When product designer Chris Holden finished his studies in the UK’s north-east, he knew there was one place he had to go to in order to co-found his modernist accessories company Ajoto. ‘London,’ he says. ‘We make products all over the UK but you have to have a presence in London. It’s the world’s showroom for design now. And as such there’s no room for mediocrity there. It has that competitive climate.’
Indeed, two years ago a design critic from The New York Times announced that London had trumped New York as the global creative hub. That critic had a strong case, given London’s acclaimed art and design schools and the ever-rising reputation of its already internationally noted design shows, which range from the 200 events of the London Design Festival to more local fairs such as the recent Clerkenwell Design Week.
The city’s geographic position mid-way between the US and Asia appeals to big business in general and also means that design mavens from across the globe beat a path there. Even its history counts. ‘As a visitor to London you can’t not see its diversity of design, in the products on its shelves, in its interior design, in its architecture which runs from Georgian via art deco to modernism,’ says Holden. ‘Florence is beautiful but it’s non-stop Renaissance.’
Recent history has had a big impact, too. London has fostered influential homegrown design talents, and, in addition to its many noted fashion designers are figures such as Terence Conran, who revolutionised interior design and retail through the 1960s and 70s. Habitat, which he founded, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and his latest book, Plain Simple Useful, reflects his practical design theories.
The 80s and 90s saw the rise of designers Tom Dixon, Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove, who pioneered new industrial and organic aesthetics, and London, in turn, attracted star names from abroad to base themselves in the city, including Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid.
Perhaps a certain quirky contrariness pervades London design as much as it is said to pervade the city’s fashion. Arad and Dixon, for example, were both self-taught. ‘Often it’s better when you have less knowledge, when you’re under-informed. Then you don’t try to work as the experts do, or do whatever has already been done. You can come at it with childlike enthusiasm,’ explains Dixon, whose latest work includes a clothing line for Adidas.
‘I’m not very good at doing what I’m supposed to do,’ says Arad, ‘and I get away with it – sometimes.’ He cites one commission to design a chair using invisible glue to bond together layers of Corian. He decided to colour the glue so it showed up like seams of coal through rock. The result is, of course, a much more interesting chair. For another commission he designed a bicycle whose wheels had no tyres but were made out of multiple loops of sprung steel. When it was cited as more an art piece than a functional means of transport he made a video of it being ridden through London.
More recently still, designers such as Thomas Heatherwick and Barber Osgerby have risen to prominence. Yoo, the company founded by John Hitchcox of open-plan living, Manhattan Loft Company fame, has worked with young talents Russell Sage and Bethan Gray to launch Yoo Home this summer. It will be Harrods’ biggest single brand shop-in-shop.
‘People coming to London regularly will have noticed how much it has changed over the last decade – it has evolved,’ says interior products designer Lee Broom, who launched his own business six years ago. ‘Having a mayor has really helped drive forward design fairs and new architecture, as controversial as that can be. And the recession has encouraged pop-up stores and satellite shows that have proved important showcases for new design talent.’
According to the designer and artist Rolf Sachs, who relocated to London 20 years ago this year, the design culture in the city has had an all-pervading influence. ‘You can see the influence spreading in line with London’s importance in contemporary art now, too,’ he says. ‘It means the awareness of a need for good design is much greater now – not just in what’s for sale, but in bars, restaurants and hotels. There’s this growing competition in design all around the capital. And those who look for it can be endlessly fascinated.’