DIY, a British obsession?
April 29, 2012
March 24, 2017
In a recent article for ELLE Decoration, author and design critic Stephen Bayley opined that there was no such thing as “British Design” as the concept of “Britain” is mere political construct rather than national identity. However, he continued, there was such a thing as English design. I tend to agree with him. Albeit adding that the Welsh, Scottish and Irish each have a unique creative signature to distinguish themselves too. But here I shall attempt to define the conundrum of “English” creativity.
Certainly that which we consider to be “English” is different from the appreciation of the sensual so commonly attributed to the Italians, or the rigour associated with the Germans, not to forget the intellectual veneer often ascribed to many French works. Further afield too, the Japanese are lauded for their technological prowess, the Chinese for their productivity, the Americans perhaps for their irreverence? But what core theme distinguishes the English?
England has always been a melting pot of influences, responding to ideas and inspiration from all over the globe. Marry this to the oft-mentioned English designers’ innate sense of rebellion and inclination for “thinking outside the box” (the mad inventor scenario) and you have the makings of a potent creative cocktail: kicking against the establishment and rejecting the mainstream on the one hand, while spurning precedent on the other. Nevertheless, the inherent history of fine workmanship, meticulous hand-crafting and tailoring exhibited in England and the pride with which these skills are maintained and upheld, are cemented in the very DNA of the English design process. With their attendant attention to detail and an emphasis on quality materials, these are traditions that a designer born, bred or taught here will inevitably, overtly or subconsciously, find underpinning everything they do.
It is also what makes English design so covetable, and lends it longevity. Consider Cole & Son, the wallpaper manufacturers founded in 1875 by John Perry, son of a Cambridgeshire merchant. Renown from the start for high quality block printing and exquisite designs, it furnished many a stately home, palace, castle and theatre throughout Britain and overseas. And today, alongside the prints in its fabulous archive sit contemporary collections, some which reflect this distinguished heritage, others which abound with newness. Personally I was thrilled when they launched the Fornasetti collection, a series of papers in collaboration with the Italian house famed for its illustrative prowess, and one that absolutely encompasses a mix of the historic with the eccentric, the playful with the architectural. Entirely logical then, that it took an English company to re-produce the designs as wallpaper. And these papers are, as a result, as collectable as the original Italian ceramics.
Being open to varied influences, both geographically and professionally, is another key factor that distinguishes the English. Certainly a desire for creative collaboration propelled The Rug Company to global acclaim, a brand that describes itself as “the collaborative effort of 1,662 people. From the spinners to the weavers, to the people who deliver and lay the finished rug, the result of all these diverse and individual contributions is a hand-knotted rug that will last for generations.” These household heirlooms also benefit from being designed by a roster of talent that reads like a who’s who of the creative English elite, from fashion to photography, think Alexander McQueen, Tom Dixon and Paul Smith to Sue Timney, Sam Taylor-Wood and Neisha Crosland.
And again, although the thinking behind the brand is modern and forward-thinking, as Rug Company founders Chris and Suzanne Sharp put it, “We know that during the four months it takes to make each of our rugs, we use the same undiluted craft that was used a hundred years ago.” After all, true English design is never conceived to be throwaway or transient. The shoulders on which it sits, whether acknowledged or not, give it deep roots.
Thus, if pushed to come up with a single pithy descriptor for English design, it would have to be something like, “crafted individualism”. What you find here, can’t be found anywhere else in the world, from Savoir beds that have afforded a decent nights sleep to many a star at the Savoy since 1905 to Royal Doulton, founded in 1815, adored by Queen Victoria and today selling super contemporary pieces by graffiti artist Pure Evil to Olympic torch designers Barber Osgerby, alongside the heritage pots. As they put it, their mission is to “add enjoyment to everyday life — a clean look with that something extra to really stand out from the crowd.”
And that’s the point, although the components used by any English company or designer might well be the same as those used the world over, or even come from far afield, it is the way those pieces are put together, the little flourishes and the unexpected details that mark them out as special. English design has a way of taking the ordinary and elevating it to extraordinary in such a way as to make you not only desire it, but want to keep it forever. In short, from suits to silverware via carpets and clothing, English means brilliance meets bravado with an extra helping of, well, let’s just call it genius.
First published by The Walpole Committee in Walpole British Luxury Showcase 2016
Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.