Architecture: The next century - on the Net

Peter Mandelson will launch a database for the best of British design.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN PETER Mandelson opens the CBI conference in Birmingham on Monday, a great whale of a stainless-steel bathtub will be beamed up on screens behind him.

Not that he is in any hot water over the launch of a new database of 433 millennium products, chosen by the Design Council for exhibiting inside the Dome. The tub is just one of the second batch of 231 products he will be not so much unveiling as getting online. It will entertain the business convention before playing to audiences across the world to show how British businesses compete both at home and abroad. British manufacturing industry spends an estimated pounds 10bn a year on product development and design.

Sharing the platform with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the Education Minister, David Blunkett. The guest list will be loaded with heavyweights of British industry, and Robin Cook wants to use their influence at trade shows and expos around the world to promote this database of design. It will be sent to our embassies and our roving ambassadors will become travelling salesmen. To underscore the importance of this collection, David Blunkett will tap into the Internet to provide schools with a useful educational tool.

Now that Britain provides a service industry rather than a manufacturing one, you find that Eurostar is a millennium product - not for the train, or even the platform at Waterloo, but for the service it provides. That is why the Glasgow Collection, created by Glasgow 1999, is included in this second batch of millennium products. It was a bold initiative to get designers and manufacturers together and bring prototypes into production.

The bath is part of the designer-label Glasgow Collection, which also features more things than you would find in a car-boot sale - colourful clocks in paper bags, hedgehog-like handbags, dub'n'mix drums, a football- stadium light and first-aid kits, even buildings such as the solar-powered pyramid Akela office block in Sunderland, which will be difficult to exhibit in the Dome. The Design Council selection panels have only 433 products good enough for the millennium, but "quality, not quantity", which is their motto, is a good one to have in the post-industrial age, now that limited- batch production is back, along with four-day weeks and lay-offs. The Design Council reckons that by spending just 1 per cent of turnover on product development and design, companies can raise turnover and profits by 3 to 4 per cent over five years.

That explains why they haven't got more popular things, like souvenirs. Plastic Big Bens are the best-selling item on the cart outside Piccadilly Station, but you won't find anything kitsch like that in the Millennium Product collection. Everything passes the Good Taste test and is Really Useful. Or else it is a Service, like Eurostar. The Glasgow collection curator, Bruce Wood, is pulling together companies with unknowns and getting funding for prototypes, and he believes that today's objects don't have to be mass-produced to be successful.

The "Ursula" bathtub, by a young Glaswegian design team called Submarine, costs pounds 10,000. They already have orders for 10 more, cast by an old Glaswegian steel company that used to make fittings for abattoirs and vandal-proof lavatories for prisons. Now their shapely steel tubs are off to Philadelphia where Terence Conran has curated an exhibition, unfashionably called Cool Britannia, to open in November.

"The bath will always be limited in production and high in cost, but you can't count the value to the city of that bath. It challenges our perceptions of products and the market place," claims Bruce Wood, pointing out that the first-aid dispenser for use in factories and offices, produced in massive numbers, sells internationally.

Funny little salt-and-pepper pots and oil-and-vinegar sets in the collection aren't exactly cutting-edge, but they were designed by two graduates from the Glasgow School of Art for the Drum Chapel organisation, to train young unemployed people in new skills. "Instead of making plaster casts of gimmicky dogs, we showed them useful, modern products that can be made without too much difficulty."

When the gigantic, six-storey-high Hampden National Stadium, Scotland's equivalent of Wembley, had difficulty finding a light-fitting on a human scale, concepts from three design consultancies resulted in Phillips making a light. A simple reflector, above the uplighter on a pole, bounces light down without any glare.

The Glasgow Development Agency and Glasgow City Council, which supported the development costs, have had seven designs developed for just under pounds 1m: the bath, leather bags, a digital hand- drum, a low-voltage desktop light and a stadium light, a flat-pack clock, and a watch designed by Seymour Powell (which nearly got the entire collection rejected by the Design Council panel because the watch's face states "Swiss": "For Swiss read Glasgow" says Bruce Wood, who is recycling the design with Linn Products, the sound-system company).

In fact, Bruce Wood is refreshingly down to earth for a designer on secondment from the Glasgow School of Art, and of all his designs, he is most proud of his heating controls for technophobes, and a Rawlplug capable of supporting a ton.