words Johanna Agerman + Anna Bates
We did a bit of a survey this year. After several editorial meetings wondering whether the limited-edition design phenomenon was influencing graduates’ choice of career path, we thought we’d find out. Are young designers less inclined these days to work with industrial manufacturers?
The plan was simple and completely unscientific. We took a pile of questionnaires to New Designers, the national graduate showcase in London, and also put one up on our website. We asked students whether they were more interested in industrial production or limited editions. We had a grand total of 125 answers, which yielded the results above.
Obviously, designers are not necessarily going to focus on one market or the other – they’ll follow whatever opportunities come their way. But when we showed our findings to tutors at the UK’s leading design schools, they were taken aback.
“I’m surprised that the figure for industrial design isn’t higher,” says Nick Rhodes, director of studies in product design at Central Saint Martins. “We certainly push the idea of designing for manufacture, even if just produced in limited editions. It is a relatively new phenomenon, the way that limited-edition design is portrayed as something quite glamorous. It might even look relatively easy to achieve. I understand that it is seductive for students.”
The comments students made on the questionnaires confirmed the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of the two ways of working. “Job security, regular wage [perhaps a touch optimistic] and better job prospects” listed one prospective industrial designer, and “more freedom for creativity” wrote an advocate of limited editions.
Given that very few young designers get picked up by galleries, why are graduates finding the limited-editions field so seductive? Apart from the money, the media coverage and the freedom, it’s probably the fact that you can make your name much quicker, at which point manufacturers will approach you – Dutch prodigy Maarten Baas is the perfect example.
But it’s also a new climate out there. Max Lamb, one of the RCA’s most successful recent graduates, says he didn’t even know what limited edition design was when he graduated. He is now represented by a gallery. It’s a similar story for fellow RCA graduate Peter Marigold, who assumed he’d work for a design firm.
“The complication of working with manufacturers doesn’t equal the money you get,” says Marigold. “You really need to push for manufacturers to produce your work, whereas at the moment many galleries come directly to me. Manufacturers should make it easier to get into their world.”
Neil Austin, director of contemporary furniture design at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, feels that manufacturers should be taking more of a lead. “Many manufacturers complain about the poor quality of students’ work, but they are themselves really reluctant to get involved,” he says. “This interaction is the most important in giving students the experience they need for working life.”
Lamb is about to launch a side table for Habitat – proving that you can make your way to the high street via the gallery within two years of graduating. “It’s important to show that you have both capabilities,” he says. “After all, I was trained as a product designer.”
One thing is clear: the few graduates who do get picked up by galleries are having a disproportionate effect on the many who won’t.