What gives British design the edge? Perhaps it’s the legacy of the British Empire, our critical nature or Tony Blair’s rallying cry still resonating, says Hugh Pearman
I don’t often dine with real millionaires – meaning ones who’ve made lots of money through business acumen, rather than through inheritance or by simply watching the value of their houses grow. But there are so many of them about these days, you just can’t avoid them. And so I found myself next to a charming French added-value merchant who asked me, ‘Exactly what is your secret when it comes to design?’
It was a genuine question. He’d noticed something about the British system that, he reckoned, other countries were unable to emulate in quite the same way. My millionaire friend, from the land of Philippe Starck and Jean Nouvel, thought the Brits produce world-class designers with a world-beating attitude. How?
I was surprised. I’ve got so used to being told by British design boosters that we’re internationally wonderful that I had stopped believing it. Every other industrialised nation, I reasoned, must say much the same about itself. Yet here was an objective outsider – no stranger to the world of design, and from a rival country – saying the same thing.
So we discussed why this should be. His theory was that it all comes down to our design schools. Central St Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, specifically. Just what is it about them that – in his eyes – is so effortlessly superior? Logically, any other country ought to be able to analyse what it is that they do and simply copy the procedure, lure away the best professors with cash, and reap the design dividend. Yet somehow – despite the pitiful salaries of British design academics and decades of the ‘brain drain’ – this does not seem to happen. We keep our edge. We seem to have as inexhaustible a supply of talent as the French have of gorgeous film actresses.
He did not believe my theory that it is all about the legacy of the British Empire – the way our sons were trained to go out and rule the world, something which we now attempt to do by subtler means. Even though I adduced the evidence of Imperial College in the science and engineering sector to back up my case. Why the ‘imperial’, eh?
He dismissed this with a Gallic wave of the hand. Pah! There had been lots of empires. Why should ours alone have this useful creative legacy?
We came to no conclusion at that dinner. As usual, it was only later, thinking about something else, that it all became obvious to me. Bloody obvious, actually. Our system works so well, despite all its apparent problems, precisely because we are a conservative nation that engenders talent we are instinctively suspicious of. We don’t give our best designers much of a break. We don’t have the manufacturing base to sustain them, anyway. So they have to prove themselves overseas, working for Italian, German, French, Japanese and Korean companies. And, of course, if they make it they will find the most international workforce in the world, in London, waiting to work for them, who are products of the same schools. A beneficial circle.
One thing I and my wealthy chum had discussed was the impact of Tony Blair and his now almost-forgotten espousal of creative industries on first coming to office. Mon dieu, how long ago ‘Cool Britannia’ now seems. But it is just about possible that it had a longer-lasting effect than we imagined. Wouldn’t it be nice to be remembered for that, rather than for a couple of unwinnable wars? It’s not going to happen.