This is as true of smaller groups known for their creativity – such as Bell with its tie-up with Dutch consultancy Una – as for global heavyweights like Landor and Fitch. How can a small group such as Carter Wong & Partners hope to do the best for big global brands like Unilever’s ice-creams without working closely with designers and others from the markets they aim at (see News, page 5).

De Silva’s view is partly down to his own nationality. Italian design has long been revered worldwide, particularly in fashion and furniture. But as this week’s Milan furniture fair will show, its current strength is the recognition by its manufacturers of great talent, wherever it comes from. Milan is a melting pot for designers from across the world. Where would other Powerhouse stars like Ross Lovegrove and Jasper Morrison be if they were solely reliant on UK clients? Italian firms such as Cappellini, Alias and Driade have shown greater allegiance.

Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia could prove a great environment for creativity to thrive. The design industry here is certainly more structured than in many European countries and our design education exemplary. But let’s not get too cocky about claiming supremacy in creative talent. We may think we’re great, but we’re not alone and strength lies in respecting other’s abilities.

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