Local Heroes

Deyan Sudjic has a story he likes to tell about his early days as director of Glasgow 1999. Stepping out from the marble-encrusted caverns of City Chambers during the 1996 International Festival of Design, Sudjic was furtively overtaken by one of Glasgow’s legendary old guard councillors. “Watch your back, son,” the councillor muttered darkly as he passed. The anecdote is revealing, not so much because of what it says about Glasgow (west of Scotland politics, after all, is the anthology of bare-knuckle histrionics); it’s revealing because Sudjic likes to tell it. Witness the soft frisson of the urbane metropole sampling a flavour of Old Labour stew.

When he arrived in the city, Sudjic found plans for a design festival in disarray. So he put some commitments on hold and threw himself into putting it right. Drawing on contacts from his journalist days at The Sunday Times, Blueprint and The Guardian (not to mention his books, exhibitions and professorships), he pulled together a show configured by Ben Kelly and studded with contributions from the likes of Paul Smith and Ron Arad, Kenneth Grange and Alessi, Rodrigo Rodriguez and James Dyson.

The event, buoyed by lectures and workshops, was a notable success. But Sudjic, for his pains, found himself accused of languishing in southern luvviedom and under-exploiting Glasgow talent. Fears were expressed, meanwhile, about progress on his “real” job, that of creating a festival for the UK City of Architecture.

The Arts Council’s original directive for Glasgow 1999 had been to “raise public awareness of architecture and design.” For many Glaswegians, however, the design element of this programme was little more than an appendage to the serious problem of building.

The explanation for this assumption is ironic. No British city is more aware of the significance of architecture than Glasgow. The quintessential, monumental, gridded, Victorian city has shouldered the drama of industrial planning and anti-Victorian demolition, modernist planning and anti-modernist demolition. Every Glaswegian over the age of 30 has experienced the population shifts – tower blocks going up, motorways driven through the heart of the city, tower blocks coming down again.

On the face of it, Sudjic had blazed in and raised the torch of design above that of his architectural remit. Indeed, everything he touches turns to international design. Glasgow 1999’s typeface was designed by MetaDesign (Berlin-London), the Winning exhibition of sport was emphatically designed by Ron Arad (Tel Aviv-London), orientation in the Lighthouse museum of architecture and design is being designed by Javier Mariscal (Barcelona). And Glasgow 1999 products – magazines, catalogues, promotional material, education pamphlets, party invites even – all look pretty damn well designed.

As pied piper of the design economy, Sudjic has called the tune non-stop during his tenure in Glasgow. He has talked, journalised and politicked on the subject with impressive determination for four years. Clothes, household goods, buildings, street furniture, the blade on that Swiss army knife no one knows the purpose for… the doctrine of Glasgow 1999 has been truly established. The hymn goes: “Design is Everything. Everything is Design.” And, politically at least, the spin has paid off. Glasgow’s 70-something Lord Provost, Pat Lally – famous for knocking down Basil Spence tower blocks, commissioning Norman Foster’s silly Armadillo and kicking New Labour’s butt – has fitted the word “design” into an urban lexicon which once had room only for “housing” and “architecture”.

But the question lingers – and it is emphatically not simply a matter of so called “regional” anxiety: what is Glasgow 1999 doing for Glasgow’s own design consultancies? The reality so far, is that its most visible products are the exhibitions – most of which boast London designers – an education programme, five community landscaping projects, a cluster of architect-led housing projects and the flagship Lighthouse Museum of Architecture and Design.

Britain desperately needs to forge links between designers and manufacturers that do not resort, with tedious inevitability, to the London village. It’s obviously bad for manufacturing and it fosters inwardness and lack of originality in the design community itself. If an illustration is needed for metropolitan idleness, then you need look no further than a small omission made by Sudjic’s former editorial baby, Blueprint, from its coverage of last year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Around 30 British companies were represented at the ICFF. Only two of them © won awards. They were Timorous Beasties, for best textiles; and Submarine, for best craftsmanship. Both companies were from Glasgow. Neither got a mention in the Blueprint piece.

The big irony here is not that Glasgow needs chivvying to dance along to some Millbank spin about the design economy, but that the city is already a test-case for how a young, design-led revival of manufacturing might become a reality. A concentrated history of engineering, heavy industry and invention; the remnants of what was once Britain’s most virile manufacturing workforce; and – not to be sniffed at – a culture that believes that making things is important. The city is hungry for it.

Despite Sudjic’s everything-is-design philosophy, there is clearly a need to differentiate between getting quality design for Glasgow 1999 events and fostering actual business in and out of the city. Glasgow doesn’t need to import talent to succeed in its promise as Britain’s second centre of design (the buzz of international designers is appropriate for a festival, but useful only where the contacts are long term); the city needs infrastructure and a greater network of relationships with manufacturing, advertising, business and so on.

In this regard, Glasgow 1999 is concentrating its efforts on the Glasgow Collection, an assembly of prototype products which will be exhibited in the Lighthouse Museum towards the end of the year. The idea is to attract and develop innovative ideas for a minimum of 45 products, with 15 going into full production by the end of 1999. The Glasgow 1999 company is thereby working to provide investment, contacts and credibility to designers with innovative ideas.

Funding of around 750 000 for the Glasgow Collection has been provided by the Glasgow Development Agency, with the Royal Bank of Scotland committing start-up support to some of the younger companies to emerge from the project. Glasgow Collection boss Bruce Wood has a simple explanation for the involvement of an organisation like the Glasgow Development Agency, devoted to promoting local business. “It isn’t because they see design as a cool thing,” he says. “They tell me they have seen the light, that design has economic impact.”

Economic reports conducted by the GDA in Scotland recently came up with two broad themes for Glasgow. “Basically, we have a reputation for teaching at a higher education level, good designers, engineers and innovators,” says Wood. “In that sense the Scottish tradition is, broadly, still active. But what’s missing is that there’s no bridging, no infrastructure to make the designers stay when manufacturers are just providing bits for global companies. The Glasgow Collection is an attempt to start that bridging.”

Ten Glasgow Collection products are being submitted for millennium product status. Several months before it launches with its first public exhibition the collection has successes to boast. Submarine, the group which won the © best craftsmanship award at the 1998 ICFF for Ursula, a stainless steel bath inspired by the techniques of Clyde shipyards, already has millennium product status. A rotationally moulded plastic Chasm chair by One Foot Taller won the Judges Award at last year’s 100% Design show after temporarily flummoxing Ron Arad (he couldn’t, initially, see how it was done). And The VK&C Partnership was recently blessed with Design Week’s very own Best Consumer Product for Quentin, its paper pulp lamp design.

These are three young Glasgow groups, working in the city because it provides a curious culture – at once competitive and collective, a taste for international shows and an aptitude for innovation. Ian Carnduff, partner at VK&C, keeps his reflection on Glasgow 1999’s influence on his two-year-old company straightforward: “Without them, this would have taken four years instead of two.” Companies at this stage in their development are uninhibited in their enthusiasm for Glasgow 1999. The backdrop of events provides the feeling that Glasgow is the place to be, opportunities from even limited investment can be turned to significant commercial ends, and some of those contacts are being forged with more traditional manufacturers as the old guard catch the bug of design-led entrepreneurialism.

For more mature companies, however, the situation is ambivalent. Paul Simmons of

maverick textile designer Timorous Beasties (started in 1990 at a propitious moment for Glasgow designers; turnover presently more than 100 000) welcomes the influence of the Glasgow Collection on many of the city’s designers, but with a proviso that more could be done. “It puts Glasgow on the map for them and helps people here feel like they’re part of everything that’s going on. But there’s a lot of talent that hasn’t been used to the full.”

To an extent, the Glasgow Collection is an example of where festival meets business. The idea sprang from the 1996 Festival of Design and has been gathering momentum as the year gathers international plaudits. But the proportion of Glasgow 1999 investment being directed solely to fostering design (as opposed to using design to create the festival) can be measured by how the collection’s 750 000 investment sits in an overall 45m package for 1999’s events.

In terms of gathering serious interest from business and manufacturing, Janice Kirkpatrick of Graven Images is doubtful whether sufficient input has gone into forging relationships in the city between graphic designers, media organisations, and clubs as well as the more traditional manufacturers. Kirkpatrick, who is presently making a BBC2 documentary on a world history of objects, is unconvinced by the Glasgow-London balance of 1999 events. “What’s here is good,” she says. “It’s not a case of introducing Glasgow designers to London designers and saying ‘look at this, this is good’. Get some Scottish designers down to lecture them.”

Sudjic, meanwhile, has to spin a cat’s cradle of comparatively modest funding through all the fingers of Glasgow 1999’s ambitions. “I’m very proud of the Glasgow Collection,” he says. “It’s perhaps the most innovative thing we’ve done. But the process that leads to the development of a design economy is not the same as the one that would attract international designers to the McLellan Galleries for the Winning exhibition, it’s not that same that would attract schools to Kelvingrove Museum on a winter afternoon.” Watch your back, son.

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