Backwater hub

The Design Centre at University College Falmouth is shaking up the creative scene in Cornwall – helped along by an influx of EU funding. Clare Dowdy checks out what’s happening in the far South West at the moment

Cornwall has long been regarded as a backwater, but in recent times the county has been earning a reputation for businesslike and even experimental creativity.

This revival is being aided by some not insubstantial European funding, which is boosting academia and the support agencies for design, craft and the arts, and which in turn are encouraging creatives to remain in Cornwall or to relocate there.

In parallel, the county has 99 per cent broadband coverage, and has benefited from a boom in tourism, much of which needs some design input. The upshot is some truly innovative stuff connected to University College Falmouth’s four-year-old Design Centre, and a range of high profile commercial schemes.

That’s not to suggest that Cornwall is some sort of designers’ paradise. The lunch-time sea swims and upbeat atmosphere are still a long way from the ‘action’ of any major conurbation, and Cornwall is still one of Europe’s poorest regions.

As Jane Sutherland, director of support organisation Creative Skills, puts it, ‘I would like to think it’s a very exciting place to live and work, but I fear people see it as a very exciting place to have a second home.’

The consultancies that have been making their mark include Absolute, Gendall Design and Aukett Brockliss Guy – all long-term players of more than 12 people – alongside a host of smaller business including graphic design group Sames and Littlejohns, and furniture design group Sixixis, which both started in 2005.

Meanwhile, spearheading the design innovation is UCF’s 3D Digital Design Research Cluster. The cluster’s designer-makers, based at the Tremough campus, are exploring and extending the applications of digital design and manufacturing technologies.

‘UCF thought the cluster could impact on Cornwall’s regeneration,’ says Dr Katie Bunnell, who heads the cluster.

More than £100m of European and other funding has come Tremough’s way, luring a host of energised academics to the Design Centre. About 400 students a year (and growing) are surrounded by hi-tech equipment and support organisations such as the Cornwall Design Forum and Hidden Art, which launched a Cornwall branch in 2005.

One such designer to benefit from this set-up is Greek-born Royal College of Art graduate Ismini Samanidou, whose digitally designed reversible fabric is made on the Design Centre’s hi-tech Jacquard loom, and licensed through Georg Spencer. Samanidou is an ‘incubatee’ business, which she set up in Falmouth with support from the Crafts Council’s Next Move Scheme. It is now fostered through the college’s one-year start-up scheme.

These and other support schemes are funded through EU money, the next tranche of which arrives at the end of this year. Called Convergence Funding, it comes to the princely sum of £444m, which is to last until 2013.

As well as business support, it has also been used to boost the standard of tuition. ‘A lot of ex-RCA graduates are teaching here, and design and contemporary craft is coming up because they are earning money and supporting their work,’ says Hannah Maughan, founder of Hidden Art Cornwall.

As graduates remain in the county, that too has an impact on the quality of work. ‘It’s constantly improving,’ says Ruth Littlejohns, who graduated from UCF in graphic design and set up shop in Falmouth.

Phil Gendall’s 21-year-old brand and on-line communications group Gendall Design is also there. ‘Falmouth is a creative town through and through,’ says Gendall, whose clients include the Eden Project. ‘There is a great sense of design community here, with three well-established consultancies and a host of micro-businesses – pretty amazing with a population of just 20 000. Client relationships last, and there is a real integrity to business relationships. Maybe because it’s a small place, reliability and trust are important values.’

This EU money also goes towards marketing agencies, which in turn help local businesses to boost their image and communications. Hence, commercial design groups have seen local clients wake up to the need to invest in design.

Helen Blake recognises this. Managing director of Absolute – the biggest interior design group in the South West – she is the only locally born person at the consultancy. Absolute created Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant outpost in Watergate Bay, and is working on a £13.5m new hotel in Rock called St Moritz, which opens in September. ‘We don’t do much work outside the county as there’s so much work here,’ she says.

However, some designers are very aware of Cornwall’s distance from non-Cornish clients, suppliers and inspiration. Katy Reddish, another UCF graduate, is an interior designer for Pendennis Shipyard, which builds ‘super-yachts’. ‘With design, it’s all about keeping your finger on the pulse and being aware of what’s new,’ she says. ‘Sometimes you feel that being so far away from London means you’re missing out on something big.’

Samanidou echoes this. ‘It’s quite isolating. I have to keep going to London for meetings and to keep up my contact,’ she says. And while workspace costs are lower than in many places in the country, travel costs are obviously higher.

For people running a business, Cornwall’s position also has its disadvantages. ‘Staff turnover is low,’ which is good, says Gendall, ‘but it means [companies] don’t get to experience a range of approaches. Creative recruitment is hard because we are a long way from the centre.’ However, the upside is ‘a great sense of loyalty and team’, he adds.

And with this resurgence of energy, Cornwall is making its own noise. Throw in the renewed interest in home-grown surfing and camping holidays – and a bit of global warming – and Cornwall’s attractions seem very convincing.

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