As one of the leading figures in UK design and the brains behind the London Design Festival, Sir John Sorrell is in a unique position to outline the state of the UK design industry, and suggest how to steer a course through the choppy times ahead. We spoke to him to get the lowdown on this year’s event and how the industry must adapt to survive and thrive.
Sat in the grandiose surroundings of Somerset House, Sir John Sorrell is proudly showing off two extraordinary pieces off furniture in his office – both fashioned from old wheelie bins – that he bought on the back of a show he went to in Deptford during 2006’s LDF. “I just thought they were completely brilliant so I bought the sofa and then commissioned the desk,” he said.
It’s the same passion that flares up several times throughout the interview – clearly here is a man with design running through his veins. Since the LDF started in 2003, it has grown year-on-year, much to his obvious delight and surprise. He recalls the promotional tour before the very first festival, when he visited 15 cities to drum up support for the event, ready to argue his case before what he presumed would be a cynical audience.
“I thought I would have to work very, very hard to give people reasons why we should be starting a design festival in London, but there was actually a real acceptance, a response that said, ‘We know the UK is brilliant at this.’
“Since then, 80 cities have started their own design festivals, which speaks for itself. It’s like anything – it’s great to get to the top of the table but it’s the hardest thing in the world to stay there. We have to continuously be more innovative and more imaginative,”
But despite going from strength to strength, this year’s event takes place against the backdrop of an uncertain financial climate.
The LDF never has a theme but as Sir John puts it: “There is obviously a very strong understanding of the economic need for growth, so there has never been a better time for the LDF to demonstrate how important design is to the economy, as well as to culture and society.
“I have been saying for a very long time that creativity and design are critical to helping drive growth and economic success, and it’s good to see politicians picking up on that.”
Key to the future of the industry, he insists, is maximising opportunities overseas, which is where his work with UK Trade & Investment comes in.
Sir John, in his role as UK Business Ambassador, will take part in a UKTI creative industries trade mission to China which will mark the inaugural Beijing Design Festival – September 26 to 30.
He will be joined by three other UK Business Ambassadors, Lord Jonathan Marland, Tamara Mellon and Brent Hoberman, and a number of the UK’s leading creative firms including Arup, Make Ltd, Priestmangoode, Garrard and Benoy.
“One of the key things the industry needs to do is develop its business abroad. The home market is fairly finite, but the opportunities for design companies are absolutely enormous if they look at the world as their market.
“That is why we are doing the design mission in Beijing, it’s very difficult just to get on a plane and go to China – where do you start? But UKTI provides a brilliant platform for companies to have a look in the kitchen and see what’s cooking. Designers can go over there with a group of like-minded people and a couple of people like me to support them and create the relationships which can lead to business afterwards.”
He admits he and wife Frances had no “grand strategic plan” when they started Newell and Sorrell more than 40 years ago, but said it is up to the creative industry to embrace the business world.
“I would say that if you don’t have those business skills then go out and get them – do courses, read books. You can learn how to read a balance sheet, it only takes a couple of hours.”
Sir John is also aware that the Government and other agencies have a part to play and he wants to see more initiatives to help younger companies crack international markets, but the process begins at home. Through his work with The Sorrell Foundation, he has become well-versed in the life skills employers crave – communication and teamwork in particular.
But there must also be the opportunities to inspire the designers of tomorrow, and the foundation’s programme of Saturday morning art classes is close to his heart – both he and his wife were turned onto their eventual profession by the Government-run classes that stopped in the 1970s. This year the foundation oversaw classes in 14 schools and colleges, with each taking up to 25 local children for a 30-week programme designed by the tutors themselves and supported by current students.
“Other countries have seen our position and are doing all kinds of things to catch up – we need to ensure we stay at the top of the game.”
Spoken like a true internationalist, who still believes in Britain.