Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

It can’t be done

shires

Way back in the Nineties, the design team Richard Seymour and Dick Powell made a series of programmes for Channel 4, in which they fundamentally redesigned everyday products to improve both their functionality and aesthetics. The most memorable was Designs on Your Loo; the full programme can be watched here.

In it, they worked with Bradford-based sanitary-ware manufacturer Shires in an attempt to develop their product. The pair travelled the world in search of the cutting edge of WC design – and found it notably at that time in Japan. They brought their ideas back to the company – where they encountered a deep-seated resistance. At the time, the company was a long-standing and significant mid-market player producing a range of pseudo-traditional suites, complete with cheap wooden seats and ornate phoney-brass handles, all with dainty, faintly ridiculous ‘heritage’ names. There is a memorable moment in the film where one of the company’s managers proudly shows Seymour and Powell the extra-curly “design features” that the company added, supposedly to make the product more attractive. Powell was incredulous, observing that all it did was make the thing harder to clean. Design is not a matter of superficial curly bits.

As the duo persevered (with the rearguard support of Shires’ deflated one-man design team) against interfering but ignorant management, they did eventually produce a compromise product. The company then rolled this out with enough fanfare for a world-first. But for me, the abiding memory is of a significant British manufacturer whose methods and attitudes had not changed in decades – and which saw no need to do so. The Market, they said did not want anything new; the existing retro-range was sufficient; the risks were not worth taking.

The immediate response to new challenges was, “It can’t be done”.

This programme has stuck in my memory because it is a striking metaphor for this country’s wider difficulties.

In the past week, I have heard a UK-resident Dutch woman ranting about how this country is so far behind the curve when it comes to convenient and sustainable public transport. I have also had a meeting with representatives of a major building company, which gave a clear impression that corporately it was not interested in innovation. The implication was that the market will not support it – even though this part of the market was telling it to its face, quite the opposite.   It is the white-knicker argument all over again*.

It is also seen in the recently-released designs for the temporary House of Commons (needed while the original is (belatedly) refurbished). Rather than take the opportunity to experiment with a new format, the design is a copy of the original, a pastiche worthy of Shires. And let’s not even consider the passed-up opportunity to move parliament out to the regions for a while… Everything militates against change, even when the need for it is overwhelming.

The same attitude was manifest some months ago at a local planning forum that I attended. At the outset, the chairman said, “I will rule out of order any discussions of good practice in other countries: this is Britain we are dealing with”. And at a stroke, many excellent potential solutions were dismissed as unworkable. The aforementioned building company made the same comment a few days ago: “we need to work within the realities of the British context”.

Taken at face value, it is hard to argue. But even assuming it is not just a convenient excuse for inaction and short-termism, it does not deny the underlying problem: just why is the culture of this country so resistant to even desirable or urgent change? An Anglo-Italian contact of mine (currently resident in Italy) put it succinctly: “The British are too afraid to go out of their comfort zone”. It is an observation that could be used time and time again.

Sadly, the same mentality also seems to pervade our administrative functions: planning issues seem to encounter as much resistance there as from the developers. The building company mentioned earlier admits that it is partly cautious because it does not want to waste time developing designs that will be thrown out by ultra-conservative planning authorities – some of whom appear even to be selectively ignoring the more progressive parts of their own planning guidelines. I have encountered similar resistance myself – the impression is of an organisation paralysed by red-tape and stuck in a hidebound, backward-looking rut that stifles innovation.

I was first struck by the disconnect between attitudes in this country and the continent around the same time that the Seymour-Powell film was screened. I often returned (from Switzerland in particular) clutching innovations that I had found there, which were nowhere to be seen in the U.K. Some years later, the same things would appear in this country, where they would be loudly hailed as evidence of how cutting-edge the nation was. It covered everything from the arrival of IKEA (whose Chuck-out-the-Chintz approach was in itself telling), through the fads for silk shirts, mid-length shorts and Birkenstocks and a wide range of new technologies, to films (even some English language ones seemed to have had continental release before they came to the U.K.). I even noticed it in the use of vinyl design-graphics on the sides of lorries and trains: vehicles on the continent were multicoloured and cheery for years while ours were still boring white or brown.

There isn’t the space here to delve deeply into the psychology of why this should be so – but I suggest that the false perception that we are cutting-edge when we are actually often behind the curve, is yet another manifestation of the insularity that we as a nation aren’t even aware we suffer from. We simply don’t see enough of what is being developed elsewhere. The institutional resistance meanwhile is the product of a sclerotic system that hasn’t been properly shaken up for far too long, where the status quo is just too comfortable, the punters just too docile – and the fact that it is easier to produce a new sound-bite than a genuine innovation. It’s not that this country doesn’t produce innovators – but the frequency with which they still have to work abroad to succeed tells all.

Change can be uncomfortable – but it is sometimes necessary and always unavoidable: time moves forward, and things change. It’s called evolution. Often it brings benefits as well as problems: the trick is what you emphasise. The challenges are the same everywhere – and change for change’s sake  is not always good – though it can still be as good as a rest… But the real problem is one of receptiveness. Cultures that deny Change are themselves headed for extinction.

It is the same attitudes that are leading this country further and further up a blind, Brexit-induced alley: the mistaken belief that the Past is Best, that Britain Knows Best, that it is still leading the world, and can learn nothing from anywhere else. But when it comes to progressive change, It Can’t Be Done.

In the meantime, the world of sanitary-ware – as much else – has been captured by sleek continental designs from the likes of the German Duravit and Swiss Laufen. Companies that glory in bringing the latest designs and technologies to the market to improve people’s lives. A few British companies are now making cheap imitations, but that is all – and I don’t see them making much of the export headway that will be essential should Brexit finally happen.

The metaphor for the national mindset that was Shires went bust in 2009 – and I suspect the rest of the country is not far behind.

 

*The White Knicker argument: for many years Marks & Spencer said that they mainly sold white underwear because that was what their customers mainly bought…

 

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