Brit designers get serious

The UK has long had a reputation for outstanding design while lacking the nous for marketing this talent. A new exhibition 'An Englishman at Home' aims to put matters right.
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The Independent Online
DESIGNERS trained in Britain are widely recognised as some of the best in the world. But it has long been an uncomfortable fact that it is British industry that is least interested in this fact.

It was with this in mind that the up-market furniture retailer Purves & Purves last year staged "An Englishman Abroad", an exhibition which showed the work of designers who had been forced to find jobs overseas. "There seems to be a great talent for producing designers in the UK, but less of a talent for harnessing their skills," says director Andrew Purves.

Now Purves & Purves is taking a look at the designers who stayed. "An Englishman at Home" features the work of 10 design companies, which have taken control of the manufacturing process in order to realise their creative ideas. In doing this, they do not only show a determination to succeed - an attitude that says to existing British companies that if they can't join them, then they can beat them. They reveal how a fresh eye cast on the materials and techniques of manufacturing can turn what seem like limitations into opportunities for innovation.

We hear talk in Britain now of the importance of the creative industries. The design industry is forecast to grow by 5 per cent annually over the next decade, according to statistics published by the culture secretary Chris Smith in his book, Creative Britain.

The phrase "creative industries" implies the emergence of a new breed of business personality - the creative industrialist. It is these people, rather than itinerant designers, that Purves has focused on. The exhibition includes furniture companies such as Hitch Mylius and Martin Ryan and makers of home accessories such as Babylon Design, and inevitably the vacuum cleaner supremo, James Dyson.

Like greatness, the move into manufacturing seems to happen in three ways for these people. Some are born manufacturers, others achieve manufacturing status, while others have manufacturing thrust upon them.

It's easy to see how it happens. As a retailer, says Purves, "our first questions to somebody when we see something we like are: how much is it, and are you going to produce it? Some of them, I think, end up making things by accident."

David Colwell, one of the two designer-directors of Trannon Furniture, set up in business 20 years ago because he wanted "to see what would happen if you took on board issues that were relevant then and are even more relevant now - sustainability and labour quality. I wanted to get maximum comfort and user convenience for minimum impact, and only then to see what it would look like." These preoccupations and the willingness to explore them are a million miles from most businesses' way of thinking.

Some achieved their accommodation with manufacturing gradually. Former antiques dealer Sheridan Coakley at SCP began manufacturing reproductions of classic modern designs when he could not find enough originals; from there it seemed a natural step to commission today's designers to come up with new works.

Others, such as Dyson and Ryan, only went into manufacturing out of frustration at the low standards of suppliers or the indifference of clients. The happiest story comes from Alva Lighting, a Northern Ireland company set up by two design consultancies. The idea was to launch a range of decorative lighting - start-up costs were low and, although the market is well-served, there was room for price-conscious new design. A range of concept lights was exhibited at a trade fair last year with the idea of gauging the feedback. The feedback came in the form of orders - lots of them.

Fortunately, Alva's designs were simple to manufacture. "We were using a particularly ingenious method of origami, folding our designs from a single sheet of polypropylene so that they have the necessary rigidity without fastenings and complex assembly."

The use of design to minimise drawbacks of the manufacturing process and the use of the manufacturing process itself to stimulate design ideas are disting- uishing characteristics of design-led manufacturing. Nick Crosbie's three-year-old company, Inflate, makes inflatable products in PVC - not just the things you might expect, like chairs, but odd things such as picture frames, fruit bowls and egg-cups. The commitment to this material has been key to Inflate's ability to grow from small beginnings without needing external investment. "We were able to produce one-off or a million objects," says Mr Crosbie. A more conservative manufacturer would enjoy this production benefit, but would not have the imagination to dream up these unexpected products or the skill to design them in a way that would appeal to the market.

Many companies are now pursuing customers in other European countries where this kind of design-led small-scale manufacturer is better understood. "There is no reason why a British company shouldn't follow the lead of Italy. You only have to open your eyes to see there's a huge market internationally," says Tim Lishman, design development manager at Allermuir, which makes metal furniture. "We have to compete with the Italians at their own game by embracing design and selling ever better approaches. "

As these manufacturers spread their wings, so others are already snapping at their heels. Recently seven furniture designers were able to exhibit at the International Cont- emporary Furniture Fair in New York under the umbrella of Hackney Contemporary Design thanks to Business Links London City Partners. They will be the next generation of creative industrialists.

'An Englishman at Home' is at Purves & Purves, 80 Tottenham Court Road, London, until 20 June.