London's design week | icon 041 | November 2006

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words: Marcus Fairs

What could you do for your city’s design scene with £1.6 million?

That’s how much public money the London Design Festival has received in its first four years – and as London recovers from its annual design binge, serious questions are being asked about the way it has been spent.

This September saw more design events in London than ever before. Lynchpin shows 100% Design and Designersblock were joined by over 200 fringe events, and the evening party schedule was for the first time as manic as Milan’s.

With its red D logo, representing an upturned double-decker bus, the London Design Festival is an umbrella brand established in 2003 to unite these events and to “celebrate and promote London and the UK’s design creativity”.

Besides marketing the festival in the UK and overseas, the LDF produces a guide, runs a website and provides signage for partners’ events during the two-week festival period. There are also opening and closing parties and, this year, the LDF put on a couple of design shows of its own. But it employs a team of only three full-time staff and does not organise activities outside of the two-week festival period, so where is the £1.6 million pounds of public funding going?

“Our vision is to create and sustain the London Design Festival as one of the world’s leading creative annual events,” says festival director Ben Evans. “The festival has helped establish London as a major design capital and build its reputation as one of the world’s main creative hubs.” Evans said this was achieved by attracting “significant media coverage and stimulating new audiences across the globe”, and by providing “profile and network opportunities for the design community” and increasing awareness of design among the public.

But elements in London’s design community have long griped that the LDF is merely rebranding the efforts of individual event organisers. London’s September design season dates back to the first 100% Design event in 1995, which was soon joined by dozens of fringe events across the city. This year, activity in the city was broadly divided into three geographical zones: 100% Design at Earls Court in the west, now in its 11th year, is the key show for trade buyers and specifiers such as architects and interior designers. Across the rest of London and particularly in the east, galleries and showrooms held their own small-scale shows.

“All these events are happening anyway, so what is the extra they [the LDF] are adding?” says James Mair of London design retailer Viaduct. “They’ve hoovered up all the cash,” says Rory Dodd of young-design showcase Designersblock. “If we could get £10k we could make the show free and get four times as many visitors. But the London Development Agency said we couldn’t have it. That makes it difficult for us to do things.”

The festival’s predatory instincts were noted in an independent report by consultant Kate Oakley in 2004. “The role of the LDF vis-a-vis the existing design initiatives was the subject of deep concern for a number of interviewees, both participants and observers. The concern is essentially that the LDF ‘brand’ squashes existing initiatives, rather than adding value to them,” the report states.

This year, the LDF responded to criticism by hiring design PR agency Camron, and the resulting media coverage – which was more generous to partner events – has impressed event organisers. “I’m more impressed with them this year than last – largely because they’ve come round to the idea that they need to spend some money on PR,” says Dodd. “But it’s taken them three years to do it.”

Over recent months, however, a number of more serious concerns about the way the festival is funded and run have emerged. London Design Festival Limited is a private company, owned by shareholders including chairman John Sorrell (who owns a 51% controlling stake), Sorrell’s wife, and festival director Ben Evans. The shareholders own both the company and the brand. Yet the LDF is funded entirely by public money, receiving an average of £400,000 a year. Of this, £350,000 comes from Creative London – the creative industries arm of the London Development Agency, which is mayor Ken Livingstone’s agency for promoting jobs and business in the capital. An estimated £40,000 comes from the Arts Council. This year, the LDF asked its 140 partner events to each contribute £250 towards marketing costs.

The LDF does not redistribute any of its funding in the form of grants to independent event organisers, many of whom receive no public money whatsoever and struggle to break even. Instead, the LDF spends the majority of its income on its own overheads. According to the LDF’s 2005 budget, £170,690 went on salaries and national insurance and a further £94,420 on office overheads, including £3,000 a month for rent and rates on its spacious Clerkenwell offices (the rent is paid to the property’s landlord, the LDF chairman John Sorrell).

“It’s bewildering what they’ve managed to get away with,” said another source at Creative London, who added that attempts to call the LDF to account have been met by high-level political intervention. “There’s constant bullying, haranguing, leaning on political connections,” said the source. “It can’t continue.”

The LDF has not attracted any significant private funding or sponsorship, much to the consternation of Creative London. “We’re frustrated by the way things have gone,” said a source at the funding body. “I’ve never been able to understand why they haven’t been able to attract a headline sponsor. We want it to be a self-sustaining festival.”

In comparison to the LDF’s £400,000 annual average, the London Architecture Biennale this year received just £150,000 from the Arts Council, yet managed to raise £650,000 privately. But whereas the LDF provides collective branding for a cluster of independent annual events that largely already existed, the LAB created a new festival of international stature from scratch and organized a significant number of the constituent events. “They [the LDF] are the chosen ones,” said a source at LAB. “We dream of funding like that.”

Despite being by far the largest recipient of Creative London money for design, the LDF has never been subjected to the scrutiny expected of a publicly-funded organization. Since Creative London has an economic development remit rather than a cultural one, the festival has a remit to deliver tangible results in the form of job creation or inward investment. But it has never produced output data or evaluations, so it is impossible to judge its performance. “There is no data,” conceded a source at Creative London. “There’s no market research.”

In fact, the only piece of hard data the LDF was able to give icon was the attendance figures for last year’s festival, which claim a total of 465,000 people visited the LDF events. Yet the LDF concedes that this figure is aggregated: it is reached by adding together visitor figures for each separate event – including two held at major London department stores, which get tens of thousand of visitors a week anyway. Thus the real figure is almost certainly far lower. Nobody knows how popular (or unpopular)
the festival is.

Many people still refer to the collected events as “London design week” rather than the London Design Festival, suggesting some resistance to the corporate feel of the organisation. “The problem lies in the fact that the September ‘design week’ exists anyway without the help of the London Design Festival,” says design curator Claire Catterall. “A lot of designers and event organisers feel they have been co-opted by stealth into being part of something they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. I think that if the London Design Festival really wants to contribute something positive to ‘design week’ they should concentrate less on banners, guides and ‘clash diaries’ and more on providing opportunities for young designers to have a platform – through introductions to potential sponsors, help with finding venues, and hard cash.”

“[LDF] provides profile and networking opportunities for the design community and has helped to increase awareness in design among wider audiences especially the general public,” says Evans.

However, the idea that the LDF has improved the profile of the week’s events is refuted by some. Marina Iremonger of the British Consulate-General in Milan, which was asked to host the LDF on its world tour to promote the festival, says: “They asked us to organise a party in 2002. We invited VIPs, they gave a slide show and it was quite useless. They had no focus.”

The question in people’s minds appears not to be whether there should be an umbrella body for London’s design week but whether this is the body it deserves. As consultant Kate Oakley asks, “Are these the right people to be running such an event?”

Creative London has appointed independent consultant Strategem to evaluate the festival and decide on its future. The report is due at the end of October.

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