Where are they now?

As Design House’s founders step aside after nearly 30 years, Clare Dowdy looks at the fortunes of that generation of consultancies and how they are facing up to the future

Design House is the latest of the first generation of “proper” design consultancies to address the issue of succession.

Set up by former Wolff Olins colleagues John Larkin and Tim May (shown right in the 1980s), the two have jointly lead the group for nearly 30 years.

It took the founders longer than they expected to develop the next generation of management for Design House. “We’ve been ever so close to renewing Design House several times. It’s very difficult to get recession cycles right,” admits May. The appointment of Lavinia Culverhouse as managing director is the first step, with creative directors Mike Booth and Marcus Haslam lined up to take on more managerial responsibility.

Larkin and May, both in their 50s, were part of the wave of designers setting up shop in the late-1960s and early-1970s. It was a period when design stopped being conducted as a cottage industry and started to take on the trappings of a professional service industry.

Living legends such as Marcello Minale, David Pocknell, Michael Wolff, John Blackburn, Michael Peters, Rodney Fitch and Stewart McColl all established businesses within a few years of each other.

“We were the generation which rode the wave of commercialisation of design,” says May.

This generation of baby boomers sees Wally Olins and Terence Conran as the forefathers of the UK design industry, the ice breakers. “Wolff Olins was an ambitious consultancy. It had a passion about the commercial relevance of design,” says May. “We were children of that.”

Design House is one of the few multidisciplinary consultancies born then which have remained pretty much intact. Most of the others have seen founding partners leave to set up new businesses, have been bought out, or gone into receivership, usually following expansion.

Some of them, such as Fitch and MPL, are totally independent of their founders, with Rodney Fitch and Michael Peters operating separate businesses. In their former lives Fitch and Peters were great global predators, who have now pulled in their horns.

One route for these players was to be bought out. Design House was approached by potential buyers several times in the 1980s and even took tentative steps towards going public. “We’ve remained independent because we wanted to control our own destiny,” says Larkin. Others which have continued with their independence are generally the specialists, such as Blackburns and Queensberry Hunt Levien.

Of the bigger groups, Wolff Olins remains independent and largely UK-based. Pentagram has a thriving US office under one of its original partners, Colin Forbes. And, after a few false starts, it appears to have resolved the issue of succession, by bringing in younger partners but keeping its independence. Of the independents, Minale Tattersfield appears to have the widest global reach.

Those which have opted for investment as a means for securing growth include Moggridge, now Ideo, which is backed by Steelcase.

While these groups, now in “middle youth” have changed immeasurably from their original conception, other smaller groups have stayed true to their specialism. Blackburns founder John Blackburn, for example, has stuck to specialising in drink. However, May and Larkin quickly diversified from their original packaging offer to build a multidisciplinary team.

“We enjoy learning new skills and the challenge of new client problems,” Larkin adds.

Of that generation, it is reassuring to see how few have completely failed. They have all had to make some difficult decisions, and have laid some good foundations for the design industry.

The bigger ones, such as Fitch and Michael Peters Group, have spawned a host of successful spin-offs, and could be credited for blending business and creativity with the introduction of suits into the studio.

As a generation they must be acknowledged because so many are still key players. And their varying approaches to the industry they helped create shows there is no one way of doing things.

The originals

1964 Minale Tattersfield

1965 Pocknell, Wolff Olins, Wagstaffs

1966 Lock Pettersen – now Tor Pettersen,

Queensberry Hunt – now Queensberry Hunt Levien, Negus & Negus, Blackburns

1967 Moggridge – now Ideo

1970 Design House, Michael Peters Group

1972 Pentagram, Siebert Head, Fitch

1973 Stewart McColl

Building Design House

1970 John Larkin and Tim May leave Wolff Olins to form packaging group Larkin, Stratton & May. This later becomes Larkin, May & Company

1983 Larkin, May & Company merges with product design group Wrightson Raymond to create Design House. One of the group’s most successful multidisciplinary projects, Soho Brasserie, goes live

1987 Three staff form break-away pub design group Bellier Langford

1989 17 staff fall victim to economic climate and are made redundant, leaving 62 employees

1990 Graphics heads Adrian Caddy and Robina Bartlett leave to join Imagination

1993 European network forged with French, Belgium and Italian groups

1994 Lavinia Culverhouse joins as account director

1995 Mike Booth joins as senior designer

1996 Two staff break away to form packaging group Eden

1997 Culverhouse is promoted from group account director to client services director

1997 Marcus Haslam is brought in as creative director of print and identity

1998 The handover begins with a staff of 40

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