UK designers must stay ahead of world competitors

Product design, as we know it, was largely born of 1930s German Bauhaus influences. The 1950s saw the Americans reign supreme, building on technologies generated in wartime, putting forward the notion of a lifestyle via the ‘American Dream’ and promoting consumerism, by creating obsolescence through styling.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Italians arguably took the lead, with Milan as the world’s style capital. London claimed that title in the late 1990s – defeating Barcelona’s bid around the 1992 Olympic Games – and so it remains a strong contender on the world stage, even as Far Eastern and former Iron Curtain countries join the race.

This snapshot of world design serves only to show that, while countries increasingly look to design to build economic strength and reputation, from time to time, one takes the lead. So who is next? Government support aside, can the UK retain its position, given the talents of designers emerging from nations such as Slovenia, South Africa and China? So far no nation, except the US, is quite as broad-based in its take on design.

Closer to home, the challenge is coming from The Netherlands. The Dutch have strong traditions in graphics and, since the early 1990s, have led the avant-garde in 3D design, under the auspices of Droog Design. Under the curatorial eye of Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker, the collective has now hit the mainstream, with the likes of Marcel Wanders and Hella Jongerius on the circuit. The youthful D3 Design Talents component of last week’s Imm Furniture fair in Cologne suggested this isn’t just a glitch. A new breed of Dutch designers stole the show against competition from across the globe.

So what sets the Dutch apart? Inventiveness, eclecticism and fearlessness, and the style of ‘no style’. All these elements underpin British design – significantly, Droog is planning a show of New British Design in Amsterdam in March. So let’s watch and learn, but not be caught out by our Continental cousins.

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