Defining Cultural Diversity and National Identity in 21st Century British Design

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Classic Designs » Essays » Defining Cultural Diversity and National Identity in 21st Century British Design

British Design. Is it actually any good?

I am a Professor of Design at Kingston University in London, which has a well-known Faculty of Design and several of the designers included in my talk are Kingston graduates, including Rosario Hurtado of El Ultimo Grito and Jasper Morrison. 

Central to my research practice is curating and in 2001 we set up a new Masters programme called Curating Contemporary Design with Paul Thompson, then Director of the Design Museum in London and now Director of the Cooper Hewitt in New York. The MA’s research focus is about widening agendas to explore the potential of design to build bridges between different worlds and as a tool to strengthen economies and enrich the quality of people’s experiences. 

Much of my personal research however has focused on curating British design identity. I started my training at Temple Newsam, a country house museum famous for its collection of Thomas Chippendale and 18th century English decorative arts – objects that placed Britain at the cutting edge of fashion in 18th century Europe. In the 21st century British design continues to offer a unique style, which has helped secure an international profile for the UK creative industries. 

The 21st century image of London continues to be a compelling one with a high cultural status. The young and the rich who come to visit, experience a city of cutting edge culture and design. The greatest of these cultural projects is the Tate Modern, now the most famous re-use of a disused power station in the world. Tate Modern is more than a gallery of modern art – it is a phenomenon. 

It is the success story of Britain’s Millennium projects that has transformed the geography of the South Bank; it connects the site to St. Pauls Cathedral and The City, providing the first new bridge across the Thames for over 100 years. In the evening The Tate Bar is the new meeting place for smart city financiers to enjoy the benefits of culture and commerce. 

Here we explore the qualities that define contemporary British design and how British designers are responding to the world of the present. So what are the brand values of British design? What is our USP? Well there are some very contradictory strands, we love tradition, alongside the quirky and the nonconformist. We have a difficult time admiring drive and powerful ambition, and we are not totally comfortable with winners. 

The image of great British creatives who can’t quite take their ideas to the marketplace does appeal to a certain kind of national patriotism. In this context Vivienne Westwood, who has a retrospective at the V&A this summer is a classic example. She is our greatest late 20th century creative, but she is not running a fashion empire to compare with those of Armani or Calvin Klein. 

That same tension includes our great hero William Morris, whose image influenced radical revolutionaries of the 20th century everywhere except Britain. Instead, for most British men this image came to legitimise a certain kind of middle class male fear of fashion, think Oxbridge, Tolkein, C.S.Lewis and certain kinds of old Labour politicians like Michael Foot. 

British design – or at least the kind of design the rest of the world is really interested in has always been about the city, and in particular about London. London, the great trading port, the heart of the old empire, is a city that has always offered a dangerous underside. It offered a sense of sexual danger that has always intrigued and attracted design and designers indeed in the 19th century it was London that defined the image of a brutal, impersonal and lonely city. London, in the 21st century can claim to be one of the leading style capitals, offering some of the most creative and interesting retail shopping in the world. 

The image of Swinging London however dates from the 1960s, from a famous issue of the American Time Magazine. It featured a map for visiting Americans which saw London repositioned as Youth City, represented by art galleries like Kasmin and Robert Fraser where Lennon met Yoko Ono and small independent boutiques clustered around the three new shopping streets: Kings Road, Carnaby Street and Biba at High St Kensington. 

Ever since the 1960’s the strength of British design has been located within this very “London” world of ideas, a tradition still very much alive in the thriving boutiques of Notting Hill Gate and Soho. 

Another aspect of social change helping to define British creativity in the 21st century is the fact that by 2010 40% of London’s population is estimated to come from a culturally diverse background. London as a city has experienced cultural diversity for 2,000 years and our history of design is a history of adopting and integrating cultural influences. Consider British food, our art, our country houses and our language. We eat curry, Chicken Tikka is our national dish, we live in bungalows, and we grow Chinese buddleias and rhododendron flowers in our English gardens. The UK’s largest ethnic groups are Asian and Chinese, but London is as diverse as any city in the world. Indeed, it is unique as a European capital city and perhaps only New York can rival the range of communities that have immigrated to the city. 

In the 21st century part of the UK’s design strength is exploring this cultural diversity in its sense of city and national identity. These days what is exhibited and promoted as British design in museums, UK Government promotional exhibitions, magazines and books is – in terms of nationality is incredibly diverse. In fact, to be British in a white second or third generation sense is now the exception not the rule and it is this cultural complexity that is defining contemporary British design. 

New designers for example include the young designer Onkar Singh, who is from a second generation Asian family in Yorkshire. Singh has taken a very British subject – tea drinking and has created a range of mugs which match the Pantone shade to your preferred strength of tea. Many British designers have international backgrounds, including one of our superstars, Israeli born Ron Arad. 

Others take on the British at their own game including the Macedonian born Marjan Pejoski, outdoing British eccentricity with his Swan dress for the artist Bjork and the Spanish designer Desiree Mejer who interprets British street style for her highly successful company Fake London. The Greek designer Sophia Kokosalaki also flourishes in the London fashion context and it is London and the Fashion College of St Martins not Athens that trained and enabled Kokosalaki’s work. 

Contemporary British design interacts with such incredible diversity, including the stunningly beautiful wallpaper and textile prints of design duo Eley Kishimoto, the Japanese print designer Wakako Kishimoto and her husband and partner Welshman Mark Eley. 

Being considered British is one of the reasons London is such an attractive and appealing city for many product and furniture designers, including the Dutch-born Tord Boonjte and the Madrid born duo Rosaio Hurtado and Roberto Feo who work under the Spanish name El Ultimo Grito. These designers work on the line between art and design reflecting a strong British profile for small-scale objects. 

One of the successes of British design, with its focus on the individual, is that it encourages diversity within complex even contradictory aspiration, the foreign and the traditional, the city and the country are opposite visions at the heart of British design. The British writer Peter York famously described these elements as Punk and Pageant and in 2002 I explored these polar positions in a book called “Made in Britain”. 

What remains true in British design is that so much of its financial success, whether it is Vivienne Westwood or Burberry, relies on reworking pageant. The rules of British tradition were codified in the 19th century into a series of uniforms, Scottish kilts, hunting jackets, Eton schoolboy in blazers and sportsmen and fabrics such as tartans and tweed, which were famous for their colourways and complex patterns and which have created an international image of our national identity. 

Tailoring is another important British story. It represents tradition on the one hand and a certain kind of modernity on the other. Most famously in the 1980’s Paul Smith updated tailoring with a new eye for colour and detail and in the 1990s Timothy Everest became the best-known exponent of the new vogue for British bespoke tailoring and famously dressed Tom Cruise for various Hollywood movies including Mission Impossible. 

The counterpoint to British tradition is of course Punk and for many Vivienne Westwood embodies London fashion, eclectic and radical. For nearly three decades she has been one of the city’s most consistently original designers. Westwood reinvented the history of London dressing as something strikingly modern, creating a truly original British style. It has been well documented that Punk’s references are intellectual, and art based. 

Take another example of this – Ben Kelly’s 1982 nightclub The Hacienda, which was a converted industrial warehouse in Manchester and home of Factory records. The Hacienda was not a touch of Latin American kitsch but a Utopian concept from a book of Situationist political writings. Here was the first authentically original British interior design and its iconic status was acknowledged 10 years later when he was asked to design in the enormously successful Children’s Basement area for the Science Museum. 

In the 1990’s a cooler kind of international take on design developed. British design sought to retain its individuality but looked to offer more people a chance to buy into the products and the message. A perfect example is the work of designer Jasper Morrison whose cool aesthetic, has transformed 

him into one of the most important designers of the decade. Exemplified by his furniture for Vitra, Morrison offered the kind of design touch that made minimal look so easy.  Or Matthew Hilton’s seminal chair of the 1990’s: The Balzac, designed to evoke a British gentlemen’s Club chair of the 19th century, the Balzac focused on home and security. 

In the 1990s we saw that British designers could go global as long as they left the UK. The best known of all the British émigrés is Jonathan Ive who trained at Newcastle and at the RCA. As the designer of perhaps the most important product of the late 20th century, the Apple I Book. Ive now enjoys a God like status as Head of Design for Apple. 

The idea of international British style was also coming from a rather different direction, the media interest in Princess Diana. It was Diana that made possible a British blueprint for celebrity dressing up, now continued by David and Victoria Beckham. Diana started a vogue for British accessory designers, including Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo for shoes and Orla Kiely and Anya Hindmarsh for handbags. British designers came into their own as individuals not supporting players and developed accessories into a very strong theme in contemporary design. 

These new directions underpinned another interesting British design story of the 1990s, the rebirth on a series of traditional companies famously led by Burberry who sought to inject the traditional brand values of things British with the new. We have an American to thank for this, Rose Marie Bravo (formerly of Saks 5th Ave) who brought in Fabien Baron and commissioned Mario Testino to take a series of seminal images to re-brand the Burberry look and in doing so re-launched British style in the late 1990s as desirable, successful and international. 

I’ve used fashion to talk about the themes of contemporary British design. It’s a tough choice. British design, like design across the world is looking to express the way we live now and suggest ways we might live in the future. I thought I would end with looking at a snapshot of contemporary British design is at the Design Museum for “2004 Designer of The Year”. The nominees included: Paul Cocksedge who represented an interest in found objects such as the throwaway polystyrene cups made into decorative pieces. 

Sustainable social issues engaged Cocksedge but with a light touch which appeals to a British approach to design. Here the material is key, but it doesn’t dominate the work, making ingenious lights that celebrate the magical qualities of illumination.  

The winner, Daniel Brown represents a young generation of British web designers who have refined the brutal aesthetics of computer design to create. His installation consisted of projected large-scale images of natural forms, which created a sensory effect on the viewer rather like that of listening to music. His work bought the themes of my paper full circle. The combination of nature and new technology in his work and the importance of individual vision reflects the 21st century context of identity within British Design. 

Professor Catherine Mcdermott 

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Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.