The great creative exodus

The South Coast Design Forum offers networking and inspiration for designers who’ve turned their backs on London

Designers have traditionally been allergic to the provinces. The homeland of the cheesy-pineapple, ruched blind and swirly carpet tends to bring them out in a rash for which urban grit is the only balm. But those who have fled the city claim that by setting up networks, they are generating some of the creative buzz of a city, and improving design in the local community.

While there are no statistics on the number of creative professionals leaving London every year, the phenomenon is described as no less than a ‘mass exodus’ by illustrator John McFaul. McFaul left London in 2003 for Chichester to find a better place to bring up his children.

‘When I got down here I realised that although it was beautiful, there was no creative community,’ recalls McFaul. ‘A lot of towns along the south coast are hell-bent on living in the past – but we need to think about the legacy that we can leave for future generations.’

Enter the South Coast Design Forum, of which McFaul is one of more than 100 members. The SCDF began in May 2006, when retired business advisor Peter Spence came into contact with designers who had moved south, but complained that they missed the dynamism of the London creative scene.

He advised them repeatedly to set up creative networks to alleviate their loneliness, but nothing happened. In the end, it was the spotting of celebrity designer Wayne Hemingway in a local garden centre that triggered the founding of SCDF.

‘Once I knew that Wayne was in the local area, I contacted him and he agreed to chair a forum,’ says Spence. ‘He saw it as a good way to increase his influence on local design, particularly in the built environment.’

Hemingway has set the lobbying agenda of the forum, which already boasts a proud list of achievements. It set up a training programme for planning committee members at the Solent Centre for Architecture and Design in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, ‘so we get better decisions’, says Spence. ‘We want to avoid bland, inadequate developments. I hesitate to use the phrase “the new Barcelona”, but we want to create the new Littlehampton, the new Chichester, the new Portsmouth.’ McFaul is eager to clarify that the forum is not about London designers sticking together in provincial towns. ‘We can help to create a really good community here,’ he adds.

But the forum’s sphere of influence broadened beyond the south coast recently, when it was invited to sit on the Design Skills Advisory Panel and discuss the founding of a national Design Academy.

‘We had ambitions to become a consultative source to local government, but we didn’t think that within a year we would be involved with a national project. In a very short space of time we have managed to establish ourselves as a valuable source of opinion.’

Next year, the SCDF’s ambitions will include setting up a design course at Chichester University – Spence expects the first intake of students in September 2008 – and becoming financially independent.

Complementing another of the forum’s remits, which is to let local businesses know that they do not have to go to London with their design needs, is its plan to start its own studio in an 850m2 warehouse space called The Mill, sandwiched between a snooker hall and an Indian takeaway in Chichester. This also offers the forum the best chance at financial self-sufficiency so far. Spence imagines that he will invite SCDF members to pitch for the job of designing the interior, ‘producing something original and forward-looking’. He hopes that the studio will open in spring 2008.

Wordsearch chairman Peter Murray, who chaired the SCDF anniversary meeting in May, believes local forums have an important part to play, and encourages more people to start them. ‘It behoves design professionals to make more of their skills than just enhancing their own livelihoods. I have sat through planning committee meetings in places on the south coast, and there is a desperate need to raise people’s aspirations about design. By organising into groups and forging debate about good design, the influence of forums can be massive, because there is a desire among politicians to listen.’

If you want to start a successful forum, Spence’s advice is to ‘get a superstar designer as your chairman’. But if your forum fails and the call of the city loudens, just remember McFaul’s reflection from his beachfront studio: ‘London’s streets are not paved with gold, they are paved with chewing gum.’

Founded: May 2006 Founder and director: Peter Spence Chairman: Wayne Hemingway
• Chichester District Council – £10 000 • West Sussex Council Area Investment framework – £10 000 • University of Chichester – £5000
• University of Portsmouth – £5000
• Portsmouth Council Area Investment Framework – £5000
• Waiting on funding from the Arts Council
The funding pays forum director Peter Spence’s salary, the only full-time member of staff
Office locations: Portsmouth and Chichester
Towns covered by SCDF: Portsmouth, Chichester, Littlehampton, Bognor Regis, Worthing, Shoreham, Brighton

Cornwall –
East Midlands –
Derbyshire –
South West –
Somerset –

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