Designs On Britain's Future

Eighty of our top creatives were asked to pick an object; that represents what's good about Britain. Jeremy Myerson (above) was there
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T'S A tough one and it immediately invites cynicism. But can you think of a single image which sums up what is best about contemporary Britain? A watercolour of Bush House, home of the BBC World Service? An aerial view of the Waterloo International Terminal, the Spice Girls on a crisp packet? Is there an object or building or piece of graphic communication which encapsulates the state of our nation?

That was the ice-breaker question asked of more than 80 of the UK's most prominent creative thinkers - designers, architects, engineers, theatre and film specialists - when they arrived at the Design Council to take part in a series of "Creative Britain" workshops at the request of Tony Blair. The five workshops were organised as part of the continuing debate about rebranding Britain to generate fresh ideas about how to use political summits, the Millennium celebrations, and points of arrival for visitors to the UK to promote Britain's strengths in innovation, creativity and design.

"Creatives" taking part ranged across the artistic spectrum from David Puttnam, Richard Rogers and James Dyson to Nigel Coates, Tom Dixon and veteran theatre designer Ralph Koltai. Formula One was represented by Patrick Head; fashion by Ozwald Boateng, Betty Jackson and Bruce Oldfield. As befits the occasion, there were three Conrans (Terence, Jasper and Sebastian), plus a bevy of top architects, among them Zaha Hadid, John Pawson and Terry Farrell.

The results of their brainstorming sessions are announced on Tuesday by the Design Council in its "Creative Britain" report, which promises a range of initiatives, including a rethink of Britain's major ports and airports as national gateways and a new drive to improve the co-ordination of Britain's image overseas. Already some of the scenarios which the workshops discussed have taken shape, most notably the Chirac-Blair political summit at Canary Wharf, art directed by Sir Terence Conran, which made a decisive modernist break with the stuffy "Old Britain" traditions of Whitehall.

However, the problem of fashioning a new identity for Britain based on innovation and creativity while not jettisoning all that is best about our heritage taxed the finest creative brains. Much as some designers wanted to present the shock of the new as their chosen image, they couldn't resist a Scottish tweed jacket or a cup of English tea.

Design consultant John Williamson of Wolff Olins summed it up when he presented three images of Britain - all sheep - to express his ideas. Sheep 1: a sheep on the hillside, evocative of our natural heritage, traditions and landscape - our inherent strengths as a nation. Sheep 2 : the Damien Hirst sheep pickled in a tank, showing the radical, avant-garde side of British culture and creativity. Sheep 3: the genetically engineered Dolly, symbolising British leadership in innovation, science and technology.

Williamson's view is that any new identity for Britain needs to mix all three sheep to combine historical strengths, radical new creative directions and a commitment to scientific innovation. Indeed most designers chose or created images of Britain which fitted one of those three categories. Graphic designer Mary Lewis, for example, cut the shape of the British Isles out of a clod of turf to express the traditional notion of a green and pleasant land which needs nurturing.

No less than three designers (Science Museum head of design Tim Molloy, John Warwicker of Tomato, and Ron Arad) chose the proposed Spiral extension of the Victoria and Albert Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind as a symbol of a radical new Britain. Antony Gormley's Angel of the North sculpture was also a radical choice (by designer Mike Dempsey), as was Claes Oldenburg's image of a giant lipstick replacing Eros at Piccadilly Circus.

In the advanced innovation category, images ranged from the Humber Bridge and the Thrust high-speed car to James Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaner (not chosen by Dyson - he picked a JCB earth-digger).

The Design Council has been busy in the rebranding Britain stakes in recent months. It commissioned a report, Britain TM, from Demos which set out a blueprint to rescue our national identity from an obsession with the past. It removed dusty rows of Hansards from the bookshelves in Robin Cook's office to replace them with designer goodies. And it launched Millennium Products, an initiative to identify 2,000 outstanding examples of British innovation by the millennium.

Now, with Tony Blair's backing, it is set to push the proposals drawn from the workshops. What can we expect? More Canary Wharf-style summits certainly. But whether a giant lipstick will loom over Piccadilly Circus remains to be seen. !



'This demonstrates how to mix tradition with our more recent achievements and successes'



'The Routemaster is an image of civic design, mobility, mass production and therefore design - from the curve of the bonnet to the number of the bus route'



'This statuette of John Barnes in an England football shirt is a symbol of Britain because it represents multi-cultural Britain and our sense of fair play'



'My image of Britain is a fertile place, alive with ideas - something that must be nurtured'



'Three sheep representing complementary images of Britain - natural heritage and tradition; radical eccentric British culture and creativity; and our leadership in innovation, science and technology'



'This Vivienne Westwood shoe sums up our ability to invest an object with cultural resonance, in this case the irony of the nurse as an image of courage, power and sex as well as compassion and service'



'We should do everything with wit and use the heart of our underground culture'



'The V&A building shows optimism for the possibility for new architecture in Britain'



'This is new into old. Neither are compromised. Both are enriched by the other'



'London's Tube map represents clear, effective design'