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April 17 2012

Letters: Academic appeal to save the Wedgwood

We are concerned at the threat to the Wedgwood Museum and Archive as an integrated collection in the UK (Royal Academy's call to save Wedgwood Museum, 16 February). The threatened sale could result in the collection being broken up, passing into private hands, or going overseas. Each of these outcomes would be a disaster for Britain's industrial and artistic heritage. The Wedgwood Museum preserves the design, production, organisational and social histories of one of the world's leading ceramics manufacturers and is recognised by Unesco as being of outstanding international importance. It represents a flagship collection for the history of British consumer goods industries; a testimony to one of the most brilliant designers, technologists, and industrial artists of the 18th century; and a key part of Britain's industrial and artistic heritage.

In contrast to the high priority and profile given to campaigns to save paintings for the nation, this important collection appears to be neglected by an art establishment which seems more interested in individual, high-priced works by overseas painters than in saving the artistic legacy of Josiah Wedgwood and the numerous artists and craftsmen who worked for Wedgwood from the 18th to the 20th centuries. For a country that prides itself as leading the world in creative industries and in producing high-quality art for a broad market, this seems to be an unfortunate set of priorities.
Peter Scott Professor of international business history, Henley Business School at the University of Reading
Andrew Popp University of Liverpool Management School
Fred Anderson Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Bridie Andrews Bentley University, Massachusetts
Maria Ines Barbero Director, Centro de Estudios de Historia y Desarrollo de Empresas, Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina
Bernardo Batiz-Lazo Professor of business history and bank management, Bangor University
Mark Billings University of Exeter
Alan Booth University of Exeter
Gordon Evelyn Boyce
Ludovic Cailluet Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale, Dunkerque
Angus Cameron Leicester University School of Management
Martin Campbell-Kelly University of Warwick
Ann M Carlos Professor of economics, University of Colorado, Boulder
D'Maris Coffman Director, Centre for Financial History, University of Cambridge
Stephanie Decker Aston Business School
Tolera Zelalem Desalegn University of Milan
Colin Divall Professor of Railway Studies, University of York
Linda Edgerly Director, The Winthrop Group Inc
Jari Eloranta Appalachian State University
Judy Faraday John Lewis Partnership Archives
Jeff Fear University of Redlands, California
Susanna Fellman Professor of Business History, University of Gothenburg
José Luis Fernández Fernández Universidad Pontificia Comillas, Spain
Dale L Flesher Arthur Andersen alumni professor and associate dean, Patterson School of Accountancy, University of Mississippi
Andrew Godley Professor of management & business history, Henley Business School at the University of Reading
Terry Gourvish (London School of Economics), President, Association of Business Historians
David Hancock Professor of History, University of Michigan
Daryl M Hafter (Eastern Michigan University), former president, Society for the History of Technology
Per H Hansen (Copenhagen Business School), President-elect, Business History Conference
Barbara Hahn Texas Tech University
Roger Horowitz (University of Michigan), Secretary-treasurer, Business History Conference
Jane Humphries (University of Oxford), President, Economic History Society
Karen Hunt Professor of Modern British History, Keele University
Richard R John Professor of journalism, Columbia University
Florent Le Bot ENS de Cachan, Paris
Luis de León Molina Bilbao, Spain
Yongdo Kim Hosei University, Tokyo
Nancy F Koehn James Robison professor of business administration, Harvard Business School
Berti Kolbow Institute of Economic and Social History, Goettingen University
Elisabeth Koll Harvard Business School
Theodore P Kovaleff Columbia University
Naomi R Lamoreaux Professor of economics and history, Yale University
Daniela La Penna University of Reading
Margaret Levenstein (University of Michigan), Past president, Business History Conference
Stephen Linstead Professor of critical management, University of York
Ken Lipartito (Florida International University), President, Business History Conference
Katey Logan Business Archives Council
Niall G MacKenzie Head of research, Institute for Innovation Studies, University of Wales Global Academy
John J McCusker Ewing Halsell distinguished professor of American history and professor of economics, Trinity University, Texas
José Miguel Martínez-Carrión Professor of economic history, University of Murcia
Anette Mikes Harvard Business School
Stephen Mihm University of Georgia
Elena Moran
Stephen L Morgan (University of Nottingham), Editor-in-chief, The Australian Economic History Review
Marina Moskowitz University of Glasgow
Alistair Mutch Professor of information and learning, Nottingham Trent University
Simon P Newman Sir Denis Brogan professor of American history, University of Glasgow
Shigehiro Nishimura London School of Economics
Richard Ovenden Bodleian Library, Oxford
Mary Quek University of Hertfordshire
Veronique Pouillard University of Oslo
Michael Rowlinson Professor of organization studies, Queen Mary, University of London
Mary Rose Lancaster University Management School
Elena Laruelo Rueda National Institute of Industry Historical Archive, Madrid
Thomas Max Safley Professor of early modern European history, University of Pennsylvania
Marianne Schmitz German Historical Institute, Washington
M Stephen Salmon Senior business archivist, Library and Archives Canada
Andrew Smith Coventry University
Merritt Roe Smith Cutten professor of the history of technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Anna Spadavecchia Henley Business School at the University of Reading
Uwe Spiekermann Deputy director, German Historical Institute, Washington, DC
Marc Stern Bentley University, Massachusetts
James Sumner University of Manchester
Stefan Schwarzkopf Copenhagen Business School
Kevin D Tennent University of York
Paul Thommes Aachen University
Steven Tolliday (University of Leeds), Past president, Business History Conference
James Walker Henley Business School at the University of Reading
Eugene N White Professor of economics, Rutgers University
Daniel A Wren David Ross Boyd professor emeritus, University of Oklahoma
Robert E Wright Nef Family chair of political economy, Augustana College, South Dakota


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October 02 2011

British Ceramics Biennial brings signs of a Potteries revival

The event, which opened at the weekend in Stoke, is a reminder to visitors that the city still has a pottery industry

Stoke-on-Trent: the city that produced the captain of the Titanic; elected, in recent history, nine BNP councillors; and is home to a once-proud, now shattered, ceramics industry.

But despite the Potteries' sometimes bleak reputation, there are signs of revival in Stoke's most famous industry.

With the second British Ceramics Biennial, which opened at the weekend, the city is aiming to present itself as the guardian of creativity for British ceramics in all its forms – art, craft, design, and industry – and to remind visitors that the city still has a pottery industry, even if it employs a fraction of the people it did 30 years ago.

Exhibits range from high-concept, elaborate installations, such as the innumerable, 5cm clay figures of commuting businessmen by artist Lawrence Epps that scatter Stoke railway station, to piles of bricks. Piles of bricks not as in the notorious Carl André sculpture in the Tate, but plain, honest bricks for building, still manufactured in Stoke.

The main part of the Biennial takes place in the now disused Spode factory, which occupies a four-hectare (10-acre) site in the heart of Stoke. It is a beautiful but rough-and-ready space, with wall signs still proclaiming the location of the "machine-banding shop" and warning that "ear protection must be worn when tapping ware".

The creative director of Portmeirion, Julian Teed, recalls the suddenness with which it was abandoned when Spode went bust in 2008, saying that when he visited the empty building some time later: "There was still a half-drunk cup of tea and the local paper open on someone's desk."

Now, though, here are Sarah Younan's sexual, Eve Hesse-inspired ceramic pieces – teapots strung from the wall with lids like nipples, others decorated with erect penises. But also on display are terracotta pantiles, artificial ceramic hipjoints, and the life-saving ceramic filters that are used in disaster zones to remove pathogenic bacteria from drinking water.

There is a certain irony to the location: the once-thriving Spode factory, until 13 November, transformed into a destination for visitors and part of the tourism industry, rather than part of industry. Bought by the council in 2010, the long-term aim, according to Stoke's regeneration chief Kevin Bell, is to transform the site into a mixture of shops, apartments and events spaces.

But the Biennial's co-director Barney Hare Duke argued that it is not "about celebrating the past, but about being a catalyst", citing seven artists that have been commissioned to create work. The first Biennial in 2009 attracted 35,000 visitors, half of whom were from outside the region, and £2.2m in economic impact. The budget for this year's biennial, supported by the local council, Arts Council England, and industry partners such as earthenware manufacturers Emma Bridgewater and hotelware producers Steelite who both produce pottery in Stoke, is £360,000.

Local employment in the pottery industry collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the giant manufacturers, notably Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, who between them employed 20,000 people in the early 1980s, switched production to Malaysia, Indonesia and China.

Then, the buzz word was "outsourcing"; ware could be produced at a fraction of the price in the far east.

Now, some companies, such as Portmeirion, talk of "insourcing". When Portmeirion, famous for its cheerful, affordable tableware with botanical decoration, bought the intellectual property rights to Spode's distinctive blue-and-white china after the company's collapse, they also, according to Teed, decided to bring back as much manufacturing to Stoke as they could. Eighty items that Spode had outsourced abroad were put into production at Portmeirion's Staffordshire factory, and the premises now produces 140,000 pots a week. (Even so, 40% of the Portmeirion Group's production is outsourced abroad.)

Outsourcing, through rising labour costs, ongoing transportation costs, and variable production quality, had proved less of a cure-all for the industry than it once seemed, said Teed. Meanwhile, customers have increasingly seen the value of Stoke-made pottery, a heritage drawn on by the successful Emma Bridgewater brand, for example, and by small companies such as Burgess, Dorling and Leigh, which uses 19th-century patterns from its rich archive and is produced with traditional skills.

"There is a rebirth of small, creatively driven companies," said Teed. "I don't think the pottery industry is in terminal decline. Things are swinging back in favour of the companies who had the balls to stay in Stoke when everyone else was jumping ship to China."

• This article was amended on 3 October 2011 to correct a line that said Portmeirion's Staffordshire factory produces 140,000 pots a day.


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July 16 2011

Half a century at the forefront of British design

He's not a household name himself, but many of the products he has designed are

At his elegant home in Hampstead in north London – golden parquet floors, Eames lounge chair and ottoman, covetable rosewood sideboard by English designer Robert Heritage – Kenneth Grange, sleek in his black T-shirt, describes to me his latest work: the creation of a chair for the elderly for British manufacturer Hitch Mylius. "It's my first chair," he says, with almost boyish enthusiasm. (He is, though you'd never know it, 82.) "What's interesting is that it's almost a contradiction in modern furniture terms to attempt to make something that is overtly comfortable." He nods in the direction of the aforementioned Eames. "I mean, that's an absolute icon. But it's not comfortable, is it? You need a cushion. Modern furniture is almost always too low and getting off it is a bugger. It's really only designed to make the space look brilliant." Is his own chair comfortable? "Yes, it's bloody comfortable!"

Once you know who Kenneth Grange is – once you've learned a little about his remarkable 50-year career and your eye is in – you see his work everywhere: on streets and stations, in your kitchen, your cupboards and your desk drawer. If the tube had let me down this morning, I might even have travelled here in one of his designs (the London taxi cab, which he remodelled in 1997). Such visual omnipotence, though, is starkly at odds with his personality, which is not grand at all. Grange, modest to a fault, is apt to attribute even his greatest hits – the InterCity 125 train, for instance, which was introduced in 1976 and which is still going strong – to hard work and serendipity rather than his own genius.

The retrospective of his career that is shortly to be staged at the Design Museum is certainly pleasing, but he hopes, too, that it won't cause people to think that he is no longer working. "Because I am – surprise, surprise. Why would I stop? I mean, if a bloke can play the piano, you don't stop him playing it, do you?" It's his wife the unstoppable Grange feels sorry for. "It's a bugger living with a designer, you know. We keep sticking our noses in. She can't buy a tea towel without me having an opinion."

Grange, founding partner of renowned international design consultancy Pentagram, and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, grew up in London's East End. His father was a policeman, his mother worked in a factory. The family home was, he says, "a good old-fashioned house, a bacon and eggs kind of house": plenty of brown, a three-piece suite, flowery curtains. "And I was rather a compliant little boy, too, so it was very much against character for me to put up my hand when they asked at school if anybody wanted to try for a scholarship to art school."

Once there, though – he enrolled at Willesden School of Art at the age of 14 – life was made simple by the fact that one could either study fine art or commercial art, end of story. "I chose commercial art; we were taught to do things like hand-drawn lettering. Design, though, was not a word we knew." So how did he get interested? Who informed his taste? "Well, I got lucky," he says. "I did my national service – I worked as a technical illustrator – and then I did a series of jobs working as an assistant to architects. And all my taste, all my ideology, came from them."

It was an exciting period to be young and a designer. Postwar Britain might have been austere, but it was optimistic, too. Things needed to be rebuilt and rethought. "It was a buoyant time, and that's the truth," says Grange. "The manufacturers had come back from the war to rebuild their firms and they needed help to do this. So the Council of Industrial Design [now the Design Council] was established by the Labour government as a kind of broking service. Manufacturers would come to them and the council would supply them with the names of designers. The council was very classy, it was run by people of substance. The top echelons were all servicemen. They'd had a tough time, they knew all about loyalties and ethics and they were scrupulously fair. But I also think I was probably the cheapest and quickest designer on their list."

The first commission he landed via this route (in 1958) was a parking meter for Venner. "I took [the project] on my honeymoon. It was the very first parking meter in Britain. Westminster Council had gone to America and contracted a company there to produce its meters, but when they showed them to the council, which had to approve all street furniture, they didn't like it. So they were stuck! They needed me to make it look pretty."

Soon after, he landed two rather heftier clients. First, there was Kenwood, for whom he restyled the Kenwood Chef in just three days. Then there was Kodak. "I couldn't yet make a living from product design, so I was working doing the displays for the Kodak pavilion at the World Trade Fair. I was arranging the products on the stand and someone overheard me say, 'It's a shame these are so ugly; I could make this really good if they weren't.' The next day, the phone rang. It was the head of development at Kodak, and he said, 'I understand you're going to design a camera for us.' It was thrilling, but I was scared, too, because I didn't know cameras. But again, there was an element of luck involved. I just happened to be in the right place at the moment when Kodak decided to start selling cameras for profit. Up until this point, their cameras were sold at a loss in order to shift film."

In 1959, Grange designed the Kodak 44A, in 1968, the Instamatic, and in 1972 the Pocket Instamatic, the first in a new generation of portable cameras. These were good years. He drove an E-Type Jaguar, and hung out on the King's Road.

His subsequent successes included irons for Morphy Richards, pens for Parker, the Adshel bus shelters of 1993, the "rural post box" for the Royal Mail in 1996… the list is long and varied. It is, however, the InterCity 125 of which he remains most proud. "Because it's big, and I use it almost weekly, to come up from my place in Devon," he says. "I was only supposed to redesign the paintwork. But, for my amusement, I decided to have a go at the shape, too. I did work on the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing. I showed it to them with some trepidation. It was a bloody nerve, to be honest. If I'd been on the British Rail board, I'd have told me to piss off. But they weren't difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound: the design made the train more efficient."

So what about design in Britain in 2011? Are things more or less beautiful-looking? "Well, there's a lot of it [design] about, to be honest, and it's utterly disposable, most of it. You can go to a factory in China where they make toasters for every company you can possibly think of, and they will show you 20 new designs you can take away that morning, and you will leave with four for your own company, and you will return in a year for another four. It's an awful thing to say, but the poorer we are [as a nation], the more chance there is of us being more disciplined about what we buy.

"I'd like people to pay much more and keep things for ever. These things [he points to my digital tape recorder] are little miracles and it's a travesty of morality to throw them away. It offends me. As for the look of things, well, Apple is enjoying a reputation as the maker of the sleekest things. But they're a bit up their own arse, to be honest. Their things are overdesigned. I've got a Mac mini upstairs and every morning I try and fail to find the button on the back."

Is there anything Grange wishes he had designed? What makes him envious? "Well, the Scandinavians still take some beating. I've got a lamp called the Artichoke [by Poul Henningsen] and it's bloody brilliant." As for a piece of design he would like to own, he "wouldn't mind" an Aston Martin.

"Probably one of the later ones. They're as good a piece of motor styling as you can get, a piece of sculpture, really. That's why the place for them is indoors. It's amusing to go fast, but it's not important. The look is the thing. Actually, I used to know a wonderful, cranky pair of artists and they had a Morris Minor they loved and it was in their living room." Really? He laughs. "Yes, really. They had to take the house apart to get it in, but that's where they kept it, I promise you."

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, London SE1


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April 12 2011

MG6: part Audi, part Korean hire car

The 'new' MG is a car doing its best to be the very model of a modern Sino-British sports saloon

Let's be clear. This is not an MG that many, if any of us, will recognise. The "new" MG6 is a rebadged Roewe 550, a British-engineered car that made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Motor Show. Although styled by a British designer – Tony Williams-Kenny, formerly with the Japanese car maker, Mitsubishi – the Roewe is manufactured by SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation), the state-owned Chinese company that took over the Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation that bought out MG Rover in 2005.

Confused? You will be when you see the MG6, a car doing its best to be the very model of a modern Sino-British sports saloon. Even then, the MG – assembled at Longbridge from body shells, engines and gearboxes shipped from the People's Republic – has something of the look of a new German Audi crossed with a Korean airport rental car. Only the time-honoured octagonal MG badge prominent on the car's nose and in the centre of its steering wheel suggests that this is, somehow, a distant relation of the quintissentially British cars once made at Abingdon and Longbridge. Perhaps, it doesn't matter. The original MG vanished a long time ago, although fans of the marque remain as die-hard as ever. Now spring is here, just look how many MGBs with their crisp Anglo-Italian styling (a bit of Frua, a lot of Don Hayter) and distinctive hollow exhaust note are out on the roads. The rebadged SAIC Roewe 550 with its global looks and hard, drab interior does at least offer engineering jobs in the West Midlands and there will be many there who will back the car to the hilt.

The MG6 brochure says: "In every detail you'll find a fond nod to MG's glory days – Le Mans, Goodwood, land speed records and true British sporting endeavour." You won't, yet if the car succeeds, might worthy successors to fondly remembered sporting machines from Abingdon be on the cards? Who knows, but as the old Chinese proverb says, you must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.


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The new MG: made in China, fine-tuned in Birmingham

After 16 years, the MG is about to hit the road again – thanks to the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation

The automotive offspring of an Anglo-Chinese collaboration will roll off the production line in Birmingham on Wednesday to show the world its sporty snout, aggressive grille and a familiar octagonal badge into which two famous letters have been squeezed.

The MG6 fastback, which was designed and engineered in Britain but built mainly in China, is the first all-new MG to be launched in 16 years.

It is also the 21st-century incarnation of an 87-year-old marque that was once a byword for all that was nippy, open-topped and carefree about British sports cars.

Little wonder then that the company has opted for a little glitz to mark the day when full production of its cars resumes.

"It will come through a showcase arch with a bit of fanfare," said the company's PR manager, Doug Wallace.

Production of the car at MG Birmingham – a factory on the former Longbridge site – would not have been possible were it not for the company's Chinese owners, the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).

Six years ago, MG Rover Group went into administration and MG was bought by China's oldest carmaker, NAC. Two years later, NAC merged with SAIC and the MG marque was once again reborn.

Despite the ownership, and the fact that it is three-quarters built in China before being shipped over and finished off by the 40 or so manufacturing workers in Birmingham, Wallace insists the five-door hardtop is a true MG.

"All of the design work for the car, all the styling and all of the actual engineering design work is done here, and all the engineering development and proving of the car is done by that team on site here at MG Birmingham," he said.

"The driving dynamics of the car are [also] overtly MG: it's very sporty going through quick corners and bends and we think that's a particular thing that sets us apart."

But those fantasising about the whoosh of wind through their hair as they tear down country lanes might want to rein in the romance: the MG6 is looking to take on the likes of the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra.

Lest there be any doubt that the MG6 is not exactly a sporty coupe, Wallace added: "A lot of people compare it to the Skoda Octavia and the Vauxhall Insignia, for the body shape."

To others, though, the new car is about a lot more than the reinvention of a beloved brand.

This week is the sixth anniversary of the closure of the once-great Longbridge plant, with the loss of 6,500 MG Rover jobs.

The Labour MP Richard Burden, whose Birmingham Northfield constituency includes Longbridge, describes the MG6 as a milestone and, hopefully, a glimpse of real recovery.

"We're never going to see Rover's return of 20,000 people engaged in mass car production, but what you're seeing here is not just a new model rolling off the tracks at Longbridge but also a new model that was designed and developed at Longbridge," he said.

"Britain now excels in performance engineering and in automotive-related environmental technologies … [and] Longbridge can be a centre for that."

All the talk of corporate and regional revival, however, will prove premature if the marque fails to hit the mark this time around.

According to Richard Ladds, editor of the MG Owners' Club magazine, Enjoying MG, the new car is "very good, very capable, very competent … it's not a BMW but it's not a low-rent car either".

Nor is he bothered about where the car is mainly built.

"It's a bit like an Apple computer: I think, 'Oh that's a lovely Apple computer', I don't think, 'Oh it's built in China'."

The main thing, said Ladds, is that the old Morris Garages badge is once again on the bonnet of a new car.

"There's a somewhat strange brand loyalty and it's nice to be able to say yes, we can go and buy a new MG," he said.


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March 31 2011

A pint of shatterproof glass, please

How can we stop pub violence, eradicate superbugs, and save British businesses? With safety glass, superloos and flowerpots inspired by the recently saved Design Council

Every year there are 87,000 incidents of violence involving the drunken wielding of glassware. This costs the NHS an estimated £2.7bn (I've no idea how they work this out).

Is there anything we can do about this? The police proposed compulsory plastic glasses, but this smacked too much of the nanny state. Instead, as part of its Design Out Crime initiative, the Design Council commissioned an unbreakable pint glass that was still made of real glass. The agency Design Bridge came up with two solutions: one uses a coating of bio-resin that strengthens it considerably; the other uses two thin layers of glass bonded together like a car windshield. In both cases, the glass will crack but not shatter. When these models actually make it into pubs we can expect "glassing" to be a thing of the past, although the NHS may see the incidence of alcohol-related bruising go through the roof.

This is just one of the many initiatives undertaken by the Design Council, which this week merges with CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). The merger is the result of funding cuts: on one level it's good news because it means that both bodies were spared the Tory bonfire of the quangos; on the other, it means they'll each be getting by with a third less funding. This is a buy-one-get-one-almost-free kind of deal – which may be counter-productive, especially during a recession, as the Design Council is the only dedicated body in the UK that proactively pairs up designers with businesses.

One doesn't hear much about the Design Council, partly because it supports a brand of worthy, socially-minded design that is too unglamorous to attract attention. That's unfortunate, because their work can have far-reaching consequences. In 2009 the Design Council worked with the Department of Health to investigate how good design could help reduce the risk of infection in hospitals – a fear so pervasive that even the seriously ill worry about setting foot in one. The Design Council sent out a team of designers. One of the results was a commode, or a wheelchair-toilet – I told you this wasn't glamorous – designed by PearsonLloyd. Now these are nothing new, but the old ones were designed before the age of the superbug, and are so difficult to clean that nurses have to use toothbrushes. PearsonLloyd's smoother, screw-free version requires none of that, saving nurses valuable time and minimising the potential for nasty superbugs to breed. Their design is now being trialled across the country.

Now, no one at a hospital said, "Can you design us a new commode?" It took the Design Council to bring the designers in to meet with frontline staff and microbiologists and manufacturers. It also created a local manufacturing opportunity by bringing all the stakeholders to the same table. And that's the kind of thing we should be seeing more of during a recession.

What the Design Council does well is promoting design as a service, by helping businesses to be more creative and competitive. Its Designing Demand initiative has paired a network of design "mentors" with 650 small businesses; for every pound spent, it generated £9.90 in added value, while creating or saving 3,000 jobs. Yorkshire company Naylor Industries, which has made clay drainage pipes since 1890, was going out of business because of cheap imports from the Far East, but a design mentor helped it reconfigure its operation to produce flowerpots. It is now the only terracotta flowerpot maker in the UK, and a thriving business. Rather more cutting edge is the Navetas smart meter, which calculates the energy consumption of every device in your home so that you can read it on an LCD screen, or even on your iPhone. The market potential is huge and yet it took a design mentor to get venture capitalists to fund the team developing the technology at Oxford University.

The Design Council, or the Council of Industrial Design as it was then, was founded by a wartime government in 1944 to help catalyse British industry and the rebuilding effort. It could be serving a similar purpose now. The government is supposed to be rebalancing the economy, away from financial services and back to manufacturing. George Osborne has called for a "march of the makers", and yet there was precious little in his budget to back that call.

The UK, contrary to popular belief, is still a major manufacturer, the seventh largest in the world. We may not own Mini or Rolls Royce any more but they're still made here, along with Formula 1 cars, Brompton bikes and Vitsoe shelving. In a recession, and with China becoming gradually less good value, this is the perfect opportunity to stimulate local manufacturing. Britain is a global talent pool when it comes to design, and the rest of the world comes here to fish for that expertise. The government should be improving links between that talent and local industry. Instead, while it pays lip service to "the creative industries", it is trimming down the only dedicated body in the UK that does create those links, and wheeling out feeble initiatives such as StartUp Britain: a website promising a "£1,500 rescue package for small businesses" when in fact it's just a bunch of links to money-off deals that are already widely available and may or may not be relevant to you.

Just to be clear, the Design Council isn't complaining – frankly it's relieved that it's still being funded, unlike say the UK Film Council. But I would argue that that's not enough. If the Design Council could get away with being only semi-visible before the recession, it should be coming into its own now – and that could be more difficult as a downsized operation. The Design Council does create opportunities and in areas that add social value. So, not consumer and luxury goods but healthcare, education, crime prevention and sustainable living. Next challenge: the 56,000 physical assaults that take place every year in A&E. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.


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June 24 2010

Craft is about more than crochet

Our knowledge economy may place little value on physically making things, yet the benefits and satisfaction are immense

In a budget week that has seen the country united, or otherwise unhappily welded, in austerity, one would feel safe to assume that uniquely rendered, artisanal objets d'art may not head its shopping lists. Not so. On Tuesday, while George Osborne was perfecting his "this hurts me more than it hurts you" face, another economically anxious audience was receiving more cheering news. At Assemble 2010, the Craft Council's annual conference, research was launched showing that – despite a recession – the craft market has been attracting more buyers and enjoying a stronger commercial image than ever before.

The reasons for this blooming are fairly self-evident. The ubiquity of similarly conceived, only differently branded, goods has powered a craving for authenticity. Add to this an increasing disillusionment with companies who would rather we concerned ourselves with the lifestyle a product signals, rather than its inherent quality or purpose. A growing environmental awareness means that purchasing decisions are now more weighted according to sustainability and local sourcing. Likewise, the resurgence of interest in acquiring skills that are more hand than head – be that knitting a jumper or planting an allotment – inevitably steers trade: 21% of people who had bought craft had themselves taken part in a craft activity six or more times in the past 12 months. The same surely can't be said of shoppers at Ikea, unless craft activity includes assembling a flat-pack Billy bookcase – and doing so six times a year would send a body round the bend.

Those of a sunnier disposition can read this as evidence of a population's nascent attempts to redefine their consumer activity for an – allegedly imminent – post-consumerist era. Though one speaker noted that the luxury goods market, flagging in the downturn, has been frantically appropriating the operative language of craft, with Louis Vuitton, for example, introducing in-store ateliers that offer customers some handmade with their handbag.

For the cynics who consider this to be the same old binge-spending at a different checkout, and those who point out that contemplating a non-essential purchase will be an impossibility for many after a VAT hike, it's worth then considering some fresh qualitative research from the Craft Council, which assesses the social contribution made by makers. Some 70% of makers now practice portfolio working, which means that they are sometime employed in community and educational settings as well as creating.

One project encapsulates this social subsidy. The Xtravert programme in Cornwall is run by a group of furniture designers who teach carpentry to young people not in education, employment or training. (How ironic that, as the country anticipates mass youth unemployment, the term Neets – previously used to shame the feckless teens of Vicky Pollard parody – will soon come to define a whole generation.) Now developing into a financially self-sustaining business, making furniture and sheds to order, the initial draw for this notoriously attendance-phobic group was that – all keen skaters – they could learn how to fashion their own skate ramps. Concepts such as discipline, work ethic and personal utility took on an immediate meaning: if the wooden boards weren't flush then it was your own wheels that would stall.

It's one example of the benefits of manual competence that the American philosopher and mechanic Matthew B Crawford eloquently argues for in his book The Case for Working With Your Hands, a bestseller in the US and published in Britain last month. A former Washington wonk who became so disenchanted with cog-in-the-wheel, white-collar life that he relocated to Virginia to open a motorbike repair shop, Crawford rails against the learned helplessness that leaves us deeming it more efficient to buy the upgraded model of a household appliance rather than develop the capability of fixing the old one. And, while he's rigorous in avoiding the mysticism that often gets attached to "craftsmanship", he is unusual in doing justice to the genuine satisfactions it offers.

We are not only rendered passive and dependent, but our relationship to the material world is detrimentally altered by the knowledge economy, which values above-the-neck abilities above all others. The term itself, as the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang contends, is complacent: it's an insult to suggest manufacturing work isn't based on deep and long-garnered knowledge.

Jobs in skilled manual trades are proving hardest to fill in difficult times when millions are facing unemployment. Yet vocational training remains the Cinderella stream of education, burdened with the assumption that it is for the otherwise disadvantaged, despite the reality that the reverently pursued university degree for all now offers little more than a do-not-pass-go to the brew.

The craft renaissance is far more complex than the cliche of the middle-class mummy hooked on crochet. It speaks to a more visceral, and socially urgent, need to reconfigure the nature of work.


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