words Marcus Fairs
"We've got no money." That's what Piers Roberts and Rory Dodd - aka designersblock - say when you ask them why they live and work in a dilapidated former pub in a shabby backstreet off Kingsland Road in East London. But the building is the perfect base for a company that is the raw antidote to the slick commercialism of much of the contemporary design scene.
Inside, behind the boarded-up windows of the one-time saloon bar, Roberts and Dodd are making final preparations for this year's designersblock show (which will have just ended by the time you read this). As usual, the show is being held in a disused building: this year, it was the Tea Building on Shoreditch High Street. Floorplans for the show, marking where each of the 140 designers will exhibit, are pinned to the crumbling wall and the floor is littered with dust-covered samples of exhibitors' work. Every niche in the building is occupied by curiosities, including teddy bears, wire sculptures and latex-cast body parts.
People are coming and going: designers on mountain bikes drop off CD-roms and others turn up to do DIY around the building (one has knocked a hole in an external wall upstairs and is building a crude balcony out of scrap lumber). Dodd, 39, is squinting at his laptop screen (he has terrible eyesight) and Roberts, also 39, is laid up on a sofa, his left foot swollen horribly following an accident playing football in the street the previous day. Roberts is tall and bearded while Dodd looks like a chimney sweep. Both are irrepressibly optimistic and cheerful and both look like they could do with a bath.
"I tend to front things in terms of talking," says hat-loving Roberts, who proceeds to philosophise at length from his recliner. "Rory's the visual one - he's a magnificent visual editor who can't see."
"I think you're both a few bricks short of a wall, to be honest," adds Duncan Riches, their assistant.
It's exactly five years since the first designersblock show was held in London. That event, held in the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, East London was unlike anything the London design scene had ever witnessed and launched the duo as the country's most effective - and innovative - champions of young talent. Designers took over the warren of rooms in the building, showing their work against a backdrop of raw industrial architecture, while DJs played and a predominantly young crowd sipped beer.
"I had seen things like designersblock before - but only abroad," recalls Independent on Sunday Culture editor Marcus Field, who was editor of Blueprint magazine at the time. "So it was fresh for Britain. It brought the kind of buzzy fringe event that you get around the Milan and Cologne furniture fairs."
"It just became something we didn't expect," says Roberts, rolling a cigarette. "German TV came, Dutch TV came - no UK TV, though. Several thousand people turned up on the opening night and they'd never seen anything like it."
In the intervening years, the pair rose to become unofficial ringmasters of the exploding East London design scene, went bankrupt, and then clawed their way back to prominence - if not exactly riches - through their shows. With no cash for plush offices, they now rent the tumbledown pub from the neighbouring Geffrye Museum for a peppercorn fee.
Dodd and Roberts met ten years ago when, as mature students, they both enrolled on a one-year furniture-making course at Rycotewood College in Thame, Oxfordshire. Previously, Roberts had worked in dispatch riding, community care and the local Oddbins ("mental hospitals, bikes and booze," as he says), while Dodd had sold houses in Suffolk, before trying his hand at furniture making. "I'd had enough of the workshop," says Dodd, who was in the same quandary many designer-makers find themselves in. "The shitter the work, the more money you earn. You either end up running a factory or you struggle to make high-quality one-off pieces."
"We knew we'd do something together but we didn't have a clue what," says Roberts, but a visit to the Cologne furniture fair in 1997 provided the inspiration. "I went to Ingo Maurer's first show, held under the Deutzer Brücke - a road-bridge over the Rhine. I didn't know you could affect people with a design show like that. It was more magical than anything I'd ever seen in my life. I thought, I've got to be involved in this sector. The problem was - still is - there are simply no job descriptions out there to define people who drive creative ideas to market; helping people convert their ideas to saleable products."
Their first venture was a design shop, Same, which opened at the Truman Brewery in July 1998. They set up in the area just as it was becoming one of London's most vibrant creative quarters, and they felt they would have a ready market for their products, which were mainly sourced from cult overseas designers such as Droog.
"The Truman Brewery was a fantastic environment - there were world-class designers working next to students," says Dodd. "[Fashion designer] Hussein Chalayan, [musician] Talvin Singh, [DJ] Grooverider all had studios there. It was people having a go. Brick Lane was still a backwater; nobody was talking about it."
Same fitted in perfectly. "It was the first time there had been a shopfront for all this creativity," says Dodd. "We were promoting and selling quite hardcore stuff. We were selling the whole Droog range - not just the pretty stuff we knew we could sell. But people got it immediately and loved it."
"We saw a market opportunity to sell design from overseas; stuff that was not really available here," says Roberts. "There was just SCP, Space and that was about it. It was very exclusive; they were like galleries. But there were all these emerging designers; people who didn't just want to make things for rich people."
"They were terribly enthusiastic in the early days," recalls Field. "Rory is a total design evangelist. Their shop on Brick Lane looked fabulous. It was the scale and the choice of unusual objects - mostly Dutch - that was impressive. I thought they were a little naive about business, but that's not a bad thing because they wouldn't have even started otherwise."
Their lack of business acumen proved decisive, and the shop closed in early 2000. "We burned through all my money - £130,000 - in 18 months," laughs Roberts. "But that naivety was definitely the reason why it was successful at first," he adds. "We didn't do any market research; we didn't do any demographics. I read up about all that stuff but in the end decided that we would create our own demographic."
However, the designersblock show survived the closure of the shop, and this quickly became the main vehicle for Roberts and Dodd's ideas. While still trading on its underground credentials, the show is now a polished brand that occupies a niche left vacant by the bigger, slicker, and more expensive trade shows.
"Trade shows are so dull," says Dodd. "They're horrible places for exhibitors and visitors. How many people have turned around to you and said, 'You've got to go to that trade show, it's really exciting'? What we've tried to do is ask what do exhibitors want? What do visitors want? What do the press want?"
"I'd much rather show at designersblock," one established designer told us. "You don't sell as much as at 100% Design, but it's much more fun."
Designersblock has also gone global, with events in Milan, Seoul and Tokyo (they are holding a show during this month's Tokyo Design Week). They still hold to their philosophy of using vacant buildings, although their business skills have clearly got sharper: "We can now sell the value of the show to a property developer in terms of raising awareness of the building," says Roberts. "We do it because we're interested in it, because we can, and because we think we can get to the stage where we can make money out of it." Indeed, some designers have been muttering about the increased exhibitor fees for this year's show.
But Roberts and Dodd see themselves as far more than organisers of an alternative trade show. They believe that they are pioneering ways of helping designers bring their ideas to fruition, and see the shows not so much as selling environments but networking opportunities where people can exchange ideas and forge alliances. For all the government's talk about the importance of creative industries, they believe the big funding institutions - the Design Council, the British Council and the like - are failing to offer young designers the right kind of support.
Designersblock are moving to fill the gap. This summer, they launched a new initiative called Risk It - a distillation of all their hard-earned knowledge of what makes creative ideas succeed, which they are now marketing as a package to the industry. "We often end up as a mission of last resort - taking in all these slightly odd people who haven't got anywhere with the big institutions," says Roberts, who wryly adds that, in the early days, the Design Council refused them funding before they'd even sat down for the meeting. "The problem with institutions is they feel they should be telling you what to do. We come at it from the other side - what are people doing, and how can we help people do it better?"
Risk It is about forging the key relationships - between creative people, funders, marketers and manufacturers - behind any successful project. The approach eschews the contracts, copyright clauses and other paperwork that tend to terrify designers and instead aims to foster trusting relationships. "People don't know where to go with their ideas," says Dodd. "They give them away for very little and they get upset. If you want people's ideas to mature, they have to feel comfortable in their ownership of them. But Risk It shows how you can invite people to help you develop your ideas, with minimum contracts and an identifiable rewards structure."
Risk It was launched this summer with a show in Whitechapel that presented a range of collaborations between designers and industry, including the electroluminescent lights that Rachel Wingfield has developed with manufacturer Elumin8 (see pages 78-80). Roberts and Dodd continue to shun the establishment but concede that they have started wearing suits occasionally: "The response is amazing," says Dodd, recalling how, in the early days, potential funders would look aghast when the shabby pair walked in.
But they are too obsessively committed to the design scene to ever become mere impresarios: "I fundamentally like and admire most of the people we work with," says Roberts, when asked to explain why he does it. "I get angry that people get turfed out of college with no idea what they're going to do. It upsets me that intelligent, beautiful, creative people get shafted, and get told to go and get a proper job."