Studio of the world: London as a design centre

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

Studio of the world: London as a design centre

In 2003 Nissan decided to move its European design studio from Munich to London. The new studio brought together sixty of the company’s engineers and designers from around the world to work in what was once a British Rail maintenance depot, and is now a carefully restored 1960s Brutalist landmark close to Paddington station.

By Deyan Sudjic

Here Nissan’s experts play with new car body shapes, seating configurations, control panels and safety systems. Perhaps surprisingly they still use clay models, as well, of course, as high tech three-dimensional digital technology.

The area has changed out of all recognition since the building was reopened. This was once a triangle of wasteland, formed by a tangle of derelict canals, the main railway line into London from the West, and an elevated urban motorway. Now the area is full of life, with studios built under the motorway, new homes and new parks. The canal has been cleaned up and acquired a bridge designed by Thomas Heatherwick, albeit on a less ambitious scale than his project to span the Thames. Just a few yards from Nissan’s building you can see the mud excavated by Crossrail’s tunneling team coming to the surface for disposal.

But the Nissan building is not simply a familiar element in a conventional story of urban regeneration. From its Paddington base Nissan’s designers work not just for the UK Nissan factory, but on shaping the vehicles that are manufactured using components made in its factories in 20 countries all around the world. It’s an illustration of how the world has come to be divided between centre and periphery, between consumer markets, and those few places that have the ability and the creative power to shape what it is consumed in these markets. And as demonstrated by Nissan’s presence, and that of many other companies like it, the British capital is a global creative centre. Indeed when it comes to design, it is for the moment, arguably first among them.

Nissan says that it chose London precisely because it’s ‘a city that is at the forefront of modern art, architecture and design trends’. London in other words is an early warning station, a listening post to pick up the first stirrings of new attitudes to taste and style and how they can be applied to make sense of emerging technologies. Nissan is not the only car company that maintains a presence in London for this reason. The city is also a base for Ford – in the midst of Soho. And it is a pattern that is followed by other industries too, from fashion, through advertising, to software.

London has been a creative centre ever since the industrial revolution, when design in the modern sense first emerged, as the link between maker and user was broken by mass production.

The Government has rightly made much of ‘Tech City’ – the fast growing digital cluster centred around Shoreditch. But the label is misleading. This is not a ‘tech’ cluster so much as a digitally powered creative one. It’s a quintessential London phenomenon, owing more to Soho than Silicon Valley. 9

Over the last 100 years various cities have had a claim to be the world’s preeminent centre of design. Around 1900, it would have been Vienna. In the 1920s, it was Paris. In the 1940s it was Los Angeles, then Milan. And in the 1980s it was most likely Tokyo. But London has been a creative centre ever since the industrial revolution, when design in the modern sense first emerged, as the link between maker and user was broken by mass production.

Education is a key part of London’s creative infrastructure. The British capital was one of the first places in the world to set up the schools needed to train the kind of people who could shape the new kinds of products and buildings made possible by mass production.

The Royal College of Art – whose graduates include industrial designer James Dyson, furniture designer Jasper Morrison, fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and Christopher Bailey CEO of Burberry – emerged in its modern form in 1896, and now attracts students from all over the world. Central St Martin’s – Stella McCartney, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen – has roots that go back just as far and is now just as international.

London architecture schools have played and continue play a similar role – the ideas and exemplars that guide the development of cities around the world have their roots in the studios and common rooms of London. Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, John Pawson and David Chipperfield all studied at the Architectural Association. Thomas Heatherwick and David Adjaye were students at the Royal College of Art.

One of the key traits of these schools is that they have all encouraged dissent. They do not exist simply to train people to carry out the jobs that currently exist. Ron Arad, formerly professor of product design at the Royal College of Art, used to say that it was his job to make his students unemployable, which is to say that they would become the kind of creative people who would employ others.

Education is only one strand in London’s creative infrastructure. The web of workshops and factories, large and small, that sustains its film makers and its theatres, its furniture businesses and its Savile Row tailors allowed and allows the city’s designers to root their skills in practice. London’s manufacturing base is still important, despite its low profile.

The Victoria and Albert Museum started out as the world’s first design museum.

The third element that makes London a design studio to the world is its network of museums and galleries, magazines and festivals that create a dialogue about design that is heard around the world. The Victoria and Albert Museum started out as the world’s first design museum. And now it has the Design Museum, established in the 1980s by Terence Conran, with the ambition of exploring design from the point of view of both culture and commerce. The Design Council was perhaps the first state sponsored attempt to explore the economic significance of design. More recently the London Design Festival and London Fashion week have developed as important dates in the international design calendar.

But can London sustain its long held place at the centre of the world’s design economy? In many ways the city looks exceptionally well positioned, with time zone, language, and above all tradition and momentum in its favour. But there are dangers too.

One serious unintended consequence of London’s current global appeal is that it is becoming ever more expensive for young talent – places where young creatives can live, work and meet are becoming ever more unaffordable. This problem is being compounded by the increasing cost of university courses, the massive rise in class sizes and a particularly draconian visa regime that prevents talented foreign graduates from working here. 10 Left unchecked these pressures could have the effect of making London a less diverse and less creative city, and detract from its role as a truly global design capital.

At the end of 2016, the Design Museum will be moving from its existing building by Tower Bridge to a much larger new home in Kensington. For the museum, design is a borderless and global phenomenon. And by acknowledging that in our programmes, we aim to remind the world of London’s significance as an early warning station for creativity, and at the same time, help to ensure that it stays that way.

  • 9 Jones Lang Lasalle, Understanding Digital London, 2014,
  • 10 Alice Sachrajda and Jenny Pennington Britain Wants You, Why the UK should Commit to Increasing International Student Numbers, ippr, 2013. See also www. 9702609/Boris-Johnson-calls-for-easingof- foreign-student-visa-restrictions.html