We don’t make anything anymore” is an accusation often leveled against the British economy. But while we may not manufacture very much, our stamp can be seen across the world. Scan the skylines of most capital cities and you will see a building designed by Norman Foster or David Chipperfield; reach into your pocket and there is a one in five chance that a creation by Essex-born designer Jony Ive, head designer at Apple, is sitting inside. We are world leading video-game and special effects creators. Our fashion designers are the envy of the world. The relatively new sphere of service design (asking what a library should actually do in the 21st century, for example) is being driven by the finest minds coming through British universities.
But what exactly does British design mean? Is there a common thread holding our designers together? Or is it a hangover from our industrial past, when we created the infrastructure that built the new world?
“We have this culture that allows for great leaps of imagination,” says Matt Hunter, chief design officer at the Design Council. “It is permissible to think the unthinkable. We have always believed ourselves to be innovators, since the days when we gave the world TVs and steam trains.
“Part of the idea of Britishness is tied up in the celebration of eccentricity. We have a very liberal attitude towards design – an ‘anything goes’ ethos that allows designers to try new things. This runs from Savile Row to leading architecture companies.
“There is a movement in British design that builds on what you could call our ‘heritage brands’ – things like Virgin Atlantic, Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin – and recasts them in a new light. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do – it requires looking backwards at the history of a brand, and looking at its future at the same time, putting a new spin on it.
“Ian Callum has just finished a great example of this with the new Jaguar F-Type, taking something quite retro and turning it into a serious car that keeps that spirit alive. Gerry McGovern did something similar at Range Rover, taking what was essentially a farm vehicle and rebranding it as a very British urban car.
“Virgin Atlantic takes the idea of British cheekiness and runs with it, playing on that slightly risqué seaside humour and mixing it with a very modern, almost nightclub feel, creating a brand that is unique but unmistakably British.
“If you look at other countries – especially America – you don’t have this in the same way.”
Over the next four pages we speak to top British designers – and one American working for a very British brand – about their idea of what makes design on these shores what it is.