It’s only relatively recently that design has become a word that’s dropped – or overused – at every opportunity. So it’s no wonder it’s taken so long for the financial and political establishment to start to comprehend the value of design.
Gordon Brown regularly reiterates his new-found commitment to the creative industries. The Labour Government has put a value on the creative sector of £61bn per annum, making it second only to the service sector in terms of contribution to the UK economy. Add to that research published by the Design Council that proves something I have always thought: that young people enjoy creative school subjects more than the three Rs. Now truancy figures prove that conclusively.
From where I stand, creativity is increasingly becoming a force for good. It’s the creative community that often spearheads initiatives in the three aspects of sustainability – social, economic and environmental. In the 80s and 90s my old company Red or Dead rallied against a designer penchant for excess, greed and oneupmanship. But now the majority of designers are committed to social justice, ethical manufacture and fair trade.
Britain is being seen around the world as a hotbed of creativity. This creativity is becoming our new ‘heritage’, a new brand to add to the ‘historical heritage’ that has brought investment into the UK for decades.
Our young designers are courted at student shows by overseas brands; our art colleges are the first choice for many overseas students. Creativity is seen as part of our national identity. What a fantastic thing to be identified with! The potential benefits are many and wide-ranging.
But just as I was feeling great about my chosen profession, something came along and smacked me firmly in the chops. I went to MIPIN, the annual trade fair held in Cannes for the world’s property-development community. I arrived from Nice airport at about 10.30pm, and Cannes was a sea of pissed- up men dancing on tables and puking into the gutter. It was as if a load of kids working in the financial sector had just received their bonuses and were out celebrating in the most obscene style imaginable. I went to my bed.
The next morning, walking to the exhibition, buildings had been covered in banners advertising obscure areas of Russia as great opportunities to build casinos, and cheesy adverts for investment companies and legal services for the property industry. The streets were full of men in black suits, heads down, keying into their BlackBerries. The exhibition itself was a model of excess. Over-the-top and totally unsustainable development proposals featured ugly towers and one-dimensional new towns, often based around gambling and ‘wag’-style shopping malls. It was like the 80s all over again, and it felt like all these new developing areas would be going to hell in a handcart.
I picked up CD-roms of these inhuman potential projects and brought them back to show the Hemingway Design team. I wanted them to see how in some countries they really were not ‘getting it’, and how many of the mistakes that Britain had made in the 60s and 70swere being repeated in Eastern Europe; how the so-called iconic towers were the new ‘bling’ that some were thinking would be the catalyst to a great future for all.
But when I started to delve into the detail, I got a bloody big shock. Many of these disgusting development plans were coming from British architects and British engineers chasing the rouble, exporting ‘penis extension’ architecture, ruthlessly casting aside the restraint and the positive principles we are newly embracing in the UK, and touting utter bilge. Architects enjoying the business-class travel, the Eastern European ladies, joining the US real-estate colonialists who have found a new market to exploit while their home market is in the doldrums. They may be delivering ‘carbonefficient’ buildings but in terms of ‘place-making’ and long-term liveability, they surely are disastrous – and thus by nature unsustainable.
Britain’s new heritage indeed.