Designer-maker Andrew Tanner was born and bred in Leicester, but, like 1960s dramatist Joe Orton, he escaped. Tanner ended up in Brighton for 12 years, where he studied and set up his studio.
Unlike Orton, however, Tanner came back. ‘As my work was manufactured more and more in the UK, it was difficult to get to the factories in the Midlands from Brighton.’ At the moment, he’s spending three days a week in Stoke-on-Trent, where his new range for Poole Pottery is being made. What’s more, he claims that the creative industries community in Leicester beats that of Brighton.
He cites the agency Creative Leicestershire, which supports 1500 arts, media and design businesses of up to five people, many of which are based in the city’s West End.
For the past 18 months, Tanner, whose designs are stocked by Selfridges, has been working out of Leicester’s LCB Depot. This collection of 55 studios for creative businesses in an old bus depot was designed by Ash Sakula Architects and branded by Newenglish.
Carl Bebbington tells another side of the Leicester story. He moved from a job in London to Leicester 13 years ago, to set up Newenglish with his wife Wendy. Now six-strong, the consultancy can point out a host of local businesses that it has worked on, from Leicester Tourist Information, the National Space Centre and Leicester Libraries Services, to the Indian restaurant Mirch Masala and fair trade shop Just Fair Trade.
It was a conscious decision for Bebbington to focus increasingly on local clients. ‘It’s really nice to be able to walk around the city and see our work,’ he says. ‘We’re helping to change the cityscape.’
And this city of 300 000 people does seem to be changing. This autumn has seen the opening of Foreign Office Architects’ Highcross cinema and retail complex, Rafael Viñoly’s Curve theatre, and next year the Digital Media Centre by Marsh Grochowski will be ready.
These modern structures rub shoulders with some pleasing Victorian buildings. However, many period pieces have been left to deteriorate, or sit uncomfortably next to 1960s architectural mistakes.
The DMC will have 30 workspaces managed by the LCB Depot people. Peter Chandler, manager of LCB Depot, describes the difference the depot project and these other schemes in Leicester’s so-called Cultural Quarter are making. ‘They’re helping raise confidence in the city. Before the regeneration, this area was perceived to be unsafe, even during the day.’ Because, as Leicester Regeneration Company admits, the city has been suffering from a poor image. Indeed, some vestiges of its former self are still evident, even in the Cultural Quarter. Hence the adult entertainment venue, G Spot, located opposite the tasteful new Curve.
And despite these attempts at transformation, not everyone based there is keen to be associated with Leicester. Checkland Kindleysides, with a staff of 88, is one of the UK’s most high-profile retail design groups. But that’s despite, not because of, its location 20 minutes from the centre of Leicester.
‘We don’t see ourselves as Leicester people,’ says co-founder Jeff Kindleysides. ‘We don’t relate to any other businesses here, not because we’re arrogant, but we have done things our own way. Our work has always been national and global.’
Of course, there are the obvious advantages to being away from high-rent locations like London. While Newenglish occupies a capacious former Victorian Methodist Sunday school in town, Checkland Kindleysides resides in a 2400m2 studio, along with a 2300m2 workshop, where 15 people are employed to mock up furniture and shop environments.
Other developments in Leicester include the ethnic mix – it’s not just the architecture which is eclectic. According to the 2001 census, Leicester’s citizens includes 60 per cent white British, and more than 25 per cent of Indian origin. This second figure ranks Leicester as having the largest Indian population of any local authority area in England and Wales.
According to US economic regeneration expert Richard Florida, such an ethnic mix means Leicester has the potential to be one of the most creative places in the UK.
In his 2003 Demos survey, Boho Britain, the country’s 40 biggest cities were ranked using three creativity indicators: ethnic diversity, the proportion of gay residents, and the number of patent applications per head. While Manchester came out top, Leicester drew second with London.
So it’s not all shoe design and ‘contour fashion’ (meaning underwear design) in Leicester. As Clare Hudson, creative industries manager for Creative Leicestershire, points out: ‘De Montfort University is now strong in product design, and there are loads of printers here.’
And for Leicester-based designers, it’s worth bearing in mind that the city is a mere seventy minutes by train from London.