Hugh Pearman: We’re a Brit good, we are

John Sorrell’s book Creative Island: Inspired design from Great Britain is one Hugh Pearman didn’t expect to warm to, until he allowed his defences to slip

Call me an old softy, a hopeless romantic, a gullible fool, a born optimist, a credulous innocent, an awestruck bystander. Call me any or all of those. Because I have picked up the latest tub-thumping book on Great British design with a twisted, cynical sneer. And I have put it down, some time later, with a big soppy grin on my face. John Sorrell has done it for me. His new book Creative Island makes me think: Gosh, so we are quite good at this design business after all.

The omens were not good, hence the initial sneer. First, that title. The word ‘creative’ is over-used to the point of cliché. Long ago annexed by the advertising industry, it no longer means anything. Then a sense of isolationism is set with the word ‘island’, which smacks of trade barriers, coastal defences, Little England parochialism – or worse, Cool Britannia. Open the book and you get a fold-out of the white cliffs of Dover, bathed in evening sunlight. This is Britain as an impregnable fortress, the opposite characteristic, you may think, of the free-trade, internationally roaming nature of design.

‘Inspired design from Great Britain’ is the subtitle, though the cover shows a map of both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sorry to be pedantic, but Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, not Great Britain. Since I’m nit-picking at this point, if Northern Ireland is part of the picture, where on earth in this book is the talented, successful Northern Ireland-based clothes designer and retailer Paul Costelloe? It would have been good to see the excellent Wrights coachbuilders of Ballymena mentioned, too. Doesn’t good public transport matter?

I have not checked the address of everyone mentioned in this book, not least because they are not given. But – and we are now nearing the end of the cynical phase of this column – I don’t find much from the lands of the Picts, Celts and Scots. And not very much from the English provinces, apart from James Dyson, David Mellor and Rolls-Royce. All giants of design, I admit. However, this book should be called Design Metropolis, because it is nearly all about central London-based talent.

But so what? We all know design in Britain is concentrated in the capital, not least because design is no longer much associated with British manufacturing, which mostly used to be in the North. It’s also true there is no point trying to put such a book together on the basis of geographical distribution. That way, poor designers would get in just because they happen to be based in a particular area. No, quality should be the only selection criterion, and although we can all play the game of spotting glaring omissions or puzzling inclusions, a personal selection will always be just that: personal.

So after I’d finished grinding my teeth at the inclusion of the ridiculous Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift that is a mockery of the functionalist engineering tradition, I relaxed and started to enjoy the book, principally because Sorrell confines himself to the selection and to brief, often witty introductions to each designer, and then gives over the page to explanations from the designers themselves. You get all sorts, from Hussein Chalyan’s ‘table skirt’ to Martin Lambie-Nairn’s BBC2 idents. It’s fascinating to hear designers and architects talk about how and why they did something one way rather than another. Instructive to hear a wise old bird like Mellor admit his acclaimed City range of fat-handled stainless steel cutlery is so difficult to make his next range goes to the opposite extreme of being totally flat. Encouraging to read Dyson recount that the idea for the Contrarotator washing machine came about by chance while they tried to do something else.

In fact, the accounts are mostly disarmingly honest in this way, which is why I warmed to them. The enthusiasm and humanity of the designers comes through as strongly as their talent. And while a lot of what is featured is very familiar, there is enough of the more off-the-wall stuff, such as Rosemary Wallin’s ‘modular kit shoes’ – which are simply amazing rethinks of the whole idea of footwear.

Pick as many holes as you like in this book, but you can’t gainsay the strength and diversity of design talent assembled. Look at the beauty of the ‘swept’ fan blades of the Rolls-Royce Trent engine, and you know we’ve still got something going for us. It’s OK to feel good about that. Well done, Sorrell.

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