The big picture: DesignNation

By Regina Connell.

As far as we’re concerned, fine contemporary craft (DesignCraft) can’t get enough love. And in some countries, like the US, it’s really individuals who fund contemporary craft, along with a handful of museums and arts institutions. And the money tends to be very focused on art, not on (gasp) commercially oriented craft or artisanal work.

In the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and in the UK, there’s a more clued-in approach to these matters, both in the recognition that craft isn’t binary (either DIY or fine art) but is a continuum, and in the recognition that design and craft can actually be good for the economy and for exports.

We’ve profiled the UK’s Crafts Council before and were impressed with what business types call “systems thinking” approach to promoting craft. But when we came across Design-Nation (and how great a name is that) we got really excited: an organization focused on helping designer-makers get their work known and seen.


You know, we’re so wistful when we look at what’s going on across The Pond, in terms of support of design and craft. Really? I feel we have so far to go. I recently went to Norway and Iceland as part of Forming Ideas to look at how craft and design is valued and supported in Nordic countries and was blown away. The British experience is very much about how our crafts people are going to build the market and sustain themselves, there are far fewer grants and supported studio programs.  At the same time the market for applied arts, especially textiles and glass, is not as developed it could be, so designers may make a better living by selling overseas.

Felted wall by Anne Kyyro Quinn

So describe what Design-Nation does. Design-Nation is a very small program that runs out of London Metropolitan University. Fundamentally, we are all about promoting outstanding British designers (in 3d design and applied art). So we run an online directory and associated catalogue of over 150 designers based all over the UK and working in five disciplines including ceramics, glass, furniture, textiles, jewelry and silversmithing and facilitate relationships with manufacturers and retailers. Additionally we organize 2 group stands during the London Design Festival in September, and have been providing monthly business training for creatives.

What kind of events? We have space at Decorex (a high-end interiors show in London) and 100% Design.  We get space and handpick designers (from members of Design-Nation) to show there. We give people who’ve never been to a show before a chance to experience new things, meet new people. It’s pretty valuable. Last year, we brought 4 designers to Decorex and 5 to 100% Design. At Decorex we showed ceramicist Regina Heinz who sold one of her ceramic wall installations and also picked up a contact with a tile company to develop a range of bespoke tiles – a totally new direction for her work.


Image courtesy of Regina Heinz

How do you match manufacturers with designers? On a case-by-case basis. We maintain a database of manufacturers interested in collaborating with designers and try to make matches.. For example, Wentworth’s is a pewter manufacturer in Sheffield that’s interested in design-led gifts. One of our members Tim Parsons worked with Wentworth’s to develop ‘Splash’ bowls, which were picked up the Paul Smith’s shops – we helped market the collaboration.

This all sounds good for the lucky designer. How do you become a part of Design-Nation? Is it a competition? Not really.  British-based businesses apply, and we evaluate your work and what you’re also doing in your business. We’re looking for great work, and people who seem to understand that they also have to run their businesses in a reasonably sophisticated way. Design-Nation is about adding value to what they’re doing already. They need to be scaling up their work, doing batch work, looking for relationships. It’s about their ambitions. Once you’re a member, you’re listed, promoted through the newsletter and twitter. You’re eligible to take part in Design Nation events.  And we try to link you to manufacturers/retailers/specifers/collectors, both through our website and on a direct basis.

Is this mostly for recent graduates? No. Some people are young, but others are mid-career, and have been with us for a long time. But we do work closely with young graduates to get them thinking about what they’re going to do next, and how they’re going to support themselves. For example, we run an education program called Getting Started in Business that’s part of the New Designers show, which showcases the best of graduate creative work. We focus on getting young designers to understand what it takes to be successful in business.

Leatherwork by Helen Amy Murray via Leopold Lawrence Interiors

How do you get funded? Through a combination of membership subscriptions, project funding and fundraising.  Going forwards we are looking to commercialize our services – so charge for the training and contacts we offer – and lessen dependence on funding.

What’s been the biggest success? Making the right connections for people. We had a project called Eureka, which was about getting retailers, manufacturers, and designers together early. We wanted them to view portfolios and prototypes, and then we had an exhibition. One of our members, Ella Doran, was introduced to the UK high street store, John Lewis through this event and she’s been working with them to produce designs for them for several years now. And she’s grown her business along the way.


Wallpaper and Sofa by Ella Doran

So tell me about you. My original degree is in International History and Politics. But I always liked making things, so I got a second degree in design and media arts. However, I realized I didn’t want to make things for a living: I like telling other peoples’ stories, and communicating to a larger world. I think of it as a soft way of marketing.

And what gets you up in the morning? I believe that design adds value to every day life. There’s a lot we can do in the choices that we make to buy a particular product, and thinking about where it comes from, how long it will last. I like being a part of that.

What trends are you seeing? On the positive side, I see certain messages really sinking into the public: about buying something once, caring about sustainability, and being more thoughtful about buying choices. And this fits in well with a desire increasingly shared between designers and crafts people: neither wants to create something disposable.

Another trend: I think what I’m noticing there is that it’s easier for the smaller designers  to get their voice across in a crowded marketplace using social media.

But there are challenges. Manufacturing is struggling in the UK. The battle is for each business to make themselves sustainable.  Manufacturers have figured out that they need to run their businesses sustainably and well. They are starting to do that. And they’re starting to embrace digital production more .

What’s next? We’re looking to use social media in a more sophisticated way. Also, we’re looking at ways to convey information in a more up to date way. eBooks, instead of printed catalogues – an online business coaching program specifically for creative that has the potential to be offered internationally. And looking to grow and expand.




This entry was posted in THE BIG PICTURE and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.