Young, gifted and on a knife-edge

For fledgling British designers it's too often a case of sink, swim badly - or break the mould
Click to follow

Young British designers at the sharp end often find themselves at the wrong end of a blunt truth: talent - real, exciting talent - rarely leads to clear-cut and well-paid design contracts. These gifted few are left to chase leads while producing work that is done for not much more than cost price.

Young British designers at the sharp end often find themselves at the wrong end of a blunt truth: talent - real, exciting talent - rarely leads to clear-cut and well-paid design contracts. These gifted few are left to chase leads while producing work that is done for not much more than cost price.

As of last month, Sam Aloof and his partner, fabric designer Michelle Kostyrka, took an extraordinary risk - a risk born of a desire to break the mould that constricts so many genuinely gifted young designers. Their bold decision reflects the all too typical early trajectory of Aloof's career in the design world.

That's the upside. But, first, the downside, an object lesson that faces virtually every young designer in Britain - even those, like Aloof, with an obvious and extreme talent combining hands-on innovation and a sure feel for form.

Not much more than a year ago, and a week or two after his Brighton University degree show brought him a first, Aloof walked off with an unprecedented three of the 12 sponsorship awards at London's Young Designers showcase. Donna Karan took one look at one of his stunning leather-and-plywood flip-top handbags and ordered one. GF Smith, a leading British specialist fine paper and card manufacturer, saw Aloof's scallop-cornered, mass produceable containers and flooded him with raw material and product development commissions; Marks & Spencer called him in to come up with packaging ideas; and he was also one of a clutch of new kids on the design block to be selected by Sotheby's for a special show.

Aloof toiled, went to design briefings, the phone kept ringing. He produced what was asked of him, often to want-it-now deadlines; concepts, ideas and novel forms flooded outwards. But, in those early months after Young Designers he typically found that he was producing work on terms that left him with little or no margin. The products were, in effect, small-batch productions for display or test purposes.

Every time Aloof responded to a potential commission it meant money spent on travel to visit clients, and more on materials. Not all commissions led to steady work and though he sometimes received payment to cover out-of-pocket expenses, his cashflow was usually in a negative condition. Scrambling to keep up with projects which might - or might not - lead to royaltied big-run productions, he worked night and day in the workroom of the Brighton flat where he and Kostyrka pursued their designs.

It became a kind of ironic litany: Aloof designs containers for Marks & Spencer; Aloof approached to deliver overall design concept for Chelsea Harbour; Aloof is Peugeot Awards finalist; Aloof produces containers for TAG MacLaren. And that's only a selection of what came his way last year.

All that glitters is not immediately gold and for all its apparent gloss Aloof might be tempted to put 1999 down as the cup-of-soup year. But he had learned three obvious and inter-related lessons: that demonstrable talent does not guarantee regular, decently paid employment; that it's only natural for manufacturers to want to tap new and innovative talent at relatively low cost; and that, though his name became known quickly in these inner circles, it had yet to be linked to the holy grail - major, high profile long-run product manufacture. By last autumn, these givens had sunk home. And by Christmas he and Kostyrka decided to take extreme measures.

Lewes High Street is the perfect example of a posh town-and-gown thoroughfare. It's elegant, very County - the kind of street that Americans who visit Tom Paine's birthplace in Sussex consider mighty quaint. But as of last month there has been a startling cuckoo in the nest. Walk past Hugh Rae's clothing shop (sturdy clothes for old and young fogeys), cross the street, pass the church on your right.

And then, opposite Paine's birthplace and behind the tall plate glass of an otherwise unremarkable shopfront whose only identification marks are the numerals 151, is a high white space bare of anything apart from a drawing board, structures and wall mountings made with angular and scallop-edged containers in paper and plastic, and handbags that could put the gosh into Gucci. Sam Aloof Design, and two cats, are at home.

Aloof and Kostyrka decided, in effect, to get naked. They have committed all their funds to lease the premises to make Aloof Design a bold show-and-tell operation. Aloof and Kostyrka don't want to spend all their time in the basement working on stray commissions for handbags, even at £600 a pop.

There's something more radical afoot, a kind of Big Bang move to give product manufacturers a clear message: that Aloof Design is a studio geared to delivering detailed designs for mass production.

The timing looks good because the trickle-down effect from the early rush-job commissions is beginning to deliver more significant work. "This year's London Design Week proved to be very hard work," says Aloof. "But the response was quite phenomenal. We must have made 50 really interesting contacts.

"That's how we met TAG MacLaren and their catering company, Absolute Taste. And they've been a really good client. Virgin came and we've designed for them."

The duo's client roster is interesting because it's wide-angle rather than tightly focused, suggesting that Aloof's work is thought of as unusual. VV Rouleaux, the Bond Street producer of ultimate fabric fineries and embellishments, asked Aloof to produce a perspex-based installation for one of their windows; Vessel, the exclusive container emporium favoured by design-minded socialites, stocks his containers.

Aloof Design was also personally approached by Christina Ong, whose fashion-based Club 21 business empire includes clients such as Armani, Donna Karan and Prada. There have since been three interviews to discuss an intriguing possibility: that Aloof Design be used as part of a strategic move by Mulberry to develop what Aloof describes as "a British brand for the 21st Century - pukkah, well-made, but in the postmodern tradition".

In the shorter term, though, Aloof Design must cover its bets by establishing a track record to give their own brand enough presence to be used openly on products made by other manufacturers. Aloof and Kostyrka are, for example, producing a run of hand-made leather sleeve-bags for Paul Smith. Armani and Donna Karan may pursue an updated version of the leather-and-plywood bag.

"But we're not moving fast enough," says Kostyrka. "We're losing contacts because we can't follow them all up. The trouble is, we have spent most of our time developing designs and making test-pieces. The thing we really need to do - market ourselves - we can't do because there's not enough time or money. We do a lot of break-even stuff for PR reasons, though we think that shouldn't last much longer."

It may only be a question of months. The studio has taken on, part time, a gifted young craftsman, Josh Mitchell, in order to accelerate fabrications; and Kostyrka has also been asked to produce colour prediction guides for two paper companies, which could spawn large volumes of similar work for the companies' clients.

As for that all-important breakthrough product, it may already have been created. A geometrically sculptural and mass produceable plastic lamp is due to be put into production by Innermost in Britain within months, with bolt-on marketing deals being discussed in Holland, France, Germany and Spain. The lamp will carry the Aloof Design brand mark and, crucially, deliver royalties.

"It gets more and more cloud nine," admits Aloof. "A few weeks ago a man came into 151 and talked to us and took a close look at our products and then said he was an architect, and would we be interested in collaborating with him on architectural competitions? We just loved that - to do something architectural is the ultimate challenge. And then he told us who he worked for. It was Norman Foster."