In the beginning

Where does creativity come from? Lynda Relph-Knight asks five designers about influences, inspiration and the creative process

A design degree is the most obvious route to a career in design these days. But it wasn’t always so. Nor is formal education the only factor that shapes creativity. Influences as diverse as family and geographical location can have a strong bearing on the way a designer develops.

If you take a budding talent and nurture it by exposure to all manner of experiences – in and outside the education system – it will grow its own roots. Add an open mind, a lot of hard work, an eye for marketing and a couple of lucky breaks and you might have a design star.

Nought to Now is a show within a show, aiming to chart the influences of a handful of top designers. Set within the contemporary lifestyle exhibition Mode, to be held at London’s Business Design Centre from 3-6 June, it will contain artefacts and images portraying people and events that have inspired the subjects from the age of nought to now. Inflate founder Nick Crosbie, vacuum cleaner king James Dyson, furniture designer Michael Marriott, garden maker Dan Pearson and style advisor Dale Russell are among the participants.

Dale Russell

The toughest thing about profiling Dale Russell is trying to describe what she does. A consultant, through Russell Studio which she runs with her artist/graphic designer husband Steve, for companies as diverse as Ford, Ideal Standard, BT, Wedgwood and Nokia, she influences all kinds of products. But the work is often confidential and, as she works with in-house teams, rarely is she cited as author.

‘I do “stuff”,’ she says, by way of explanation. ‘Everything I do relates to the relationship between the object and the person. I never do design in the abstract.’ Teamwork is, she says, vital to the process, be it with an in-house design team or a technical laboratory. She loves dealing with mass-production and with people of passion.

Her method builds on her natural eclecticism. ‘I hoard things like a magpie,’ she says, including magazines, kitsch objects, classic icons, fabrics and endless slides of images that have caught her attention. The slides provide meat for her teaching – for the past five years on the textiles course at the Royal College of Art and soon as a postgraduate supervisor on the product design course at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. But they also inform the client presentations put together with Steve, which form the basis of brainstorming sessions to develop new products, colours and finishes.

Russell found her current role through a series of what appear to have been happy accidents. As a teenager in London’s Holland Park, she babysat for John Jess, an Art Deco and Art Nouveau specialist, and his wife Sally. Sally’s brother, Mick Fleetwood, lived in the basement and was forming a band. Russell found herself making the band’s costumes.

Fleetwood went on to set up Fleetwood Mac, while Russell made costumes for other musicians in the circle, including Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. She also made clothes for sale at Chelsea’s legendary Sixties boutiques Granny Takes a Trip and Mr Freedom. This body of work got her into the then St Martins College of Art to study fashion and textiles with a live portfolio. She also worked at theatrical costumier Berman’s. But soon she moved on to the BBC to work on productions such as Dr Who and Monty Python.

Russell’s interest in design as we know it was triggered later, having spent time in hospital with back trouble. ‘Everything was so badly designed,’ she says.

In the intervening year’s she became known for her work with colour, becoming creative director of the Colour Group in 1985. This led to the Colourworks series of five books for Phaidon in 1991 and Colour in Industrial Design, published by the Design Council in the same year. Russell describes the books as ‘calling cards’, in that they aroused interest with companies such as BT and helped to win Russell Studio consultancy work with leading manufacturers.

Though the offers would be quick to come, Russell isn’t tempted to join a client company full-time. ‘I’m unemployable,’ she says. ‘I feel I’d be missing something. I need all the bits to make a whole. I love the fact that it’s almost anonymous.’

Passionate about her work, Russell still has to ‘pinch myself’ that it’s really happening. ‘Steve and I constantly ask “What will we do when we grow up?”,’ she concludes.

Nick Crosbie

Inflate has found success in challenging the norm, making us use inflatables in ways we might not have previously considered. Yet its founder Nick Crosbie describes himself as ‘painfully ordinary’ – a boy from the Home Counties who has hit the big time.

He describes an archetypal childhood in Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, living in a semi with his builder father, stay-at-home mother and a sister three years his junior. But if his roots were ordinary, his progression into design was not.

The first glimmering of interest came in the mid-Eighties when he was about 14, and arguably the youngest reader of the seminal magazine Arena. He remembers reading about Jean-Paul Gaultier and recreating the front cover portrait for himself. ‘It was issue 4,’ he recalls.

Showing early academic promise – ‘I had lots of As at O-level,’ he says – he failed to follow through, achieving only art at A-level. But that was enough to do a foundation course at college, where he started with graphics.

London was a goal so colleges such as Chelsea and the then St Martins College of Art had great appeal. Even more appealing to a young man with big ideas was St Martins’ International Product Design course. He created sketches of a slatted chair design, borrowing from Marc Newson, to get into the course.

Crosbie failed most project elements of the first year, having missed the briefings. But he found a welder in the college workshop and so began his love of inflatables. When asked to represent his portfolio within three weeks, he did exactly that. The work inside remained the same, but the portfolio itself became a fluorescent orange welded affair. Both students and tutors liked it and an embryonic business was born.

Needless to say, Crosbie stayed on and by the third year knew he wanted to set up Inflate, fulfilling a long-term ambition. He got into the Royal College of Art to do postgraduate studies under the then industrial design professor Daniel Weil, and set up his own company.

‘I was living in East London and bought a welder, which allowed me to make inflatables 24 hours a day,’ he says. ‘I wanted to keep them outside of my student work – students don’t understand commercial things. But by the time of the degree show, I was already selling stuff.’

Inflate has gone from strength to strength since then, epitomising the Nineties ‘lifestyle’ interests in colour, form and materials for desirable domestic objects. Moving on from the inflatable egg cups offered as a promotion by the Observer newspaper and small artefacts such as fruit bowls, it has created exhibition stands and collaborated on art installations. It built an inflatable bar for the 100% Design contemporary furniture show a couple of years ago, and more recently has moved into different plastics technologies to create bags and other commercial items (DW 22 May 1998).

Crosbie’s ‘ordinariness’ appears to have paid off. His father’s building work put making things on his agenda early on, but more importantly he had no childhood experience of anyone working for someone else. He knew from the outset he wanted to run his own business.

But the most telling aspect of his down-to- earth approach is his attitude to the work. All the design debates on form and aesthetics are confined to the studio, he says. ‘When you get to site, you’re there to do the job.’

James Dyson

James Dyson’s story is well charted. Rejected by vacuum cleaner giants sceptical about his invention of the dual cyclone, he proved them wrong, making himself a millionaire and giving design a rare hero.

But Dyson’s creative and entrepreneurial influences are rarely discussed.

Unlike many of his peers, his interest in design does not stem from family connections. ‘They were all vicars and teachers,’ he says of his forebears. But his upbringing nonetheless had a profound effect on him.

He speaks of the ‘wild beauty, open skies and sand dunes’ of north Norfolk, where he spent his childhood. This, he maintains, gave him an appreciation of aesthetics. Neither his father nor mother were concerned with design, but both painted. The first sign that the young Dyson had artistic skills came in 1957, when he was nine and won a painting competition run by The Eagle comic.

Even more influential was the lifestyle of the family. His father ‘fixed things’, he says, boats and early cars providing the material. ‘I didn’t have an obvious childhood (to become a designer),’ he says. ‘But it was full of products – boats, caravans, guns.’

Dyson became ‘manic’ about engineering. But it was his artistic talents that took him to art college, Byam Shaw in London’s Kensington, in 1966. It was here that he heard about design, halfway through the course. ‘I devoured everything to do with it,’ he says. ‘I absorbed it like an enthusiastic amateur’ – sentiments he was to repeat when he arrived at the Royal College of Art to study furniture, then interior design. The RCA gave him his first live hero, structural engineer Tony Hunt. Earlier role models included Victorian civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and geodesic dome fanatic Buckminster Fuller.

Dyson’s first serious brush with design involved designing military boats. But it was the Ballbarrow, designed in 1979, that first earned him fame. The development of the dual cyclone system and a career in vacuum cleaners was an unlikely follow on from such a simple concept, but it has dominated Dyson’s life since.

The fight for his invention demonstrated a dogged persistence he’s followed through in law suits against would-be copyists since. But Dyson Appliances, based in Malmesbury in Wiltshire, has set a great example of how a company could be run, whatever its product. Design-led throughout, the business takes a holistic approach.

Dyson vacuum cleaners are designed in the studio and assembled in the factory downstairs, largely by hand from parts bought in from approved suppliers working to Dyson’s specifications. All machines are tested on-site, while damaged machines are recalled and analysed so that the designers – largely young graduates – can learn what went wrong. Customers, meanwhile, are fixed up with a replacement machine for the duration of the repairs. Even the advertising promotional design is handled in-house.

But for all his success, Dyson is keen to pay a bit back. A £100 000 donation to the Design Museum’s education fund, Loan Boxes for schools showing how a Dyson vacuum cleaner is made and a regular exchange with design colleges are part of this. As chairman of the Design Museum and a sponsor of many awards and events, Dyson is keen to further the cause of design.

Dyson’s family may follow in his footsteps: wife Dierdre is a painter and rug designer, while his daughter Emily designs ‘clothes and stuff’. Could this be another design dynasty in the making?

Michael Marriott

You’re sure of a warm welcome in Michael Marriott’s studio. The kettle is on the minute you arrive and seasonal goodies such as strawberries and chocolate are on offer. The space, in a former tarpaulin works in London’s Islington is hospitable, though it takes a particular taste to fully appreciate the quality of the workshop-cum-studio. Tools and materials are interspersed with a CD player, a fridge and other home comforts.

Marriott is a regular on the furniture scene, taking part in most shows, from the commercial 100% Design to the ICA’s recent design show Stealing Beauty. But his work, until fairly recently, has tended to be more on the crafts front than in mass production.

The son of a London antiques dealer and furniture restorer, he’s always been as happy making things as designing. Having completed a BTEC course in furniture in the late Eighties, for example, he worked as a furniture technician at the then Middlesex Polytechnic rather than get involved in the excesses of Eighties design. The unofficial teaching he did in that role has continued though, now at the Royal College of Art.

Inspired by a school visit to the Ford factory at Dagenham, he’s passionate about production. ‘I still love going round factories,’ he says. But he’s critical of seeing it exploited as entertainment. The Kartell stand at the 1999 Milan fair is dismissed as ‘a load of rubbish’, in that it had production robots simply shifting around the manufacturer’s chairs. ‘Why not start injection-moulding Ron Arad’s wine rack (on the stand)?’, he asks.

Work for himself and UK manufacturer SCP started to tip the balance over the past year or so. He’s extended to jewellery design for a German company and 3D spectacles for an Imax cinema. Now a commission from Japanese company E Y to create a collection of furniture, lighting, tableware, textiles and accessories on the theme of Tommy Cooper looks set to put him on the international map.

Those who know Marriott’s work won’t be surprised that he has chosen the late comedian as his muse for the E Y collection. It’s about wit. And the wit increasingly manifests itself in the title of his pieces – often from wood or simple materials such as plywood and chip board. Hi honey, I’m home was the name of an almost traditional coat stand produced by SCP – a far cry from the XL-1 Kit chair he created for his RCA masters show in 1993, which set him up in business.

The same wit can be expected to show in his Nought to Now installation. It will be based in a timber ‘shed’, perhaps harking back to the garden shed he colonised as a workshop at the family home in south-east London while still at school, making ‘go-carts and stuff’. But it will be decked out as a simple cinema, screening twin images of work and influences on continuous video tapes featuring slides from his growing collection, which visitors can enjoy from the comfort of a big bed. Not surprisingly, Tommy Cooper will appear as one of those influences, alongside wacky vehicles and run-down industrial buildings. There will be nothing slick there.

And with Marriott’s desert island discs playing, led by Roger Miller’s Little Green Apples and King of the Road, it will be a home from home. As for the hospitality, there is talk of toast and coffee being available – even if it’s only for the smell.

Dan Pearson

Dan Pearson describes himself as a garden maker. Known publicly for his media work – a regular column in The Sunday Times, TV series for Channel 4 and the BBC and various books – his real passion lies with the plants he uses for his naturalistic gardens, and with design.

He’s been working on private gardens since he was 17, when, while still a student at the Royal Horticultural Gardens at Wisley, fashion designer Frances Mossman asked him to do her garden. But in the design community he is better known for commissions such as the gardens related to the Althorp Visitor Centre in Northamptonshire – the exhibition celebrating the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, created by Din Associates. Now he is handling landscaping at the Millennium Dome at Greenwich.

All this is achieved from a studio in the backstreets of Battersea with one part-time assistant, Jinny Blom. A loner until his teens, he prefers to work for himself, and largely alone. Only once, for a few months, did he work for someone else – other than a client – and he hated it, he says. As Blom points out, he could run a big group, given his experience and reputation, but his aim is to ‘keep it crafty, keep it small’.

Pearson traces his passion for plants back to childhood. At the age of ten, for example, he supplemented his pocket money with the sale of plants he’d grown. He stills bags up seeds from plants he’s cultivated.

But though he opted for training at Wisley and London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew rather than taking a landscape architecture course, he’s just as keen on design. ‘I went to learn about plants,’ he says. ‘But I knew I wanted to make gardens.’ Gardens, he believes, should have a strong identity.

His first garden plan, he recalls, was when he was 13, for the family home in Hampshire. Now his portfolio bulges with fascinating ‘bubble’ plans indicating a planting scheme. The plans are ‘inspired by the native plant community’, he says. ‘It’s like putting coins on the table.’ But garden-making also includes furniture, such as the simple wooden benches at Althorp, inspired by the fallen oaks on the vast parkland.

Pearson’s influences again go back to his youth – he is still only in his 30s. His father is a painter, his mother ‘a maker’, he says, who studied fashion design. His brother Luke is a furniture designer.

But he credits Frances Pumphery, sadly now dead, who had him work on her garden when he was still at home and patrons such as Mossman and Patricia Carluccio. Carluccio ‘taught me the process of refining the ideas’, he says; Mossman ‘always makes me look twice’.

Travel is another great influence. He won scholarships to the Valley of Flowers at Uttar Pradesh in Northern India and to Jerusalem Botanical Gardens after leaving Kew. He also values the opportunities for travel his media role has given him. The Pearson’s Routes Around the World series for Flashback TV, screened by Channel 4, took him to Japan. Though he has little affinity with the formality of Japanese gardens, he was struck by what he saw and recognised a similar structure in his own work.

Pearson has largely come through his media phase, refocusing now on his passion for plants and design. ‘The media stuff created a bit of a schism,’ he says. But fans need not be too disappointed. A new BBC TV series is in the offing, charting a year in the life of Mossman’s garden. The trouble is it won’t be screened until 2001. Like a garden, a good programme takes a while to mature.

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