Richard Seymour If you were flying over London and creative endeavour showed up as a flare, there would be this fantastic carpet of stuff going on. There are a thousand micro activities; unexpected connections are being made all the time. And structurally, geographically and intellectually, London lets that happen.
Dick Powell The essence of London is that there is no manifesto. And if there was, there wouldn’t be a design scene like there is now. In lots of other places there is an agenda – Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai – but the lack of consensus is the secret to London’s success.
rs Do you think that people living in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century knew that the Renaissance was going on? They didn’t. I don’t know how long it was afterwards before someone said, you know, I think we’ll call it the Renaissance. It’s only later, or from a distance, that you see what’s happening. And there’s something like that going on here at the moment.
dp There’s a dangerous anarchic streak here. There’s this dissatisfaction with how things are; a constant striving to do something new and different. It’s something I don’t feel when I go to Shanghai or Tokyo or even New York.
rs We’ve had no cultural revolution in this country; we’ve never had the spasmodic upheaval that France has had. Even our civil war was a bit piss-poor. So it’s odd that we have a culture that looks so linear and monocultural in one regard, but wants to churn all the time.
dp I find Italy much more mono-dimensional in that respect. The Italians are absolutely brilliant at certain kinds of things, but they don’t feel dissatisfied with the status quo. In London you’re constantly talking to people who are interested in smashing up the old models and doing something new.
rs London is medieval. All of the major intellectual centres in history grew up around crossroads, and I’m absolutely sure that London’s pre-eminence is a medieval construct. And even with the amazing development of IT, the face-to-face meeting never goes away in importance. Actually it becomes more important. You realise from the deluge of emails you get every morning that most of it isn’t communication at all. It’s just belly-rumbles. And London is in a magnificent position globally. The geographical hub aspect cannot be underestimated. Heathrow is the world’s busiest airport. People fly in from the Far East – from Tokyo, Shanghai or what have you – and you can grab them for a meeting before they make their connection and move on.
dp This is where the well-pool of young designers is. They gravitate towards London. This is where the greatest talent in all the creative industries resides. It’s also a cauldron of multicultural activity, which I think is very influential.
rs It’s quite a kindly place. We’re terribly embracing and accepting of other cultures. It goes back centuries. It works at every level – that’s why chicken tikka masala is the nation’s favourite dish. So there’s London as the big melting pot of cultures, but London is also about Britishness. British designers working in London are a curiously experimental and adversarial bunch of folk. We have this odd enthusiasm for renewal of thinking. It’s where the inventor aspect comes in – even though we don’t have the wherewithal to do it a lot of the time. There’s this mutative quality. We get a bit bored and want to change things a bit and muck things about.
dp Someone once said that Italian designers are all heart, the Germans are all head, but the Brits are head with heart. And I think that’s still true in lots of ways. Another thing about London is there’s a fantastic design infrastructure here. There are more design organisations than anywhere else in the world. D&AD, the Design Museum, museums, galleries … and the education system is probably the single most important thing that sustains the design culture of the city. Although I think we’re on borrowed time though with education. Standards have gone through the floor.
rs We find there are a lot of graduates being spat out into the market who are probably quite free-thinking but have absolutely no understanding of the techniques they’ve got to employ to make it.
dp You get a lot of conceptual and sensorially rich solutions to things that are not manifested in any way. That’s because the colleges can’t deliver it – the workshop spaces have been sacrificed, the craft skills have dissipated. The colleges have instead embraced the intellectual side of things. I passionately believe that design is about intellectual free-thinking but also about the doing side of things – the craft skills, the qualities of the materials you choose, and all of these other things. These poor kids are being sold down the river.
rs There were 17 people in my graduating year from Central and I think 20 in my year at the Royal College of Art. Those numbers have ballooned dramatically. The idea that a much larger number of people should have tertiary education is entirely laudable, but if you take the same facility and ram 100 kids in instead of 20 you end up with a terrifying equation. You can’t do that. dp Recently there was a foreign student in London who took his college to court for not providing the education he had been promised in the prospectus. He had calculated the one-on-one tutorial time he’d had per term amounted to 14 minutes. You can’t teach anyone in 14 minutes.
rs In China, you’ve now got 300 colleges of industrial design within five of the major prefectures alone. When students ask me what skills they need, I say Mandarin.
dp Shanghai will become the epicentre of the Far East I would think.
rs If you look at the centre of London, it’s a jumble. Paris has its Grands Projets but in London there’s this kind of village-y thing. Even if we’d had the money after the Great Fire [of 1666], we wouldn’t have built Wren’s vision – the grand plan. Because we’re not like that. We’re much more independent in our thinking. Which is terrific in some respects and absolutely shit in others. Because it means you can’t do what the French do and run a high-speed train line right through the country. You try to put one through Kent and see what happens.
dp Take the recent argument about Chelsea hospital [Richard Rogers complained unsuccessfully to the government about a proposed neoclassical extension to the Wren building]. We need to allow things like that to go up as well as things like the gherkin. That’s what makes London what it is. When Richard Rogers gets on his high horse and says it’s pastiche, I really don’t agree with that. I think you have to allow all those different strands to develop. Otherwise London wouldn’t be like it is.
rs The fascinating thing for me is why someone like J Mays, who is group vice president and chief creative officer at Ford, has decided to base himself here. He’s up in Broadwick Street. Because he thinks this is where it’s at. If you ask him, he will talk about British designers’ ability to understand the cultural aspect of what they’re doing in a way that many other cultures seem to have a problem with. And that’s weird – to be asked to be the visual translators from one culture to another. We are babel fish. We translate cultures.
dp Lots of people are trying to turn London into a creative centre for this or that. You’ve got John Sorrell with his design festival and his World Creative Forum, and Milan has its furniture fair. But we shouldn’t try to make London a centre like that because that almost kills the diversity that makes London what it is. The greatest service you could do as a magazine is to recognise how precious these things are – the things that go into this cauldron that is creative London. A recognition of the diversity of factors that will ensure it stays that way.
rs What’s remarkable about London is that it’s a self-organising network. It consists of thousands of individual cellular components that function without anyone having to say, “It’s all about this”. It’s the granularity that gives it its character. It’s the biodiversity that creates the new. London is the organism. Let it get on with it.