Richard Eiserman flourishes a copy of Italy’s financial paper Sole 24 Ore and translates for me the headline: ‘London, on the offensive against Italian design’. Italy and its great design city of Milan, until a month ago Eiserman’s home town, have been given a wake up call to organise and fight back.
For Eiserman, London is the hub of British design activity and one of the reasons he accepted the role of director of design and innovation at the Design Council. The cultural intensity and concentration of architecture, advertising, industrial, graphic and interior design is unique, and have combined to persuade an international design star with a wealth of experience working for Ettore Sotsass, Ideo and Whirlpool to work here.
Eiserman is truly a global citizen. Born in Chile, of a German father and Chilean mother, he moved to the US and was bought up in New Jersey. At 12 his parents moved to Holland where he spent his high school years, but not before seeing Italy: New Domestic Landscape at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he realised that design was his chosen path.
He returned to the US to study at Rhode Island and began his professional career designing medical products for a Chicago consultancy, but, eager to move on and missing Europe, he bought a one-way ticket to Milan, ‘to make it happen’. It didn’t at first, but he got his break and joined the studio of Sotsass, working on commissions for Cassina and a host of product, graphic and interior projects.
‘Sotsass had a way of doing things that stayed with me a long time,’ says Eiserman. ‘He brought a special philosophy to design. Whether it was a product, graphics or interior, he could see through the core idea’. However, after six years Eiserman moved back to the US and joined Ideo in Boston. ‘Ideo taught me about users,’ says Eiserman. Working with US rail company Amtrak, the project expanded from the original desire to ‘make the train into a great design, to making the service a great experience’ and stretching out and beyond stations and information systems. For Eiserman, this was real strategic design, but as he puts it ‘strategy is great, but only when you can boil it down and deliver something. That’s where design can make the difference between a PowerPoint presentation and reality.’
For Eiserman, consulting to companies was a privilege, but a short-lived one. Interested in the dynamics and challenges of using design as a strategic tool, he took the chance to move in-house and join Whirlpool. Based in Milan, Whirlpool understood design was important, but Eiserman took it from a purely visual design language to a complete brand experience converging advertising, design, usability and cultural context. Looking to the future, Eiserman set up Project F, a stimulating vision to how we will wash our clothes in a sustainable future. As a case study in the European Union research project Design for Future Needs, Eiserman was introduced to the Design Council.
Coming from the outside into the boiling pot of the UK design scene is for Eiserman ‘provocative and challenging’. A month or so on and he’s surprised at the familiarity with previous life in the US and Italy. ‘I was expecting a northern European design approach, similar to Holland, but what I find is one that combines the best of the US and Italy.’ Similar to the US, the British want to make stuff and work with it to make it right with a combination of inventiveness and craft. But there’s a philosophy, an idea, which is similar to the Italian way, and makes life surprisingly familiar.
In Italy though, deep cultural roots and flexible cells of industry create designers who aspire to make ‘numerous copies’ as beautiful as possible, whereas in the UK there is a stronger craft approach to the one-off. Perhaps this reflects the gaps between design and UK industry. For Eiserman, understanding businesses’ international context is one way to stimulate use of design. ‘Companies across the EU, not just Britain, must accept the global reality. Manufacturing will go overseas, it’s inevitable.’ Industrial nations are being de-industrialised, but can survive on intellectual value and creativity.
So what are his and the Design Council’s future plans? Eiserman joins at the same time as chief executive David Kester and they are currently halfway through a complete review of the Design Council’s activities and role. He’s heartened at the positive feedback and evidence of impact, but ‘we’re doing too much, we need to focus, do more, with less effort’ and he looks forward to ‘less talk and more do. The British certainly talk a lot,’ he adds. Demonstration projects working with manufacturing, technology and public services are beginning to show the tangible impact of design. As academics talk of ‘publish or perish’, for Eiserman it’s ‘demo or die’, but the challenge is to turn demonstration project successes into simple direct messages and ‘inoculate the country without diluting the medicine’.
He perceives a disconnection between the Design Council and designers. Demonstration projects, by bringing in UK design talent, has improved this relationship, but there’s much more to be done. He wants to extend the relationship to UK designers around the world, who he sees as ambassadors with knowledge of international business and public services that the Design Council can bring to the UK.
With Eiserman, the Design Council has international design credentials, knowledge and experience at its heart. Combined with his deep thinking, carefully considered approach, Eiserman will command respect from designers in the UK and beyond. His relationship with designers throughout Britain will be built through ‘one-to-one contact’, but as he puts it, ‘I don’t want to hear from misunderstood designers. I want people who say, “here is the problem and here is how we are going to fix it”.’ Eiserman, we’re right behind you.