Former Royal College of Art rector Sir Christopher Frayling, RCA, history of design tutor Sarah Teasley, Ron Arad and Antony Gormley all agreed that this was an issue that needed to be addressed.
Frayling said, ‘The problem is that in this country we’ve been saying ‘We’ll write it and you can print it”, so we’ve been coming up with the ideas and someone in China has been manufacturing it. Design has become this sort of abstracted thing.’
The panel then went over well-worn points about China’s and the Far East’s dominance of manufacturing, with Dyson’s decision to outsource production to Malaysia referenced.
But Frayling made the point that when we look to a model for links between design and manufacture, China probably isn’t the best place to emulate.
He said, ‘I gave a lecture in Hong Kong recently… someone asked me, “What sort of students do you get at UK art schools?” and I said, ‘They’re bloody-minded and they’re confrontational – and this is where you get innovation from.” Well that’s not what happens in China.’
So beyond issues around economies of scale and labour costs, there are plenty of reasons why it might be best to look beyond China and the Far East as a model for manufacturing
One other potential exemplar that came up was Italy, which Arad says, ‘Has an amazing tradition of craftsmanship… Lots of design students graduate and are very grateful that places like Italy can employ them.’
Arad’s point about the ‘tradition of craftsmanship’ is a very pertinent one. While there are plenty of things education and government can do to bring back manufacturing in the UK – and ideas like promoting regional innovation and linking manufacturing to university research and technology all have their merits – it is the seeming lack of respect for manufacturing in society and Government that seems to be at the heart of the problem.
After three decades of being eviscerated by Government industry policy and international labour markets, the value and the skills inherent in the UK manufacturing sector seem to be being overlooked.
Frayling paraphrased Ruskin in saying that a good design education involves the head, the heart and the hand – and the hand has certainly been lacking recently.
What the UK needs are more projects that promote and bring back the value of manufacturing and craftsmanship. Projects like jeans company Hiut, set up in Cardigan, West Wales, to use the skills and knowhow left behind in the town when a large denim factory left.
And projects like the Royal Society of Arts Great Recovery programme, which looks at ways designers and manufacturers can reduce product waste by promoting fixing, recycling and remaking products.
The UK, like Italy, has a proud tradition of craftsmanship – and for the sake of design and the wider economy it needs to find ways of bringing it back.
You can listen to BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme about art and design education on iPlayer here.