Seoul search in London

Two years ago Samsung closed its design centre in the UK, but it is now opening another in London. Why do multinationals choose London as a base for design studios?

The news that electronics manufacturer Samsung is to set up a design centre in the UK, for the second time, comes as welcome news for the UK design industry.

Not only does it imply that the UK is leading the way in European product design, it also suggests that Samsung is determined to tap into British talent. This time around, Samsung is hoping that market conditions don’t interfere in the success and life span of the European design centre. Last time, the Asian recession forced Samsung to close the doors of its design centre in April 1998, after just two years in operation.

Samsung has pulled in two key members of staff who formed part of its previous design centre team – Mark Delaney and Clive Goodwin – to set up the new centre. Goodwin, who previously worked at Native Design, is on the look-out for offices in central London, namely the SE1, Old Street and Clerkenwell areas. Delaney has been working at Tangerine and Fitch for the past few years, but has maintained a good relationship with Samsung, working on various design projects.

The London design centre, which will work closely with a South Korean counterpart, is to be established within the next two months with a view to completing the design of four products before the end of the year.

Delaney and Goodwin will run the office, and will be joined by Harry Choi from the Seoul office, to enable integration between the two sites. More local staff will be recruited next year once the centre has established itself.

Delaney says this time round things will be different. “Samsung’s got its house in order. It’s restructured its Seoul design centre, the Korean economy’s back on track and it’s now focusing just on core product lines, and not cars, which was a bit of a mistake before,” says Delaney. The design team in London will now concentrate on products such as mobile phones, audio visual equipment, TVs and electronic gadgets.

One of the main differences between then and now is going to be the absence of Clive Grinyer, the driving force behind the first design centre. Grinyer, currently head of product design at TAG McLaren Audio, says he has been an unofficial adviser to the new centre, through friendships with Delaney and Goodwin.

“It’s great news that Samsung are having another go,” says Grinyer. “It shows the company’s resilience that it can come back so quickly and get great designers like Delaney and Goodwin back on board, and it’s commendable that Samsung sees design as something to be done locally.”

Grinyer says it was very disappointing when the first design centre floundered, but thinks this one stands a good chance. “We were getting somewhere before it all came tumbling down, and actually managed to develop a strong design language. Samsung now has more flexibility and a liberal approach,” says Grinyer.

Goodwin thinks it won’t take long before the new design centre finds its feet. “The Koreans are like the Japanese in the way in which they have to get to know you before they work well with you. Because we’ve worked with them for years now, they’re happy working with myself and Mark. It should be up and running in no time,” he says.

But why, after pulling out of the UK two years ago, has Samsung decided to resurrect the centre in London?

Grinyer explains: “London is a key vantage point, capable of tapping into Europe, the US and Asia. London is also key for transportation. It’s fantastic that they’ve chosen to return to London, demonstrating that.”

Goodwin adds that the central location, the fact that London produces top designers and can tap into European design talent, were also major factors in the decision to locate there. “That and the additional factor of London being cosmopolitan and a hip and cool place,” he adds.

Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers agrees: “This decision by Samsung now shows Britain’s design strengths, together with the creative buzz of London, having a direct and very encouraging influence on inward investment. Investors have frequently decided to come to the UK because of factors such as manufacturing costs, labour flexibility and our position as a link between the US and Europe.”

The first Samsung European Design Centre began life in 1996 as part of Samsung’s move to corner the European market. The Brentford office also housed Samsung’s European marketing headquarters – it too fell victim to the crash in 1998.

Two years later and Samsung has cut its losses and is ready to try again. This time, however, there are no plans to bring the European marketing function back to life. The new design centre will work in much the same way as the previous one, by operating a preferred supplier list which includes the likes of Fitch and Tangerine and, intermittently, other European design groups.

And Samsung is not alone. A number of strategic design centres are currently being established in the UK.

Last month, Samsung rival Philips announced a £5m extension to its semiconductors chip design centre in Southampton, creating more than 200 jobs and a state-of-the-art networked area for the design of system chips. At the same time as unveiling the plans, Lord Sainsbury proclaimed the expansion as reinforcing the global perception of the UK’s position as the leading design house in Europe.

It is unlikely that the Samsung design centre will match the scale of Philips’, but there is no doubting Samsung’s persistence in its attempts to succeed.

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