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There is something Pavlovian about the associations we make. “Made in Italy” conjures up timeless elegance, “Scandi” often transcends geographical bounds to describe the minimal and the functional, and a “Swiss made” label earns an instant seal of approval for its excellent craftsmanship. Some countries are known for their craft, others for their technology, others yet for their manufacturing, but where does British design stand in the associations book?
To say that Britain is presently in turmoil is an understatement – but if there’s one thing Brexit has prompted us to do, that is to dissect and explore what it really means to be British, particularly through the eyes of a designer. What are the words “British design” associated with and how does this phrase manifest itself into a physical product?
“I think the seeds of the modern story of British design were sown at the Festival of Britain in 1951,” says Sir Terence Conran, reminiscing about a time he describes as “magical” and “emotional”. “That was the beginning of the British public’s understanding that design could add to their enjoyment and quality of life.”
Conran’s fond memories of an event as pivotal in the history of British design – he worked for the festival and also displayed some of his early textiles – spark palpable wonder. “It is extraordinary how far we have come and the distances we have travelled since the 1950s when a small group of 50 or so ‘designers’ were collectively known as ‘industrial artists’,” he says. “Genuinely, when I was first setting out, there was no such thing as a designer. The hunger for design and the almost complete acceptance and enthusiasm for modernism is truly remarkable [...] It still makes me smile when I close my eyes and remember the sight of people turning up on the South Bank with their mackintoshes and gas mask cases filled with sandwiches.”
Having been instrumental in establishing the Design Museum after its embryo outgrew its original location in the V&A’s Boilerhouse, Conran is widely considered a voice of authority on British design, and his belief that the keyword “in our very British success” is innovation, can, in many ways, be a reflection of his own achievements. Conran broke the mould of elitist British design and, with his vision for simple, modernist design, hauled the country out of post-war austerity.
Innovation] shows how our designers and artists have responded to an everchanging world whilst maintaining a strong identity and the vibrancy of our national identity,” he says. But is this identity, with all its vibrancy, under threat in light of Brexit? “I don’t think so and I really hope not. British design embodies the openness, tolerance and creativity that this country will need to survive and thrive in a post- Brexit world, whatever that may look like.”
He continues: “It demonstrates our innovation, creativity and diversity in its full splendour and rouses the patriot in me. I cannot say that about Brexit, which if anything, makes me feel ashamed to be British. At the minute, we have no idea what will happen, but I hope our young designers and creative minds are bold enough to get out there and keep our identity, integrity and innovation live.”
The list of said creative minds is long and counts a medley of names well-steeped in equal measures of British tradition and innovation, ranging from the likes of materials guru Max Lamb, who graced the OnOffice cover in July 2017, through to Sebastian Cox and his mushroom mycelium experiments, to design duo Barber & Osgerby, whose body of work can be deemed a thorough exploration of the British design identity.
I spoke to Edward Barber on a frosty Friday afternoon and we reflected on some of the studio’s most patriotic projects, like the Olympic torch and the £2 coin Barber & Osgerby designed for the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.
Curiously though, when asked to choose which of the studio’s own products represents his interpretation of British design the most, Barber picks neither of these. Thinking aloud, he enumerates the Portsmouth Bench, the De La Warr Pavilion furniture range and the Tip Ton Chair “originally designed for Birmingham in a place called Tipton”.
Eventually, he casts his vote in favour of the Bodleian Libraries Chair, designed in 2014 for the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. “There are three aspects to an object,” he explains, “where it’s designed, where it’s made and where it’s used, and [with the Bodleian chair] all three of those fall under the British banner.”
Despite his choice, Barber is keen to highlight that this kind of homegrown approach is no longer as tightly associated with British design as it was in the 1940s. “The design that was produced at that period was primarily by people in the country, whereas today we’re so international.” Incidentally, the studio is based in London and both Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby were trained in London, but the pair’s client list also includes European companies like Vitra, Flos and Cappellini, “and then you have a British influence brought into an Italian manufacturer and distributed worldwide”.
So how does this British influence manifest itself? “British design is at its best when it comes down to ingenuity and engineering,” says Barber. “Think about the really brilliant bits of British modern design. The Land Rover came about from the inside out, from the engine. It had to go through cross terrain, it had to be lightweight. Everything came from a brilliant concept for a new type of vehicle in the same way as the Concorde. We needed to have a passenger plane that could fly faster than the speed of sound.”
Barber and Osgerby are no strangers to ingenuity themselves. The Olympic torch was a statement of the pair’s trademark innovation – “It wasn’t just a pretty thing, it was very hi-tech” – but it was also a successful example of the designers’ aptitude to combine symbolism with functionality in a true form-follows function fashion.
In many ways, designers like Barber and Osgerby are masters of associations. The torch borrowed its trilateral form in recognition of London hosting the Games for the third time. The Bodleian Libraries Chair’s strong vertical timber referenced the spines of books on a shelf. The studio’s £2-coin design was inspired by the memorable sight of an Underground train emerging from London’s small and round tunnels.
Naturally, this associations game prompts the question: can design only be called British if the inspiration is local? And if the work of Welsh-born and London-based designer Bethan Gray is anything to go by, the answer is clear as day. “In terms of its heritage, British design is renowned for its manufacturing of the highest quality and has been influenced by cultures from around the globe for centuries,” says Gray when asked what British design means to her, later citing the arts and cultures of India, Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America as her own sources of inspiration.
“My design process always begins with a story,” she continues. “For example the rounded castellations of the Nizwa Fort in Oman is what inspired the pattern on my Nizwa cabinet, and the beautiful carved marble details on a 12th-century Italian cathedral in Siena have inspired more than one of my projects,” she explains. “These stories are distinctive parts of the cultures to which they belong, and I think they should be celebrated.”
Gray’s work can indeed be described as a celebration of craft. Her Shamsian collection was created in collaboration with master craftsman Mohammad Reza Shamsian. The Brogue table series was inspired by Irish leather broguing and produced by craftspeople in Norfolk; and the Dhow furniture family was crafted in Muscat, where Gray was inspired by the billowing sails of the traditional Omani sailing boats.
“The skills of the craftspeople that we collaborate with are greatly influential to me,” she says. “My aim is to celebrate and preserve their skills in my designs and connect their work to new commercial markets all over the world.”
The process, of course, is different for every creative. Some draw inspiration from tangible things – shells are a “particular obsession” of Gray – others start with a concept, others tap into different cultures. But after all is said and done, the starting point is not what qualifies an object as British, and neither is the end result. Though both of these are absolute cornerstones, it seems that, in an ingenious kind of way, British design is all about the journey, not the destination. It is about the process, the vision and the craft behind every successful product.
Hard though it may seem, can British design be encapsulated in three words, then? That is the question I asked Conran, Barber and Gray, but allow me to circle back to Conran and conclude with his words: “Three words? Nearly impossible but I would say innovation, creativity and restlessness are part of our DNA and underpin all of our greatest creative endeavours – desire to change and improve the world around us.”
This article originally appeared in OnOffice Magazine, Issue 141