British design escapes shackles of a national

British design is taking a bit of a beating at the moment. In The New York Times last month, British critic Alice Rawsthorn complained that it’s not what it used to be. Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian concurred, saying, ‘You have to shop around for it.’ And then on BBC Two last Monday, French design star Philippe Starck revealed that he would like to help us to ‘create English style’, as none currently exists.

But in a new book commissioned by UK Trade & Investment, Sir John Sorrell picks British design up and smooths its Ozwald Boateng-tailored suit.

The sequel to Creative Island, published in 2002, Creative Island II contains more than 100 recent design projects chosen for their innovation and excellence.

Taking in work from 25 design disciplines, the book features projects by Jason Bruges, David Pearson, Martin Lambie-Nairn, Sebastian Conran and others, arranged by ten themes, including subversion, humanism and precision.

To be considered for the book, the designers had to be based in the UK, although their passports could be non-British and their work international – this, says Sorrell, still counts as British design. UKTI agrees, and intends to arm Government ministers with limited-edition hardback editions of the title. These will be proffered to their political counterparts on international visits.

Starck’s cryptic observation in his programme Design for Life – ‘In England there is something very strange, which is today there is some good designers but nobody really arrives on the market’ – receives a bullish response from Sorrell. ‘Give me his address and I’ll send him a copy of the book,’ he says.

‘This is a golden age for design in this country,’ claims Sorrell. ‘I am not being derogatory about Milan, Paris or New York, but I don’t think that anywhere else on earth has 25 disciplines all at this very high quality [level].’

He reasons that a blend of international talent, ‘great design schools’ and our small, crowded island have, together, generated a creative ‘hothouse effect’.

‘There is a cross-fertilisation culture here, with a sharing of ideas that is totally unique in the world,’ says Sorrell. ‘It comes from having a huge number of designers working so near each other geographically.’

The suggestion is that it is impossible for a single, unifying ‘English style’ to emerge.

Unshackled by a national style, British design is booming, says Sorrell. Although, as Transport for London reinstates the Thames on its latest Tube map following public ridicule over the decision to omit it, Sorrell does accept Rawsthorn’s point that public design is languishing in the doldrums.

‘We haven’t got Frank Pick sorting things out now, and [Rawsthorn] makes a very good point – that pillar boxes and phone boxes are very important. We have let that sort of product design go’, he concedes.

Text-book Design
Creative Island II features more than 100 design projects and their inspirations:

  • Sebastian Conran talks about how his walk on Chesil Beach inspired the Equilibrium Scales
  • Terence Woodgate describes how his jealousy of Formula One’s materials prompted a collaboration with ex-Ferrari designer John Barnard, leading to the launch of the Surface table
  • Simon Heijdens explains how, in his light installations, his focus on the random in nature came out of the ‘rigidly defined’ Dutch environment of his youth

All designs featured in Creative Island II, by Sir John Sorrell

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