Pitch referees required

So we all know that designers have sold out. In the nasty Nineties age of cynicism and the bottom line, it’s hardly surprising, says Sutherland Lyall. But free-pitching is going too far, and is a blatant show of the design industry cutting off its nose to

LYALL

Happy New Year to all of you reading this and a great 12 months of designing wonderful and extraordinary things. All right, why not 12 years.

I offer that rather than the conventional sober hopes of prosperity combined with lack of surprises because I sense that in these gloomy late recession days the local design community has become a tad more interested in buying the kids shoes than in riskily blasting other people’s minds. Woaah there fella, some of you say, this is the mid-Nasty Nineties not the Pink Floyd Sixties. This is about suits, about bottom lines. This is getting work by whatever means, even if it’s free-pitching. This is serious, this is Design As Business. That naive mind-expanding stuff above is very sweet. And very dated. And it’s seriously disconnected from the realities of this trade in which we’re all struggling to make an honest buck and in which people are still going to the wall.

Oddly enough I’ve heard that before from members of all the design professions. A while ago in this column I jeeringly argued for the revival of that old term “commercial artist” to describe the practitioners of this kind of thinking. Commercial artists were, the term implied, people who would design any old crap for their clients for as much money as they could extract. Hold on, that sounds somehow familiar. Anyway, on balance I think I’ll continue the campaign because it seems virtuous to make a distinction between design as in wonder and extraordinariness, and design as in production management, including a skim off the contractors’ prices plus a bit of artsy bullshit up front. It has to be bullshit because that’s the bit that was given away free in order to win the pitch.

Looking across at the architectural world, it’s interesting that most of today’s commercially successful heavies, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Nick Grimshaw, the late Big Jim Stirling et al, were until quite recently viewed as crazy nutters by the financial establishment. Now it’s queuing up to give them sites on which to exercise their talents. OK, so it doesn’t happen to everyone and not everyone has the talent. But these guys haven’t survived so very comfortably by producing the most inoffensive design they possibly could. They don’t give you the design fisherman’s tale about what amazing things they could have done if the client hadn’t been so visually illiterate and terminally, arterially conservative. These guys have a history of going ahead and trying it out any way. And we’re talking millions of pounds here – OK, somebody else’s millions, but it’s not just a matter of vicarious chutzpah. It’s a matter of having a vision and the courage to risk being tipped off the job. Me, I’d just settle for a few more “crazy nutters” in design. Look where it got Philippe Starck.

We were having one of those conversations about the decline of moral standards, the dilution of the notion of professionalism and suchlike, when the topic of free-pitching raised itself. My new year resolution is to avoid adding to the great debate, but not before noting that all of us know honourable and talented designers who have free-pitched. The more repulsive of them cite in justification the pressing need to buy their kids shoes. The rest shrug and point out that everybody does it.

There seems to be a parallel here with heroin addiction. Except that in this case it’s the suppliers who’ve got hooked on the heady drug of getting ideas free from stupid designers. If, as rather a lot of people do, you take the view that the solution to drug-related crime is to decriminalise drug taking, maybe we should attempt to decriminalise free-pitching, metaphorically that is.

Glamorous Personality Award

Coming across a newly slim, de-moustachioed Rodney Cooper of BDP at the Knoll bash last month, I was reminded that Design Week gave up its Best-Dressed Designer contest a few years back because of the inevitability of him winning it. I thought instead I’d establish an award for the people who have most conspicuously contributed to the pleasure of working in this trade. Nuttiness, creativity, and good humour are top of the list and Cooper is banned for the first three years. So the 1995 awards go to Dovetail’s utterly amiable Paul Reeves and to that wonderful Janet Turner at Concord. Congratulations to them both and Happy New Year.

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