It’s showtime

Product design shows every sign of being on the brink of gaining a kind of celebrity status. Hugh Pearman looks at the sector’s trends, and Jane Lewis gets the lowdown from the clients.

Those who cast the runes in the design business have discovered that, between 1995 and 1997, the percentage of large British manufacturers which considered design to be an essential component of their work rose from 42 per cent to 69 per cent. In such dry statistics, hope lies. Our industrial and product designers, it seems, are pushing at a slightly less stiff door than they once were.

But wow, do we need hope. The same useful figures, which were compiled by the Design Council, tell us that, over the last 30 years, the UK has lost half its share of world manufactured exports. In 1960 we held 16 per cent of the world market: by the start of the Nineties, we were down to under 8 per cent. And we can’t just blame competition from the Far East: over the same period Germany’s share of world exports remained pretty constant, while the US’s declined by a quarter – serious, but only half as serious as us. And now our exporters are being clobbered by the strong pound – a problem that will doubtless continue until we finally drag ourselves into the European Monetary Union. So what’s to do?

We are told that the answer is to add value, and that’s fine up to a point – in a buoyant economy, people are prepared to pay more for a better-than-basic product. But as Rolls-Royce, Mercedes and Porsche noticed during the last big recession, added value is the first thing to be ditched when times get rough. Certain things, like perhaps Ross Lovegrove’s covetable and costly luggage items for Connolly, will always find a market – but such commissions are rare.

However, British product designers, in some respects, have an easier time of it than British manufacturers. Traditionally, a great deal of their work is for overseas clients, and, though it would be nice to turn out designs for companies back home, there is no opportunity to be patriotic: you go where the work is. Such was the case until recently with Priestman Goode. It was the familiar pattern of relatively invisible bread-and-butter work for clients such as Hitachi contrasted with high-profile self generated projects back home. These included Paul Priestman’s Cactus radiators, soft fabric electric fan, or celebrated Tamagotchi-minder, which was eventually licensed overseas. The work that got the media coverage, in other words, was not the work that pulled in most of the money. On the other hand, the public image thus created did no harm at all when it came to securing new commissions.

Now, though, things are changing a little for this particular consultancy, which is now 20-strong – virtually an industry standard for successful product design houses. Its biggest client by far now is Virgin Trains, for which it is helping to design the new generation of fast, tilting express trains. It’s a multidiscipline thing, in that Priestman Goode is in a team with interiors and graphics designers. But how many good product designers have ever had a serious train to do? In the Seventies there was Kenneth Grange’s InterCity 125 diesel power car, now obsolescent, but still looking good; the early Nineties brought Jones Garrard’s Eurostar cab; and, er, that’s it (unless you count Wolff Olins’ Heathrow Express) until Virgin called up Priestman Goode. Everything else has been engineering-led and utilitarian. If nothing else, privatisation has revived a sense of Raymond Loewy-like style, though in Virgin’s case it is more than that: passenger comfort is a very designed thing, in trains as much as planes.

One of the bigger changes to have affected the profession in recent years is the emergence of the “personality product designer”. After big-name architects and interiors specialists and garden designers all booked their TV slots, it has proved to be the turn of the previous backroom boys. A few years ago I lamented that there was no way of spotting a Seymour Powell toaster or kettle – unless you happened to know that Seymour Powell did a lot of Tefal’s stuff. Well, you might still not be able to tell in the shop, but at least the two Dicks now have a media presence which has helped to up the profile of the product designer. Even Grange, the diffident doyen of British product-design, has been glimpsed on TV in a shower – HIS shower – with Muriel Gray (getting wet, but staying clothed). The now-defunct BBC Design Awards, for all their flaws, certainly helped public awareness. Without them, Trevor “Baygen” Bayliss wouldn’t be doing TV ads for mobile phones alongside Kate Moss and Ian Wright.

So where are we now? The degree shows just gone have seen the Royal College of Art and other schools produce the usual crop of ideas, ranging from the good to the cranky. There’s the usual mix of real design thinking versus mere styling. It was notable that, at the New Designers showcase of graduating students, the industrial design section – sponsored by Dyson and with a prize and work placement awarded by James Dyson – boasted a number of designs clearly influenced by the Dyson aesthetic of curvilinear mouldings, even, in a couple of cases, his trademark grey-and-yellow colour scheme. Did James award one of these his prize? He did not. He spotted original thinking in the form of a new pressure-sensitive, electrically-driven bench vice, carved from solid aluminium. A tool to make products, as much as a product itself. To this he gave the prize. In a sense, that is “real” design: inventing a better mousetrap rather than merely restyling an existing mousetrap.

What can the best of the crop of emerging designers look forward to? Priestman, who employs mainly ex-RCA staff, is concerned that to set up your own practice these days requires far greater investment than a decade ago. Serious international clients now require serious computing power from their designers, he says, and that means Silicon Graphics workstations costing 50 000 or more – the kind of equipment that allows you to create “virtual products” that can be transmitted across the globe.

Are we in, then, for a spate of consultancy mergers, in order to create large product design groups with the financial muscle to compete? I suspect it is unlikely. The 20-strong practice seems to be a durable institution, the right size to assist the usual founding individual or partnership without becoming impersonal. Costly computers notwithstanding, I feel that the pencil, the blade and the lump of modelling clay will continue to be vital tools until well into the next century. Impoverished or not, the best designers will always float to the top.

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