As reported elsewhere in these pages, there is a great deal of hope in the UK that the 2012 Summer Olympics will provide fresh impulse for the UK design industry.
Something we doubt.
But then, what do we know. No honestly. What do we know?
And so we’ve taken the opportunity in recent weeks to talk to some people who are much better placed than us to asses the situation, not just in terms of the opportunities presented by the Olympics, but more generally about the state of the UK design industry in 2012.
Following on from our discussion with Gareth Williams, we caught up with Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby in Milan where, in addition to our standard question about the sense of launching new products in Milan, we discussed their views on the current state of UK design… and why their Olympic Torch isn’t included in the exhibition British Design 1948-2012 at the V&A. Something that’s been bugging us greatly since late March.
(smow)blog: One of the hopes in the UK is that the Olympics will have a positive effect on the UK design industry. Do you expect the Olympics to bring anything positive for UK designers?
Edward Barber: I don’t really think there is any need for a huge revolution in UK design, because it’s already very strong. There is a brilliant design industry in the UK with British designers working behind every important company in the world, and so if anything happens it will more about adding impetus to that movement. But I don’t think it’s that we need to start anything, its already there.
Jay Osgerby: There’s a lot of invention in the UK and Britain is at the forefront of, for example, Formula One or aeronautical engineering. But in terms of production, it is way behind just about everyone else. And that is a shame.
(smow)blog: Which leads nicely to the next question. The majority of the manufacturers with whom you co-operate are based overseas. As UK based designers do you have to look overseas for producers, would you rather there were more UK producers, or is it irrelevant….?
Jay Osgerby: About 90% of the time we have to look overseas for a partner. And of course it would be great if there were more manufacturers here doing contemporary design, but there are only a very few and none who can compete on the scale of the German, Swiss or Italian manufacturers.
Edward Barber: Britain is a post-industrial country, there is no industry left; we’re a nation of estate agents and bankers. There is a great deal of excellent small niche producers in the UK; at one end of the spectrum nanotechnology and specialist engineering and at the other end potters, weavers and other crafts. But the middle is simply no longer there. And so we have to go overseas, which is a great shame.
(smow)blog: One has the impression that at least in terms of furniture design, such isn’t really taken seriously in the UK and that every time, for example, some government institution spends money on designer furniture the press reaction is one of appalled indignation. Is furniture design taken seriously in the UK? Do you yourselves feel that you are taken seriously?
Jay Osgerby: Definitely. And there is great tradition in the UK of government and institutions sponsoring arts and design to create long lasting projects that become important to the nation. Where there is maybe a problem today is that because of all the home makeover shows on TV a lot of people think you can “do” design for tuppence. And so not everyone understands the difference between real design and what they perceive as being design. And so in that respect nipping down to IKEA to get a couple of benches for a government minister is perhaps not really the most helpful way to go.
(smow)blog: And so despite the lack of manufacturers you’re not planning leaving London and setting up a studio overseas.
Edward Barber: Definitely not! I’d rather work in London than anywhere else!
(smow)blog: Turning briefly to Milan, we’ve not seen any lists and so how many new works are you launching here?
Jay Osgerby: Not much really, we’re saving most of our new projects for the London Design Festival….
(smow)blog: Good, so we can skip neatly to the more important question! Is it still worth launching projects in Milan, or is it all just too big?
Edward Barber: It depends on the company, but generally yes. Milan however has become so huge and there is so much noise that you have to have an incredible voice, or a real PR grabbing product, to be heard. As a consequence a lot of designers are now starting to launch products in Cologne, London or Paris, where you can generate a lot more interest.
(smow)blog: Which means your decision for London was then deliberate, or were the products just not ready to be presented?
Jay Osgerby: We thought with the Olympics it would be a good opportunity to launch products in London this year….
Edward Barber: … also London is becoming more important as a design location. The Design Festival in September is very well established and 100% Design are making changes for 2012, and so I think London is becoming a much more interesting place to show.
(smow)blog: And to finish. The V&A exhibition, effectively, ends with the 2012 Olympics, but your torch isn’t in it…
Edward Barber: I know. They didn’t want it…
Jay Osgerby: …said it was too obvious.
Now we know.
And OK it is obvious, very obvious. But would still have been nice.
Or maybe the V&A are saving it and the other Barber & Osgerby works from their permanent collection that aren’t in the exhibition for a special retrospective…. Who knows.