Investing in the future

Discover flourishing design start-ups while you can still afford them, says Annie Deakin
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The Independent Online

What a difference a year makes. While the rest of the country has been whingeing about the financial climate, forward-thinking creative entrepreneurs who left college last year have snowballed their careers. The New Designers One Year On exhibition, which closes this Sunday, tracks award winners from the graduate show the year before.

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Promoting emerging talent can be a thankless task but it’s humbling to watch ambitious designers build their careers. The twelve months following graduation are perhaps the most trying in a young person’s life - and never more so than in these economically testing times. The One Year On exhibition, curated by trendspotter and design activist Thorsten van Elten, showcases the most promising design start-ups. Savvy buyers and collectors eagerly await van Elten’s handpicked selection which, this year, included Ruth Ashton, Aloye Adede, Lizzie Cullen, Julie Spurgeon and James Plant.

By fostering young talent, shows like New Designers ensure that Britain will remain at the forefront of creative industries. "There is a financial crisis, but there is not a creative crisis," announced architect Amanda Levete this week. "It is an incredibly exciting moment, the moment to be bold, to think big and to think diagonally because hand in hand with creativity goes entrepreneurship."

Not long out of college, James Plant is returning to New Designers in Islington after a roller coaster year. The same month as graduating with a First in Furniture & Related Product Design from Buckingham New University, James Plant won the New Designers 100% Design Award last summer. His public profile has since rocketed; he came fourth in the mydeco One to Watch competition, was a finalist at Ideal Homes Show and was runner up for Homes and Gardens Young Designer. The future is most certainly bright for Plant's new business venture.

Since graduating last year, ceramicist Julie Spurgeon - who joins Plant at One Year On 2009 - now boasts that she sells at prestigious shopping emporium Fortnum & Mason. Sharing similar success is Adede, who launched her fashion label Eyola last year. She has since won an award at African Fashion Week and dressed VV Brown for the premier of Confessions of a Shopaholic.

"There are always lots of fantastic raw designs with bags of potential at New Designers," says sustainably aware furniture designer Jason Heap, who exhibited there last year and now sells his award winning Trinity table through mydeco. He recently won the Judges Award and the Young Designer of the Year, both from Homes & Gardens and has set up his own exhibition called Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design.

If the One Year On show proves anything, it is that designers need more than artistic skill to survive after graduation. They need to prove their initiative, develop entrepreneurial skills and realise that competition among peers is healthy. Rivalry is good, especially in an industry that does not take kindly to slackers. Hence, the One Year On award systems where the most promising designers of the year scoop prizes which, in turn, help them carry their designs to the market. Joining van Elten on the judging panel is Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight and Rachel Moses, marketing manager at Design Week. Former rector of the Royal College of Art, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling is on call to hand out awards to the best entrepreneurs.

This year, Ruth Ashton and Lizzie Cullen scooped the One Year On Awards for Part One and Two respectively. Textile designer and illustrator Ashton graduated last year from Nottingham Trent University and now sells her hand-stitched books in Anthropology on Oxford Street. Cullen is currently exhibiting her illustrated psycho-geographical maps at the Cynthia Corbett Gallery and plans to publish a children’s book with Phosphor Art.

Most of today's leading designers were once, too, just anxious-to-please students keen to sell their wares in high street giants. Let's not forget that Conran, Starck and Newson were once unknowns and are now household names. The same could soon be said of Ashton, Cullen and Heap who are defying the recession with their creativity and entrepreneurial skills. Like school reunions - when the plain Jane classmate inevitably emerges beautiful and successful - the One Year On show highlights what a difference a year can make.

Annie Deakin is Editor of