While the jury remains out over whether Liverpool truly deserves its Capital of Culture crown, Dominic Lutyens finds the Design Show is banging the drum for a contemporary design scene that is gathering momentum
Amid all the recent brouhaha surrounding Liverpool’s anointment as this year’s European Capital of Culture, some have murmured the title is a misnomer. The Guardian reported in April, ‘Liverpool remains the most deprived district in England despite an influx of regeneration cash and a Government drive to reduce inequality, official figures show.’ Below-average skill levels and long-term unemployment were partly blamed for this. John Kelly, director of regeneration at Liverpool City Council, promptly hit back in the same newspaper, ‘In excess of 26 000 new jobs were created between 1998 and 2006. Major schemes such as the [brand new] Liverpool One retail and leisure development – Europe’s largest – are providing new opportunities for local people. Overseas visitor numbers have trebled in recent years. More than £1m a week is being spent on new windows, kitchens and bathrooms for 19 000 former council homes.’
That said, some born-and-bred Scousers are ambivalent about that buzzword ‘regeneration’, which some would see as synonymous with the more negative ‘gentrification’. This has seen modern apartments spring up all around Liverpool. Mainly luring the young, this has reversed the postwar trend for Liverpudlians living in the suburbs. ‘With the recent redevelopment, affordable studio spaces are in shorter supply. Creativity can be compromised when rents rise,’ says Maureen Bampton, director of Liverpool’s venerable applied arts gallery Bluecoat Display Centre. She harks back to the 1970s when ‘the city was hard-up, but everyone did amazing, original things’. Yet, she adds, ‘There is more interest here now in contemporary design.’
Partly firing this are such attractions as Tate Liverpool (now hosting a show on Gustav Klimt, which includes examples of Vienna Secession design), video, film and new media gallery Fact, the Walker Art Gallery, photography gallery Open Eye and hip design shops Utility and Microzine. Also, Rick Mather Architects is designing a £21m Art & Design Academy destined for a site adjacent to a major Liverpool landmark – the wigwam-like, love-it-or-loathe-it 1960s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.
Symptomatic of this interest, too, is one of the Capital of Culture events: the upcoming Design Show Liverpool, brainchild of Della Tinsley and Gideon Cleary, who have worked closely with Design Initiative, a Liverpool organisation that promotes design in the North West. This selling exhibition – of furniture, ceramics, glass, lighting and fashion by established names such as Michael Sodeau, Ella Doran, Nick Munro as well as lesser known, Liverpool-based designers like Ilsa Parry, Victoria Worrall and Karsten Eriksen – is an offshoot of the East London Design Show, which they co-founded in 1992.
‘One year we put on a show in Southend, where a group of designers from Liverpool were exhibiting,’ explains Tinsley. ‘They said they’d love to have a show of the same quality in Liverpool. I was born in Ormskirk, near Liverpool, and Gideon comes from the Wirral, so we were keen to organise a show in our hometown.’ She says they benefited hugely from the positive attitude of Liverpudlians, with local organisations being helpful when they were getting the show off the ground.
Tinsley feels the city has changed hugely in the past five years, with Liverpool’s two universities leading the way. ‘Their graduates are staying in the city and setting up businesses,’ she says.
One trend evident at DSL is an unexpected marriage of synthetic and natural materials, of the industrial and the organic. Furniture designer Chris Eckersley, for one, sees no reason why the two should be polarised. His bench combines a curvy wood base with a seat in unyielding perforated fire-engine-red metal – the latter a nod to another current vogue, the revival of 1980s hi-tech design. Sarah Thirlwell plays with the same dichotomy in her simple vases made of turned wood incorporating slender bands of coloured plastic.
This mismatching of materials can also be seen in Worrall’s upholstered sofas that juxtapose clashing fabrics – rather like the London bespoke furniture company Squint. ‘My work is a celebration of colour and individuality in a market where mass production has led to increased homogeneity,’ she says. ‘My new collection is inspired by the paintings of Henri Rousseau and uses 100 per cent natural fabrics that are hand-dyed and embroidered.’
In contrast to this overblown bohemianism is a trend for crisply linear graphics. Hannah Dipper and Robin Farquhar of People Will Always Need Plates are showing plates and mugs picturing Modernist architectural icons against brightly coloured backgrounds. For DSL they have created – in mug form – a paean to the Metropolitan Cathedral, against a feisty, pea-green background. This penchant for vibrant colour is a strong trend in the lighting, too. Parry’s otherworldly lamps, for example, come in fluorescent shades and futuristic shapes.
While in the national press the jury is out over whether Liverpool deserves the Capital of Culture tag, some insist this is not hype. ‘The high volume of visitors to the city now is very noticeable,’ says Liverpool-born Dick Mawdsley, co-founder of Utility, whose shop window will showcase its pick of the best designs at DSL when the latter kicks off. ‘The breadth and depth of this year’s programme means that everyone will be able to find something of interest.’
Design Show Liverpool is at the Contemporary Urban Centre, Greenland Street, Liverpool from 19-22 June. For more information, visit www.designshowliverpool.com