Editor’s Note: Deyan Sudjic is a London-born journalist, author and educator, and the director of London’s Design Museum. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
London is the city where gifted young designers from all around the world come to succeed. When Zaha Hadid left Baghdad to learn how to be an architect, she chose the Architectural Association School in London. Roksanda Illincic knew she could not become a world class fashion designer in her native Belgrade, so she chose to study at Central Saint Martins, the school that has also produced Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane.
Ron Arad, John Galliano, Marc Newson, Rem Koolhaas and so many other creative talents have all come to this city, not necessarily because it’s where their clients are based – they work all over the world, but because it has been the place which sits at the center of the global conversation about design. And it’s not just individual designers who are drawn to what it has to offer.
Nissan has had its European design studio in London since 2003 when it moved its engineers and designers from Munich to work in a converted railway depot near Paddington. The company said it chose London precisely because it’s “a city that is at the forefront of modern art, architecture and design trends.” London in other words is an early warning station, a listening post to pick up the first stirrings of new attitudes to taste and style and how they can be applied to make sense of emerging technologies.
Education is only one strand in London’s creative infrastructure. A web of workshops and studios, large and small, house film makers, theaters, furniture businesses and Saville Row tailors, the high tech businesses that have clustered in Clerkenwell is another. The third element that makes London a creative hub is its network of museums, galleries and magazines that create a dialogue about design that is heard around the world.
The Victoria and Albert Museum started out in the 19th century as the world’s first design museum. London has the Design Council, perhaps the first state sponsored attempt to explore the economic significance of design. And it has the Design Museum, established by Terence Conran with the ambition of exploring design from the point of view of both culture and commerce. At the end of November the Design Museum will open a much larger new home in Kensington, dedicated to doing for contemporary design what Tate Modern did for contemporary art. And the newly initiated London Design Biennale this September takes an equally ambitious global perspective.
Over the last 100 years various cities have had a claim to be the world’s preeminent center of design. Around 1900, it would have been Vienna. In the 1920s, it was Paris. In the 1940s it was Los Angeles, then Milan. And in the 1980s it was most likely Tokyo. But even before Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the city’s very success had already had the serious unintended consequence of making it ever more expensive for designers wanting to move there. The problem was compounded by a weakening of its traditional strength as a center for learning. As student fees have risen, so have class sizes. And a draconian visa regime now prevents talented non EU graduates from working here.
Then came the shock of the message sent by June’s referendum. England wanted to leave Europe. London wanted to stay. It was a reminder that the boom that the city has enjoyed for much of the last two decades cannot be taken for granted. Like most capital cities London is seen as spoiled and cosseted, looked upon both jealously and dismissively by those who live elsewhere. The referendum result was a punishment to the capital.
Losing free access to the European market and tightened immigration controls will make it harder for architects and designers, who are used to working all over the world and having their qualifications recognized throughout Europe without question.
Nissan may not move its designers immediately, but there is certainly an uncertainty about the future of its factory in the North East. Like so many other mature western capitals, London spent most of the 20th century steadily losing people. From a peak of 8.1 million people in the 1938, the population fell to 6.8 million in 1991. Then in the next decade, something startling happened. It put on more than a million, and by 2011 was back to its pre-war peak.
London has done astonishingly well in the last 25 years, becoming more prosperous, more populous, and more creative, and if you like turning the volume up on all the things that make a city. It has built a modern transport system. It is home to the most ambitious financiers and tech start-ups, and it has built new museums that lead the world. A successful city needs all this and more. The cities that succeed are the ones that are rooted in a culture that is creative enough not just to build museums, but to convincingly fill them as well.