Same difference

The name: Same. The place: east London, of course. The aim: to sell innovative modern design to the British public. But though you'll find big design names here, this is not just another elitist emporium. And you won't find a price tag over pounds 2,500. James Sherwood goes shopping. Photographs by Tony Buckingham

YOU MAY HAVE heard the odd rumour that East London is hip. Well, apparently, it's the cradle of cool young turks on the art and design scene. And you may also have heard that Paul Gascoigne isn't playing for England. Unless you've been in rehab for the past year, you couldn't fail to notice the explosion of galleries, edit suites, design studios and clubs in London's East End. These days, if it ain't got an E in the postcode, you bin the invitation.

At the heart of the East End, traversing Brick Lane, is the vast Trumans Brewery complex. Established in 1666, the brewery's remaining Victorian brick offices and soaring chimney are now the focal point for a sprawling village of architectural oddities. The only beer produced on the site now is from a pump in the funky Vibe Bar. Trumans Brewery is the eye of the creative storm in east London.

This part of the East End is Dazed & Confused country, with a population not unlike the cult TV show Logan's Run (where everyone over 40 is exterminated). The new establishment have made the brewery their headquarters. It's a little down-at-heel, but remember this is the grunge generation five years down the line. DJ Talvin Singh and fashion designer Tristan Webber work from studios on site. Bjork, Goldie and All Saints have performed there. Dazed & Confused, Scene and Sleaze Nation magazines have all partied there. But that's all in-crowd. Now the Trumans Brewery is ready to open one of its first commercial spaces.

Same is a new designer furniture and lighting shop in the brewery complex. It is the size of an aircraft hangar with an exhibition space bigger than all the West End interiors shops put together. Design duo Piers Roberts and Rory Dodd (both 34) are the names behind it. Roberts is like an eccentric evangelist for contemporary design, bursting at the seams with enthusiasm for young talent, accessible design and the glories of east London. Dodd, with signature Joe 90 frames, looks not unlike one of his swift cartoon- sketches.

"The inspiration for opening Same came from the young designers," says Roberts. "We recognised young people with talent and good ideas who had absolutely no support. They leave college and have to do their own PR, marketing, book-keeping, distribution and do a bit of design on the side. The emphasis of Same is overcoming these barriers. We approach retail like a designer approaches a design problem." If Roberts is the philosopher, then Dodd is the one who clearly revels in the quirks and surprises of contemporary design. "Look, it's a balloon," he says of a "vase" made from a sucker, a piece of wire and a balloon filled with water. "See, it's a real tea strainer," Dodd points to Ingo Maurer's Mozzkito light with a halogen bulb trapped inside a steel antenna.

Same's mission is to educate a new generation about design. We're not talking about recognising a Charles Eames chair and sagely nodding at a pounds 5,000 price-tag. "The market has shifted considerably," says Roberts. "I think design has always been perceived as elite; for a narrow and rich margin of society. But even named designers like Tom Dixon are consciously working in more accessible materials, which makes the prices more egalitarian. The designers want to see design much more widely accepted and they know that won't happen if they price themselves beyond a real person's budget."

A brief look at pieces scarcely out of their packing cases (Same doesn't officially open until 2 July) demonstrates how astutely Roberts and Dodd have chosen the stable of launch designers. Yes, there will be show pieces but Roberts says firmly, "The most expensive piece we have is pounds 2500." So name designers like Ingo Maurer are at Same, but at pounds 345 for his Lucellino winged light bulb. Ingenious is the word for the fantastic Finnish design house Snowcrash. The Glowblow standing light (pounds 300) is a nylon balloon which inflates and hovers around a bulb when the light is switched on. The silver Chip Chair (pounds 330) is a plastic form that shapes to the body and moves when you do - not necessarily in the same direction.

It is the humour that will undoubtedly contribute to Same's success. But it is not a throw-away humour. For example, Babylon Design's Wobble Glass (pounds 8) is shaped like a Weeble (the kid's toy that wobbles but won't fall down) and rocks without spilling. Fruit on Wheels (pounds 62) by Designum is an aerodynamic glass fruit bowl on castors. Even the ubiquitous Philippe Starck Dr No chair looks witty when chosen in hot orange. There are 30 international designers represented at Same. British favourites like Michael Sodeau, Babylon Design and Michael Young are there and some, like Dutch designers GoodsGoods and Droog are exclusive to Same.

Robert insists that, "We came from nowhere. Two years ago, Rory was leaving college and I was closing a workshop in Thame. We really were improvising. We didn't know whether Same would work. If it wasn't for the designers and agents who had faith in us, then there wouldn't be a Same."

John Roake, whose agency Catalytico represents Ingo Maurer in the UK, says, "In the Eighties boom people spent money but they had no idea what they were buying. They bought a Knoll sofa the way they'd buy a BMW - because everyone had one. Also, the designer pieces were over-priced. There was no relationship between the object and its worth as long as there was a name attached. That has changed. We are still indifferent as a nation to good design. Same will contribute to the shift away from indifference and it's significant that this is happening in the East End of London."

There's been a shift in culture in East London, an inevitable smartening up that saddens some. It's not so much about boho artists and students now. But there is also a new level of professionalism. Ivan Tennant, owner of Spitalfields gallery E1, says. "You have to understand that the East End is where the City and the artists meet. The people who can afford contemporary art and design aren't living in Chelsea anymore. They are moving into the East End lofts. That means the artists who have studios there are practically next door. It also means they have the wall space for vast pieces of art." This phenomenon will inevitably help Same. A loft demands contemporary furniture and there's a lorra lorra lofts in the East End.

Same, The Bridge, 146 Brick Lane, London E1. Tel: 0171 247 9992