Design: Robin's latest objects of desire
Thursday 12 March 1998
WHY would Robin Cook want a pair of Wannabe loafers by designer Patrick Cox in three shades of leather woven together like mosiacs, or a copy of the Pet Shop Boys' orange bubble CD cover which sold three and a half million copies five years ago hanging around in his office? To represent the global reach of cutting edge design in Britain, of course. A dozen examples have been chosen by the Design Council in the first phase of a Foreign Office-led promotion, including two big-budget buildings abroad - the Reichstag in Berlin by Norman Foster and the regional HQ for Marseilles council by Will Alsop.
"I wanted to show the world that the Foreign Office in modern Britain is better than a collection of Hansards," the Foreign Secretary said. So his antique walnut 1860s Dutch bookcase was emptied to make a showcase. Its colourful and playful contents may represent the best of cutting edge contemporary design, but they also retell the familiar tale of how the best of British design ends up being manufactured abroad.
An underwater camera by Seymour Powell shaped like a banana to maximise brightness in the depths is made for Minolta in Japan. A Fisher Price children's camera digitises the image and prints it on fax paper instantly. The cheapest digital camera of its type at $39, it is not not on sale in Britain, but assembled in the Far East for an American company, though at least the microchip is Scottish. The Clockwork radio by Trevor Bayliss is made by his company Bay-gen in South Africa. Attila, the ugly tool that crushes cans in its Schwarzenegger pincer arms, was designed by Julian Brown for an Italian company, Rexite.
So should the Foreign Secretary be showcasing objects not just designed but made in Britain too?
"It really doesn't matter where it's made," argues Tim Brown of Ideo, whose wrap-around Nike sunglasses are designed so that when your head moves while running there is no distortion. Grooves on the rubberised bridge stop sweat from running into the eyes - just a small detail but one that makes them a winner. The US sprint relay team at the last Olympics wore them.
"So what if it's a USA client, with bits made in Taiwan and Japan," Brown says. It's simply not an issue any more. Design really is a global business and we shouldn't take a national view. Promoting Britain's creativity is great. If British manufacturers want a piece of the action they will buy into it."
Designs that won't need much explanation to visiting dignitaries include Wallace and Gromit. Practically ambassadors abroad for Britain themselves, these animations by Nick Park talk to Peruvians and win Oscars. And Brit pop talks a lot more than some trade commissioners. Take the Pet Shop Boys, who have just returned from concerts in Russia where fans paid $100 a night for nightclub performances in Moscow. "All the smart people are disparaging about Cool Britannia and this hype for design," says singer Neil Tennant. "But I used to get apoplectic with rage when I got on to a plane and they showed foreigners what Britain was like in the Eighties. Those beefeaters in London, and cream teas in the Cotswolds. I prefer this new look."
Robin Cook is concerned that the branding of Britain is seen to be on the cutting edge of design with international players. He personally requested that a computer image of Norman Foster's Reichstag in Berlin (still under construction) was part of this design statement. The other building on parade is Will Alsop of Alsop and Stormer's "le Grand Bleu" as the cobalt blue regional HQ of the Marseilles council is known. Alsop says its strength derives from an orchestrated experience between calmness and excitement.
For all those on a jingoistic trip about buying British Alsop reminds us that if it wasn't for the rest of the world, and Europe in particular, British architects would have hardly built a thing in the Seventies and Eighties. He argues that if the Government wants to see the best of British design and architecture in this country it has got to do something about the "aesthetic policemen - the planning committees, Royal Fine Arts, English Heritage, all brought up with an idea of order, restraint, and good manners. Architects have proved that with technology and new materials, they can give the public extraordinary sensuality within their buildings."
The rest of the world has known for a long time that British design talent is worth investing in. The irony, as Alsop points out, is that we still haven't grasped it ourselves.
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