Shopping & Design: Designed for success

A group of talented young people have the chance to display their wares - thanks to the Prince's Youth Business Trust. By Caroline Donald

As you enter the top-floor pavilion at the Country Living Fair in Islington, north London, the air quickens with expectation. In the 80 stands in the room are displayed the efforts and aspirations of young designers, the majority of whom are there on their first big commercial break.

They are exhibiting under the umbrella of the Prince's Youth Business Trust, which offers finance and support to people aged between 18 and 30 who want to set up in their own business and who are finding it difficult to cobble together the funds from other sources. This takes the form of grants and start-up loans, as well as ongoing advice from a financial "mentor" - usually a successful local entrepreneur or professional - as fine draughtsmanship or a way with wood, combined with inexperienced youth, does not always make for acute business acumen.

As can be deduced from the long queues outside the fair, design and "the crafts" are big business these days, but it would seem that the normal providers of start-up finance have not quite caught up with this trend, still considering the making of pots and suchlike to be a dilet- tante calling.

Darren Sewell, 23, who makes stylish upholstered contemporary furniture, says of his own experience: "Nobody else apart from the Prince's Trust was prepared to stump up the cash. I found various business venture schemes useless, and the bank was not keen on the idea of contemporary furniture."

His loan from the Trust went towards business cards and basic tools for his company, Hullabaloo (0115 973 2336). Two years on, he is already showing signs of being a confident, shrewd businessman. His work, which will be familiar to readers of glossy magazines, sells through outlets in Nottingham - where he studied upholstery - and the interior-design mecca, Chelsea Harbour in west London.

Neil James, 25, of Origin Design (01981 540606), which produces furniture and sculpture made from metal, wood, glass and stone, says that the advice of the financial mentor assigned to him by the Trust has been "immense". Having set up business almost immediately after he left college, where he studied 3D design, he has been having regular monthly meetings with his mentor, Kate Parker, for just six months.

"It's given me so much more direction," he says. James works to private commissions and is determined to remain a designer working on original ideas, rather than "at the curtain-pole end of the market".

Through working with the Trust he has learnt how to "co-ordinate with other people", he says, and to delegate work in areas in which he is less skilled, such as carpentry and stonemasonry.

Rebecca Sturrock says her mentor, Matthew Fosch, set up his own business in the Eighties under the auspices of a youth opportunity scheme. Today he is a successful City businessman who has been "very supportive" of her.

"He has had many of the same experiences as me," says Sturrock. "He started from scratch too, so he has a lot of empathy."

Sturrock's company, Boo (0171-226 5390), makes attractively simple screen- printed Perspex lights that can be wall-mounted or free-standing. She had the idea to produce the lights when she was working as a jewellery designer.

"I couldn't borrow from conventional sources as I was selling in a market and living in rented accommodation," she says. "I was 30 at the time I applied to the Prince's Trust, so I only just made it." A loan of pounds 2,500 helped her buy equipment, and after only six months of trading her lights now sell all over Europe.

Mel du Pontet, 28, of Seagull Designs (07971 299031) spent seven years running the woodwork department of a Buddhist monastery in the Scottish borders before deciding to set up his own business. He graduated from Parnham College in 1998, and with a pounds 1,500 loan from the Prince's Trust bought a computer. He uses it to create his functional but elegant furniture designs - an ergonomically laid-out computer table and a minimalist clothes cabinet are examples.

His computer is invaluable: "You can change your drawings in an instant, so you've always got active drawings," he says.

Last week du Pontet was working all hours in his Taunton studio with the help of a friend, Aaron Barnes, to produce pieces for the fair.

With about 6,000 people attending daily, there is a good chance he will sell well, or even catch the eye of a retail outlet buyer. If nothing else, he has got 79 like-minded people around him to go to the pub with and compare notes.

The Country Living Fair runs until tomorrow at the Business Design Centre, Upper Street, London N1. Ticket hotline: 0121-767 4757. Tickets cost pounds 10 at the door.

The Prince's Trust can be contacted on 0171-543 1234

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