Designer bikers lead the pack; profile

Richard Seymour and Dick Powell: David Bowen talks to two Englishmen who have contrived to mix a private passion for motorcycles with their business
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The Independent Online
Did you see the Equinox programme before Christmas about a couple of designers? One was hairy, one was smooth, and they were designing a new BSA Bantam - commissioned by a German company - a motorbike for India, and a food processor.

The hirsute one was Richard Seymour, his smooth colleague was Dick Powell and the programme was gripping. It was also unusual - industrial design is not the sort of subject that crowds prime time slots.

Perhaps that will now change. Several people have approached them muttering "Harvey-Jones ... Troubleshooter", suggesting they could do for design what he has done for factories. The two make a telegenic double act. Seymour looks like the biker he is (although he also drives and races a TVR). His style is sweat shirt, feet on the table. Powell, despite the powerful motorcycle he rides to work every day, could pass for a merchant banker on a casual day.

They are passionately keen to raise the profile of design - not least among British companies, which make miserable use of it - but they do not want to bear the burden themselves. "It would be extremely tiresome if we ended up being the people who have to beat the drum," Seymour says.

The two would rather get on with designing. Seymour Powell is deliberately small - never more than 24 people - but it has come up with a string of products that put it near, if not at, the summit of the London industrial design tree. They range from the world's first cordless kettle to a clutch of motorbikes, including the Norton Commander and the BSA Bantam featured on the telly.

"They are bright, successful, clever and pugilistic," Jonathan Glancey, the Independent's design guru, says. "And they have a racy image because of their involvement with bikes." They have, he says, achieved the trick of being seen as go-ahead while at the same time being a safe pair of hands. Look at the treatment they give to products, whether racing bikes or deep-fat fryers, and you can see what he means - they are stylish and modern but hardly outrageous.

Like most of the best double acts, they are quite unlike each other. Powell's father was in the Indian Civil Service. Dick, born in 1951, was brought up in the same Surrey village as Richard Branson (his brother Nick co-founded Virgin Records). He went to Ampleforth school where he came across a magazine called Design. This, he decided, was what he wanted to do because it would make use of his artistic flair as well as his obsession with mechanical objects (he had graduated from Meccano to motorbikes).

During his seven years at art college, he concluded that the current fashion in industrial design was flawed. It was the received opinion that if something worked well, it looked well. As a result, he says: "Styling was a dirty word - what had been forgotten was how to make things look great. I thought that was wrong, and I got into all sorts of trouble for saying so."

He set up in business with like-minded partners, but they fell out and he had to start again on his own. He was also teaching part-time at an art college. So was Richard Seymour, and a friendship was born on the back of a shared obsession with motorbikes. Powell asked Seymour if he would like to move into his studio. He came back from holiday in November 1982 to find his friend had done just that.

There is some internal debate about Richard Seymour's background. Seymour: "I was born in Scarborough into a working class family." Powell: "Your dad's not working class." Seymour: "He certainly is - he started off in a ticket office at the station." But he ended up as an engineer at the local Early Warning Station (P: "That's hardly working class." S: "You don't change classes.")

He first showed artistic tendencies at 18 months, he says, and in due course went to the Central School of Art in London, where he did a graphic design course. He enjoyed it, but because he was equally at ease working in two or three dimensions he had no idea which career would suit him best. So he joined an advertising agency as a creative where he would at least be paid well.

He spent five years at the agency, but found the transitory nature of advertising unsatisfying. So when Powell made his offer, he jumped.

They started co-operating informally, and found their talents were complementary. Richard was strong at product development and packaging, while Dick was a "died in the wool industrial designer".

After 18 months they came together formally. Their first break was when Tefal, the French kitchen equipment company, asked them to design a kettle - because electric kettles are peculiarly British things. That was how they came to develop the first cordless kettle, which gave them both publicity and a regular stream of work from Tefal.

Because there was so little work from British companies, they had to become international and picked up work from a number of Japanese companies, including Casio. It was difficult at first, because the Japanese were unhappy with the concept of intuition. But eventually they came to half accept that British designers could do things they could not. The Japanese are still trying to rationalise design, Powell says, while: "We depend on being illogical."

Much of their work has involved giving the Seymour Powell treatment to mundane items such as hairdryers and deep-fat fryers, although they have also become specialists in their abiding love, motorcycles.

Glancey says that if they have a weakness, it is that "the look" is perhaps starting to get a little predictable. "You know what you're going to get, which is why companies like them, but sometimes you don't want a safe pair of hands," he says.

He is, however, impressed by the way the two work together. "It's a marriage between two professional men, which is often the best way in design."

"We really hum when there is harmony between us," Seymour says. Powell is better at detail, while he uses a broader brush. "I am partly his control," Powell believes.

It is difficult not to see them as a long-married couple. They bicker, look bored when the other is talking, but are totally at ease with each other. "We set up rules which we stick to - the main one is that if one of us pisses the other off, we talk about it straight away," Powell says. They can produce designs startlingly quickly because they exchange information without talking - they sit opposite each other and pass sketches backwards and forwards without saying a thing. Seymour calls it their "meta language".

Several design groups grew mighty and floated in the Eighties. Not Seymour Powell. "We're designers not businessmen," Seymour says. "Many companies are founded to make money: this company was founded to let Dick and I do what we wanted to do." The combination of small size and a broad geographical spread also meant the partnership was able to ride the recession: as Britain slipped, work picked up in Japan; when the bubble burst there Europe was coming back to life.

Seymour and Powell make no apology for their high profile and they fervently believe the design profession undersells itself - one of the reasons British industry has such a poor understanding of its importance. "Designers have been unable to communicate with the market," Seymour says. "You can blame industry, but advertising agencies and lawyers managed to get their message through to companies." The problem stems, he says, from an unhealthy jealousy between designers: "If they can't communicate with each other, what chance do other people have."

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