Investing in design

A lively and energetic debate was held between our top UK designers and some of the most powerful manufacturers in the world. Much of what was discussed has left more questions to explore, but one of the serious points to emerge is just who takes the credit for a successful product? Should designers take more responsibility for sales and marketing decisions, or do manufacturers lead and control the success of the product? David Tarpey reports

This latest outing in the FX Design Seminar series had a central theme of investment in design that posed a question - should manufacturers be involved - which itself highlighted a conundrum. Though the answer should be a no-brainer, difficulties arose in trying to pinpoint the reasons for such a dearth of investment in British design and, more importantly, how to resolve it.

There were a number of strands to the discussion. It was broadly agreed that foreigners like to be based in the UK while overseas companies seem to invest more in British design that UK manufacturers. Jonathan Hindle, CEO of KI and founding member of the Design Guild Mark, said: 'There seems to be some kind of residual resistance to our own manufacturers investing in British design. At the same time a lot of designers remain below the radar and don't seem to know where to start.'

This lack of a cohesive infrastructure in the UK contract design sector was a recurring theme. Comparisons with a more holistic interior design industry in Europe cropped up often and there were several mentions of the concept of the 'middle men'. These sport characters from both design and engineering backgrounds combined with sales/ marketing nous who are either key or irrelevant, depending on your stance, to launching new designs on to the market. These European 'agents' are able to present to manufacturers the practical advantages and functions of new products. Our roundtable panel felt that while there would be a very welcome interface between manufacturers and designers, in the UK this process is highly disjointed.

And sensitivity to price was an associated problem. Mark Gabbertas, MD of furniture and product design outfit Gabbertas Studio, pointed out: 'The British market is extraordinarily conservative and price driven. Compared with Europe, its price points are much lower. The UK post-war market has always been aspirational and not design driven. On the Continent, manufacturers prefer to sell something different and are happy to be brave and alternative. UK sales and marketing people have a much more watered down view of what might sell.'

This cultural difference in how design is perceived here versus across the Channel can't be underestimated. Mark Gabbertas pointed out: 'A lot of designers in countries such as Italy are also architects and patrons of design over there and often have other businesses behind them, such as hotels or cement factories. And they have a love affair with design. Here the priority is often just about the bottom line.'

Barbara Chandler, freelance design writer on design for the Evening Standard, interjected that it was important then to also demonstrate what the products could do. 'There mustn't be this contempt for the UK market. You have to publicise your products and show the producers what problems they will solve and not keep talking about how we can get people to be interested in the dreaded D word!' she said.

But this was a seminar about investing in design. Small wonder then that the D word wouldn't go away. And neither would the C word. Culture emerged several times as a big barrier to why innovative UK design is not embraced here as much it might be.

Graham Jones, vice president of Knoll Europe and current chairman of the Design Guild Mark, illustrated this with an example from football culture: 'You see it with highly paid British Premiership players who'll buy an expensive, ghastly car but then get all their furniture from IKEA. It's different in Europe, where the equivalent player will have bespoke, high-quality design. In the UK people seem to want what everyone else has and are just so conservative in their tastes.'

But is it a fair comparison to compare chav money with taste and good design? Owner of furniture manufacturer SCP Sheridan Coakley quipped: 'Nobody ever lost money underestimating the safeness of the UK market,' while Tom Lloyd, of design studio PearsonLLoyd said: 'Too many people in the UK don't understand the value of design. They think it's about cushions.'

And while no one questioned the innate creativity of the British (there are supposedly 280,000 working designers in the UK), there emerged a strong sense that insularity was a barrier to much greater success for those wishing to pursue adventurous design. Or indeed to younger designers trying to become established.

Following Mark Gabbertas's news that he had seen only a solitary British designer represented at last April's Milan Furniture Fair, Simon Pengelly, of Pengelly Designs, said: 'Our island mentality seems to prevent us from going abroad to sell. UK designers display a lack of flag waving. You'll generally see more of the people you want to sell to in one place, at a fair like Milan, than you would here, but trying to convince people to go is almost impossible.'

There was general agreement that British designers should be much more proactive on several fronts, and not leave it to the manufacturer. This would have to include selling everything from the concept of design to identifying a market demand for their product. The example was cited of how Italian designers traditionally, and with great success, sell to the German market. But then the image and brand of Italy is closely associated with the best of stylish design, from handbags to sports cars (back to rich footballers again!). The question of where Britain's USP might ? t was taken up by Jonathan Hindle.

He said: 'I wonder how British designers can distinguish themselves. Should it be in marketing or through sheer brand design? Also, our designers haven't yet sold the idea of design to the UK public or manufacturers. They have to persuade them that it can represent pro? t, innovation and something tangible.'

Cherrill Scheer, daughter of the Hille family furniture empire of post-war Britain, explained that Nanna Ditzel was recognised in the street in Denmark by the general public, which can't be said for Tom, Mark and Simon, all of whom have contributed enormously to the UK's design profile. FX editor and chair of the seminar Theresa Dowling then asked Cherrill, would Robin Day have been so famous and become a household name had not the Hille company taken him up and invested a fortune in his promotion, and that of his products Hille was manufacturing?

Mark Gabbertas said: 'Some designers have a role in selling the value of their design to the client, but how far this is valued depends on how informed the client is. However flexible you are with a lot of companies, you can get sucked in to the morass of "Well, we only do it in these colours" and so on, and of course they are also often restricted by their distribution channels.'

Sheridan Coakley felt one shouldn't sit back and hope for someone else to do the hard work. He said: 'Designers should be persuading manufacturers that there is a design worth investing in. Dyson is a superb example of a British designer's company that continues to thrive. It demonstrates ongoing innovation, persistence and great marketing.' Dyson is an interesting example of how Sir James Dyson, as a designer, became a global manufacturer because there was no backing for his original product.

Looking beyond our shores was seen as absolute key to survival, for both designers and manufacturers. Indeed Tom Lloyd said that his business had worked only with foreign manufacturers in its first decade: 'We didn't sense in those first 10 years that UK manufacturers would be interested. Because there isn't a real value given to design in this country, it's not rewarded.' His opinion was backed up by Simon Pengelly's memory of his early years: 'My experience was of getting paid peanuts. There was just a big lack of appreciation of design.'

Once again mention was made of countries such as Italy where skills and expertise were often present in a tight geographical radius, thereby allowing a symbiosis of skills and expertise, be it in steel bending, textiles or carpentry.

Jonathan Hindle said that he knew of small 'hubs' similar to this developing in Yorkshire, though they were still at embryonic stage. And Sheridan Coakley said that a wide pool of unused design skills still exists in traditional manufacturing areas such as the Potteries around Stoke-on-Trent. He thought it still possible to encourage manufacturers back to that skills pool.

Barbara Chandler said that the process has already begun and that some young designers are passing on going to places like the Royal College of Art and instead going straight to places like Stoke-on-Trent to base themselves.

Though small and pioneering these might seem now, they could be the start of a new area of innovative and pragmatic British enterprise. And there was a reminder that not everyone on the Continent is getting it right. The designers sitting around the table noted that their experience of dealing with Spanish companies was of massive inflexibility. It was mind-boggling, depressing and frustrating, reported one: 'They make the Yorkshire hubs look very sophisticated!'

There was a brief discussion on whether manufacturing that had relocated to places such as China might start to reconsider coming back to the UK, perhaps to places like Stoke-on- Trent or Yorkshire. UK flooring design firm Amtico is one such example of a company that has returned to the UK (Coventry) from China. Simon Pengelly said that this is becoming a trend and that UK businesses are leaving China 'for all sorts of reasons'. These might include cultural difficulties in business practice, sheer distance and the carbon footprint of importing goods across thousands of miles.

Jonathan Hindle was more specific. 'Buying from a local manufacturer has obvious benefits such as accessibility to customers and the designers, so that when there's a problem, it can be easily sorted out,' he said. 'Also, China requires payment upfront before anything is delivered. And receiving any money from them can take a very, very long time."

The overarching conclusion of this seminar was the need for a much more synergistic approach. There was a strong realisation that UK retailers, designers and manufacturers must begin to be more proactive, less isolated and much keener to talk and cooperate with one another. Looking to the Continent for ideas on working more closely could be a start. And selling much more abroad should be high on the wish list too. If that happens, maybe it will produce a head of steam that will excite UK public taste and curiosity and might even instil the deeper sense of appreciation here that British designers so long for.

There was much talk of the Design Council and its role to facilitate business and promote UK design - could it fill the joined-up role that is lacking over here but which Europe appears to have? Could it fill the gaps that had been identified with regard to how the UK could do it better? Could it provide all the answers to satisfy designers, manufacturers, market conditions, UK's design profile - and footballers' taste? A big ask indeed!

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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