The Expectation of Cheap
Why as a nation do we seem to worship at the altar of cheap? The wear-it-today, chuck-it-tomorrow Primark mentality? Why buy three fashion-fix sets of sandals when you could invest in one great pair? Variety of choice? Maybe, but crappy shoes will ruin your feet. And then you’ll spend the money ‘saved’ on foot creams, if not the chiropodist. In other words, short-term thinking inevitably has a later cost.
It’s often argued that cheap offers accessibility, a way to get designer style for less. After all, detractors bleat, why should only the wealthy have access to great design? Except this is rubbish. Good design doesn’t mean expensive. Good design is the way something works, not how much it costs. And let’s distinguish here between inexpensive and cheap. Ikea is able to produce some cracking stuff at very low prices because of the sheer volume of units it produces. This is democratic design. On the flip side, things generally cost more the fewer you make of them, and you can add a premium if the making involves any element of handcrafting. Cheap, on the other hand, is badly made tat designed only for maximum profit. Here, anything of value is cut to save money: investment in labour, quality of materials, ecological considerations. Net effect? A big long-term price we’ll all end up paying.
So what is the acceptable ground between ‘designer’ and ‘democratic’? Where is the quality stuff for the people?! I’d say let’s look for inspiration at high-street fashion house H&M, whose highly successful designer collaborations are a perfect example of how things could work between large retailers and designers. Instead of churning out cheap ‘inspired-by’ copies of catwalk hits, it invites well-known creatives to the table and a third way is configured. It’s a win-win solution that’s seen clothes by Karl Lagerfeld, Versace and most recently Marni made available to the consumer at accessible price points facilitated by the manufacturing might of the high-street engine. And arguably, these collaborations have turned around the fortunes of the Swedish chain to boot.
So why not in design? Instead, here, stories abound of young designers’ work spotted at trade shows then curiously reappearing in a slightly different guise on the shelves of well-known retailers. The designers generally can’t afford to sue and even if they could, they worry about destroying future potential relationships. Applause then to M&S for its recent collaborations with Terence Conran and Marcel Wanders; likewise John Lewis for its latest Design Collective initiative showcasing some of the best established talent from the UK and beyond. But a massive boo hiss to Asda for a frankly appalling Eames rip-off range, as well as a ridiculously derivative, yet utterly unendorsed, Jan Constantine-esque cushion collection. Dear Asda, why not simply commission her to do something for you instead?
But please, I’d like to see more of the big guns really sending the elevator back down and commissioning fresh names and new talent. I’d like to see conspicuous investment in the support and promotion of the names of the future. Britain has a wealth of young design talent who’d be on their knees in gratitude for the opportunity. It’s time we gave it to them.
First published in ELLE Decoration in the June 2012 issue.