Design road trips round the UK

The British love a good road trip, and a new exhibition of art and design has been inspired by six such journeys around our shores. Maeve Hosea explores what it tells us about Britishness

Ever since the birth of the motorcar at the beginning of the 20th century, people have been captivated by its symbolism of freedom and limitless possibility. Driving a new exhibition opening this week is the creative appeal of road trips with six young artists and designers taking on the theme of an enduring cultural love affair with auto-fuelled adventure and discovery.

While the car industry labours in the midst of credit crunch gloom, another prevailing economic trend sees the populace drawn to the comforting logic of local provenance and speaking the language of home-grown inspiration. The Great British Road Trip is a collection of art and design pieces inspired by six creative people’s journeys around the British Isles and sponsored by British car brand Vauxhall.

Hewn together by the road trip premise, they are: photographs of the Scottish landscape inspired by the early work of Louis Daguerre; a film charting British eccentricity; leather driving accessories; an art piece that is at once a homage to the tradition of seaside funhouses and a comment on contemporary British politics; performance theatre that captures lost moments of working class urban Britain; and a collection of design objects inspired by dying craft techniques.

Simon Hasan, known for crafting household items with such experimental techniques as boiled leather, left the Royal College of Art last summer. His response to the road trip theme has been to visit places of former industrial glory, such as Coalbrookdale, Stoke and Nottingham. His discoveries of the craft techniques found on the trip have led him to applying things like wood cleaving to modern objects to produce a limited run of household items, including stools and vases.

‘I came back with a lot of images of things I wanted to try and an inspiration to make choices between different manufacturing and craft techniques,’ says Hasan. ‘I wanted to do something that is enduring and is as much about the context and stories that craft can bring to objects.’

Meanwhile, Scottish-Chinese artist Gayle Chong Kwan used the opportunity to explore her Celtic heritage and the imaginary vision it has been for artists of the past, including Daguerre, inventor of the diorama, as well as of the daguerrotype process. ‘My photographic
work is about making dramatic landscapes around the senses,’ explains Chong Kwan. ‘I started with some of the places he captured and that led me on a journey up to Edinburgh and Orkney mixing photography based on original diorama landscapes and my own experience.’ The results are dreamy, dramatic images that combine the photographs she took with sensory elements along the way, such as shortbread snacks and the cups of coffee that broke her journey.

The conceptual driver behind the work is to promote Britishness. In recent years, Vauxhall has been carving out a niche for itself through championing home-grown style and design. ‘British creativity is in line with our overall philosophy – British joie de vivre – the essence of the brand,’ says spokesman Simon Ewart. ‘Within the Vauxhall Collective, we wanted there to be a link to who we are, what we are about and how the car is the enabler to the creativity.’

Fine artist Matthew Darbyshire has created his most ambitious artwork to date in the form of a full-scale modern take on a traditional fairground funhouse. It uses blobby shapes, lurid colours and multiple mirrors to show the gaudiness and distortion he sees in New Labour architecture. ‘It was my wariness of consensual democratic design language that made me think of the classic funhouse and its eerie, creepy nature,’ says Darbyshire. ‘I took elements from five buildings in five UK cities and made it multilayered, communicating through it opinions about spaces, places, people and subtle digs at other artists.’

This Vauxhall Collective commission, which brings together Hasan, Chong Kwan and Darbyshire with the film-maker Ben Rivers, performance artist Gideon Reeling and fashion designer Jonathan Kelsey, explores themes of heritage, celebration of past achievements and future concerns for the state of society and the environment. It posits the idea that what Britishness does offer, as we are all exposed to more global influences, is a point of difference to enable creativity to stand out from the crowd.

The Vauxhall Collective exhibition is at the Idea Generation Gallery, 11 Chance Street, London E2 until 25 July

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