How can British designers benefit from a global perspective?

…asks Simon Hamilton, international director of the British Institute of Interior Design and owner of design practice Simon Hamilton Associates

My role as international director of the British Institute of Interior Design (BIID) presents me with a great perspective of our profession: the similarities between the sector here in the UK and overseas, and the key differences.

What is striking is the energy that designers abroad possess, though there is no doubt that UK practitioners are just as passionate and dedicated. The differences, I believe, are much more likely to be cultural — there’s no less content or quality in design, but simply a different approach.

British designers have much to offer, which is why there is such high demand for our talents in China, India, Russia and Singapore. But are we ready to adapt to a different working environment, and can we learn from it?

In travelling to several countries every year I have the chance to see companies at work and have been surprised by the integration of teams. For example, during a visit to a major Spanish lighting company it was clear who the bosses were, but at the heart of the company was a very close and special family atmosphere. This strong sense of family could have been because of the company’s size, but it was also, I felt, a mark of its evolution and growth over the years as much as the strong familial bonds traditional in southern European culture. Another characteristic in this part of the world is how much the working hours are dictated by the climate. Afternoon siestas allow staff to have a long lunch break and even go home. They then return with more energy but work later hours, particularly in the hot summer months.

Discipline and dedication are particularly strong factors in some countries, such as Japan. Few leave work early — this is felt to indicate a lack of interest and commitment. For a designer trying to break into that particular market there are very high expectations. A long-term game plan is the best approach. You need to show that you are serious and willing to invest time. On my third visit to Japan in 2009, I was greeted by the same design practice I had met on two previous occasions. They said when I left that they looked forward to seeing me again next year, without a hint of a pitch or proposal!

One of the most creatively rewarding projects I have worked on overseas is the boutique hotel 947 Rooms, in Venice. The name is derived from the client’s father’s restaurant established in 1947 and on the floor below the hotel. The combined input of my expertise with that of an Italian designer who had the essential language skills ensured excellent client/designer communication. Learning the language is one thing, but a native speaker has an unrivalled insight into the country’s nuances and its people. Our meetings in Venice were conducted around food. We would eat while we worked or after a long client workshop, which created a very interactive and relaxed atmosphere while still being productive.

Talking with designers it seems that working for international clients is increasingly the norm rather than the exception. With the advance of technology it is easier than in recent years to communicate your ideas quickly and reliably, through mediums such as Skype.

One of the most exciting aspects of working abroad is the possibility of reinvention. Left behind are the familiar cultural stereotypes and you can present yourself and your work in a new, fresh light. For me the status associated with having BIID membership has also been of huge help in establishing credibility reputation and a context for design quality.

I was fortunate to visit several countries last year with the aim of increasing awareness of interior design and spreading the message that we can successfully work together and all benefit. With technology as it is now, it is totally feasible to be designing in Sweden for a project in London while on business in the USA!

Boundaries don’t really exist as they did before. We are governed by neither geography nor language as much as we were in the past. This global approach to projects is a welcome addition to UK work for many British designers and, arguably, an essential business strategy in the current economic climate.

British interior design has a great reputation abroad, and offers a platform for firms to expand their horizons and prosper.

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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