Twenty-five years or so ago, British art colleges, arguably the best in Europe, if not the world, were producing skilled and original designers of furniture, ceramics, glass, lighting and textiles in increasing numbers. Surprising though it now seems, manufacturers and shops at that time were largely indifferent to such talents, and the designers who wanted to get their work out into the wider world had to go it alone. And so came about the modern phenomenon of the "designer-maker". Then, in the early Eighties, a growing bevy of eager, but widely scattered and invariably disorganised, creatives had the immeasurable luck to find themselves an imaginative, indomitable and selfless champion, Peta Levi, who was to continue to fight their corner until her death.
Born in 1938, Peta Levi had married a solicitor, Michael Sayers, at 19, and had three children within four years. As the children got older, she worked as a journalist, specialising in design and new technology, for The Times, the Financial Times and House & Garden. She became increasingly aware of a huge British river of design talent that was simply running away. First step to dam the flood was to found and organise, from 1983 to 1991, the "New Designers" exhibition which has grown now into the huge summer event held annually at the Business Design Centre in Islington, north London.
Levi's inspired idea was to provide a unified platform for new graduates in art and design to show their work to visiting talent scouts from manufacturers, shops and design agencies, along with the media and the public. In 2006, the show celebrated its 21st birthday and was opened by Gordon Brown. It had grown into what the then Chancellor called "a British institution . . . unrivalled in Europe for its scope, its scale and its ability to attract potential employers". And in July last year, a staggering 4,000 new graduates showed off their degree show ideas.
Levi came to realise, however, that providing a talent arena was simply not enough, as most new designers, however brilliant, have "nil business acumen", as she once tellingly observed. They need nurturing and tutoring in the ways of commerce and self-promotion. Accordingly, in 1991, she set up New Designers in Business, to offer manufacturing, marketing and publicity expertise. Later this was to change its name to Design-Nation, and be the operating arm of Levi's umbrella charity the Design Trust. Today (still with charitable status), Design-Nation is a group of around 150 of the most talented designers in Britain, all vetted by an independent panel of judges.
Now anyone can easily find a designer, thanks to Design-Nation's glossy handbook-cum-catalogue, and a well-designed website adding electronic edge (www.designnation.co.uk) This site has become a well-used and trusted resource for commissioning ceramics, glass, furniture, lighting, textiles, silver, metal, jewellery, fashion accessories, branding and product design. It does not charge a commission. Design-Nation also arranges bursaries to back fledgling designers at exhibitions.
Indeed, over the years, Design-Nation has helped well over 1,000 young designers to launch their products successfully. Levi also engineered a sister website, www.thedesigntrust.co.uk, which concentrates on education for students and new designers setting up in business. In 2005, Design-Nation merged with the Creative Industries Unit of London Metropolitan University, with Levi remaining as a director.
During the 1990s, Levi organised and curated six "Decorative Arts Today" selling exhibitions of modern design for Bonhams, the London auction house. Later, she remembered how "visitors from all around the world were amazed by the stunning output of the likes of Ron Arad, Danny Lane and Tom Dixon". This can be considered as the genesis of the current so-called "design art" movement, which is establishing record prices for makers of unique and original design. As so often, Levi did it first.
Indeed, Levi was always pushing forward with new notions to widen the market for "her" designers in particular, and British design in general. "Eureka" was just the right name for a recent and brilliant brainwave – Levi always had a way with words. This ongoing project, started in 2004, ambitiously aimed to "find it" for leading British retailers, by putting them in touch with the right designers and makers. Already, the Eureka project has produced over 60 exclusive designs in partnership with companies such as John Lewis, Heal's, Designers Guild, Brintons, Crabtree & Evelyn, Fired Earth Interiors and the Conran Shop. At a Eureka awards ceremony last year, Levi proudly acknowledged how her project "gained a competitive edge for retailers in a tough market place". Although by then debilitated by illness, she typically insisted on rising from her wheel-chair to make her speech.
"Who could say no to Peta?" says Sue Crewe, editor of House & Garden, media partner for Eureka. "She always made things happen." Levi's association with the magazine dated back to 1983, when as its design correspondent, she organised a joint project to find the Young Designer of the Year at the furnishings exhibition "Decorex". Judges included Sir Roy Strong and the designers David Mellor and David Mlinaric.
Peta Levi deservedly gained much official recognition during her lifetime. She was appointed MBE in 1993 for her services to industrial design, and was an honorary fellow of the RSA and the RCA. In 2006, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy by the London Metropolitan University, for her "substantial contribution to art and design education and the promotion of excellence of British design".
But the most poignant tributes come from the legion of designers whom Levi helped over two and half decades.
"Peta's influence has spanned my whole career," said the glass artist Kate Maestri, who set up studio in Oxo Tower on the South Bank in London in 2002, having first showed at "New Designers" 10 years earlier. "Almost immediately I got a handsome commission through Design-Nation for two large pieces of contemporary stained glass at Canary Wharf."
Christopher Tipping, an independent project artist, was a Levi protégé for 27 years: "Her gracious and elegant manner was a foil to her tenacity and dogged pursuit of opportunity on behalf of everyone she championed. We all belonged to an extended and creative family of which Peta was the life-force."
Peta Ann Levi, journalist and design promoter: born London 6 December 1938; MBE 1993; married 1958 Michael Sayers (one son, two daughters); died London 24 April 2008.