While horse racing fans flocked to Paris last weekend for the Prix de l’Arc de
Triomphe, the French capital was playing host to a quieter meeting, but one of greater importance to UK design. Some of Britain’s top talents headed for the British Ambassador’s residence for the opening of 20 Designers. Created by Atelier Works for the Design Council, the show will grace Sir Michael Jay’s official home for two weeks, before doing the rounds of other embassies.
There are few surprises in the choice of designers showcased – or in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office video Designers for the World, also premiered in Paris. Both home in on the usual successes – James Dyson, Paul Smith, Seymour Powell – with a few younger Turks, such as Paul Priestman and Malcolm Garrett, thrown in.
Most of the 20 are known abroad already and, arguably, don’t need the exposure. But their fame might just strike a chord with people overseas and indicate the diversity of creative talent which abounds in the UK, and they deserve our support for turning up in Paris, at their own expense, to bang the drum for Britain.
But for all the positives, Paris threw up a couple of flaws in the evangelistic approach. First, these things tend towards arrogance, implying that British is inevitably best. A sour note with the French was the insensitive suggestion that UK designers could inject a bit of wit into their culture. If French stars Philippe Starck and Jean Nouvel don’t already do that, who does?
Second, and more crucially, it’s all very well for the Government to push the exportability of UK design. But when is it going to take it on board itself? If it were to insist on good design throughout the civil service and in all projects over which it has influence, its example would do more to sway international opinion than any travelling show. It might also make Britain a better place to live in.
It’s one thing to dot a few Jasper Morrison sofas around Government buildings. We’ve all seen that kind of posturing before. What we need is a real commitment to design and evidence of a shift in attitude. In just 15 months in Paris, Sir Michael has cleared a gallery in his gilded residence to show off new British art – a prominent space currently also housing 20 Designers. What about a similar change in “hanging” policy here at, say, 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace?
Tony Blair is making all the right noises about cultural change. But we can’t be truly proud of our culture until schemes as stunning as Will Alsop’s library for Marsailles can be woven into our own urban fabric with Government backing and design is not just valued as an export.