Can’t play won’t play

The beef war is a sad illustration of Britain’s attitude to Johnny Foreigner: truculent, arrogant and totally negative. The European Designer show in Maastricht brought home to ex-pat Peter Hall just how unproductive this approach is, and what we stand to

“We are part of the community of Europe,” said Gladstone in 1888, “and we must do our duty as such.”

The question of allegiance and responsibility toward our erstwhile foes has occupied discussions at British dinner tables for centuries. To outsiders it makes little sense that the British should have divided themselves into two herds, pro-Europe and anti-Europe. From New York, 4000 miles away, it all looks like Europe. Even the beef war, which looks likely to boil till the cows come home and Britain is ostracised by the EU, is viewed with amusement in the US, a country that hasn’t imported British beef for six years.

My recent excursion to the European Designer show in Maastricht brought it all back with a thump. The experience was quite an education in pan-European sentiment and national pride. As a descriptive moniker, the European Union seemed about as accurate as the United States.

Maastricht began for me with an encounter with a group of British designers revelling in a piazza in the old Roman town, complaining loudly about the beer. It ended with the spectacle of Dutch football fans hastily removing their national colours as the plane landed in Britain. Along the way, I heard the French deride the spectacular Austrian pavilion as “too cold”, the German organisers of the poorly attended event describe the British as “unprofessional”, and the British designers continually denigrating their European competition as inferior.

At the risk of sounding like Rodney King (with his futile plea “can’t we all just get along” after the Los Angeles race riots), I’d like to suggest that the patriotic approach might not be the best way for designers to win work in mainland Europe.

One popular British refrain about the rest of Europe is “they don’t”. As in “they don’t understand the concept of retail design,” or “they don’t even have a word for design,” or “they don’t know how to build cars/communications networks/make tea/ brew beer.” The negative prefix is worn like a suit of armour, immediately conveying an inflexibility and impermeable self-containment. If I were a French client considering the appointment of a designer to help me introduce a chain of fast-food restaurants across Europe, I’d choose a lyrical Spaniard who knew nothing about restaurant branding over a Brit in a suit of arrogance. No matter how charming the British patter and how beautiful the portfolio of work, it’s the armour- plating that reveals itself first.

Contrast the negative Brits with, say, the London product design group TKO. Six years ago, when all of TKO’s clients were Japanese, TKO’s Anne Gardener remarked, “one client said to me: ‘We like you because you never say no’.” Her partner, Andy Davey, revealed his approach to courting overseas work with an analogy to riding on the underground. “If you bend your knees, you have a better time of it.” It’s 1600-year-old advice – si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more – “If you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere.”

In Maastricht, however, the Brits were more inclined to perpetuate the Crusader tradition, and when no potential converts appeared, they turned on each other. On the penultimate night of the fair, ugly scenes erupted in a hotel restaurant as the British Design Initiative was dragged across the coals by some of its members. Its crime was, apparently, a confused mission, too many members and a partial infrastructure ill-suited to the task of referring clients to designers for specific projects. But considering the size of the operation, it’s amazing that the BDI is even approached by companies seeking design expertise. What do we expect of an organisation with a shoe-string budget – a personal ambassador for every member? The fact that the BDI has achieved any success at all suggests that there is a market out there.

Perhaps the market demands a little more attention than tossing some money into the BDI’s coffers and complaining about the low yield.

Even in Gladstone’s days of relative isolationism, Europe was considered a community. Today it is a lifeline to the success of a small business. But to succeed in an alien culture requires patience, courage and flexibility. So it probably makes sense to leave the suit of armour at home.

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