Design: So Italian. And yet, so British

While young British artists bask in glory, young British designers are forced to sell abroad. Scott Hughes meets the firm who want to change that
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's an old complaint, but it hasn't been laid to rest yet. While there is worldwide demand for British design, many contemporary British designers are still forced to seek work in mainland Europe due to the lack of interest from manufacturers in their home country. It's a situation that design store Purves & Purves, celebrating its fifth anniversary, is seeking to highlight with a new exhibition entitled "An Englishman Abroad (with apologies to the Celts)", featuring the work of Julian Brown, Danny Lane, Helen Yardley, Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Platt and Young, Ron Arad, and Terence Woodgate.

Though not all born here, all trained in this country during the Seventies and Eighties. But the fact is that few UK companies have stepped forward to produce any of their works. (The most notable exception is Sheridan Coakley's company SCP, which has in the last decade produced furniture by Morrison and Hilton.) However, in Europe, there are up to 15 companies manufacturing work by these people collectively. "The interest from Europe is major, but the interest from the UK is zero," as owner Andrew Purves bluntly puts it.

"It would be nice if there were some mainstream British manufacturers who were interested in using the talents of the designers that the schools and colleges produce," Purves says. "There's no doubt that they have a talent, but I don't think manufacturers are seeing their potential, so they're forced to look overseas. And, they're getting it, in quite large numbers - projects both large and small, from, in design terms, some of the major manufacturers in continental Europe."

Since leaving the Royal College of Art in 1983, Julian Brown has designed a huge range of products from recycling devices to sofas, mostly for foreign companies, and since 1990 has been working for an Italian company, Rexite. He praises the enthusiasm and adventurousness of the Italians. "Yes, they're in it for money, for profit, but they're also in it to enjoy it."

Danny Lane, who came to Britain's Central School of Art from the US in 1975, has his glass table designs produced by Italian company Fiam. Helen Yardley, a graduate of the Royal College of Art who set up her own rug- making business in 1982, was approached several years ago by French firm Toulemonde Bochart to contribute to its collection. Jasper Morrison, also ex-Royal College, says that half his work is commissioned from Italy, and the other half from Germany. Matthew Hilton, though given his break by Sheridan Coakley, designs furniture for two Spanish companies, as well as Driade in Italy - a firm that was also prepared to invest in the talents of Platt and Young. Ron Arad, who left his native Israel to train at London's Architectural Association in the Seventies, produces some work through his own studio, but has his ideas realised on a larger scale by Italian firm Kartell. And although Terence Woodgate designs products for Concord Lighting in this country, he works mostly for Spanish and Italian companies.

"There are hundreds of designers produced by colleges every year," explains Purves. "But this group have been in the market for 10 or 15 years, and have been consistent at producing good design. The evidence being that some of their products have become minor classics. Lots of things last two or three years, but Terence Woodgate's 'River' system [a storage system comprising drawers, cabinets and shelves], for example, has been going for about nine years."

The exhibition will feature new products from most of the designers, as well as more established ranges. Among the items on show will be Ron Arad's chair "Fantastic Plastic Elastic", and this year's designs by Matthew Hilton, including the "Gemini" sofa. Julian Brown's work will be shown as a comprehensive collection for the first time, along with his can crusher.

So why aren't British companies taking notice of such talent? Purves feels that it might partly be a matter of the designers themselves "not having the confidence to talk to the manufacturers, and present value for money to them", but lays most of the blame at the feet of the manufacturers. "They're not realising the commercial potential of new design, not investing in design, and being far too 'copycat' in what they produce," he says. "If there is the opportunity, they will just continue making what they've always made, rather than create new markets."

Ah, maybe now we're getting to it. Could it be that rabid British resistance to all things modern at work here? I put it to Purves that some sections of the British media are very good at whipping up abhorrence for anything contemporary, and he shows me a few spreads from the current issue of an established "homes" magazine, featuring rooms groaning under the tyranny of "quiet good taste". Purves claims magazines that champion more traditional design have a huge influence. Even the interiors featured in television soap operas, he says, have an effect on the way the British style their homes - and you don't see much cutting-edge contemporary design in the living rooms of Walford or Weatherfield.

But Purves seems optimistic that the British will get round to chucking out their chintz one day. "If you look at these products they're not exactly unusual," he says, "and the signs are that there is a growing interest in modern, contemporary products from consumers. There are no individual shops selling traditional merchandise. The leading edge is clearly all contemporary, in terms of new shops opening. That's what new magazines like Wallpaper are writing about; that's where people want to be and people want to shop.

"And, in the trade, the growing success of exhibitions like '100% Design' is very encouraging, indicating that there are young designers keeping going for 3 or 4 years, developing their own products, and working on design projects. I think restaurants, too, have been instrumental in fostering a new awareness of design and interiors. A lot of new restaurants have to be contemporary; otherwise, they're nowhere."

But Purves insists that we're still missing out, especially on a commercial level. There's a huge irony, he says, in that the British can buy good British design, but have to pay foreign manufacturers to get their hands on it. "A company like Rexite has a huge manufacturing base in Italy, and it has a primarily export market," he says. "It's a big earner for the Italians."

The gulf between UK and European manufacturers is all too apparent, and especially at trade fairs, says Purves. "UK companies are notable for the number of imports that they're bringing in, and for producing the same old stuff. In Europe, the interesting companies - the biggest companies - are the ones producing new work and selling it around the world. There are British companies that have the manufacturing capability, but they don't seem to have the willingness to invest in modern design. There's no doubt that new projects do cost money, but the rewards are there."

Perhaps, before Purves & Purves reaches its 10th anniversary, British industry will have started reaping them

'An Englishman Abroad (with apologies to the Celts)' - 17 October to 8 November at Purves & Purves, 80-81 and 83 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1 (0171- 580 8223)

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