Smothered by red carpet

Adrian Shaughnessy temporarily put his ‘mildly republican tendencies’ aside when he was confronted with the decadent splendour of Buckingham Palace

Writers who use their columns to name-drop are fairly contemptible. The ‘I-sat-next-to-Tom Cruise-at-dinner-last-night’ syndrome is the height of journalistic naffness. But I’m afraid I have to do a bit of name-dropping myself. You see, I went to Buckingham Palace the other night to meet the Queen. I didn’t actually ‘meet’ her in the end, but I saw her standing amid a glittering array of Britain’s finest design talent, whom she had graciously invited to a reception at her SW1 pad.

My mildly republican tendencies were tested when I got an invitation in the post in mid-September to attend a reception to ‘celebrate British Design’. I was mystified by the selection process that had thrown up my name. Had a pin been stuck into a list of D&AD members’ names? Was Prince Philip an avid reader of this monthly column? Who knows? But after about 20 seconds of deliberation I thought what the heck, you don’t get invited to meet the Queen every day of the week.

To get into the palace, guests were required to walk through a courtyard displaying iconic examples of British design: a Routemaster bus, a London taxi, a Mini Cooper S, a red telephone kiosk, the nose of Concord. All worthy specimens, but hardly the modern face of British Design. My heart sank: was this to be a gathering of design’s old guard?

Attendees included an imaginative cross section of figures from fashion, education, graphics, interaction, branding, architecture and product design. Whoever compiled the list did a good job in their generous vision of what constituted British design – but why no Neville Brody, arguably the most influential of all British graphic designers? Names on the list included: Peter Blake, Derek Birdsall, Terence Conran, Robin Day, Tom Dixon, Mike Dempsey, Mark Farrow, Dan Fern, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Adam Hart Davis, Martin Lambie-Nairn, Mary Lewis, Ross Lovegrove, Michael Johnson, Wally Olins, Malcolm Garrett, Quentin Newark, various Pentagram bigwigs, Paul Smith, Peter Saville, Tom Roope, Philip Treacy, Simon Waterfall, Thomas Heatherwick, Christopher Frayling and the editor of this magazine.

Buckingham Palace is less dowdy than we are led to believe. Admittedly, there’s more flock wallpaper than you’ll see in a thousand Indian restaurants, and the design revolution that has transformed the homes of millions of Britons hasn’t troubled the royal palace yet. But the vastness of the place, and the abundance of magnificent art hanging on the walls made the visit an awe-inspiring experience. You can see why firebrand Labour politicians and wannabe radicals like me are won over by the sheer grandeur of it all.

The best thing about the evening was watching the other guests. Witnessing some of British design’s finest jockeying for key positions on the Queen’s path through the crowd made for great theatre. I saw people strategically positioning themselves in the hope of catching her eye: some were successful, some were disappointed and others got Prince Philip. The Queen wasn’t alone. David Kester appeared to be chaperoning her through the melée, and a small group of public-school-cum-Sandhurst types (although they might have been eminent architects or branding consultants) acted as outriders, looking out for any cheeky designers stepping out of line. Beyond the men in regimental ties was a pack of ferocious ladies-in-waiting who swarmed around Her Maj in a vaguely menacing way. Probably never seen outside Kensington, they looked like Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons in drag. They were stick-thin, with sharp faces and the most astonishing hairstyles I’ve ever seen – huge balls of spun steel that looked like sculpture. None of the guests, not even the dandies who clearly shared a tailor with Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, came close to the sheer exoticism of the ladies-in-waiting.

I only caught a few glimpses of the Queen. She looked happy enough, although you couldn’t help thinking that she’d have been happier with an evening celebrating the Ambulance Service, District Nurses or the Bloodstock Industry. After an hour or so of mingling, she was whisked through some ornate glass doors and the evening was over. The rest of us went home, waking up the next day with mild hangovers caused by the lavish dispensing of alcohol. No lie-in for the Queen, however. She had to be up early for the state opening of Parliament.

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