Powering the trend are Britain’s art schools. “Our art and design education leads the world,” says Isobel Dennis, in her twelfth year as director of New Designers, the annual showcase for new graduates at Islington Business Design Centre. This year’s event brought 3,000 designers to London in the summer from colleges all over the country.
“Most importantly, young grads these days are commercially aware and have business plans.” Crucially, Dennis has secured an ever-expanding list of business sponsors for her show — this year’s included Sanderson, John Lewis, Wilco and Hallmark. These firms offer awards, cherry-pick the talent, and put it to immediate use.
John Lewis, for example, gave new grad Oliver Hubriak its award in 2012, and then speedily produced his much-acclaimed Finn chair, which won a prestigious furniture Design Guild Mark this year. Aged just 25, Hubriak will have more new furniture in John Lewis by Christmas.
Habitat also loves young designers, says Polly Dickens, the store’s creative director. “Our youngsters combine technology and creativity,” she says. “Their products are daring and push the boundaries of interior design.” East London’s Martha Coates, 24, joined the company straight from Manchester School of Art, and already has a rug named after her. “Martha has reinvigorated Habitat textiles,” says Dickens.
Heal’s, with its smartly revamped Tottenham Court Road shop, has talent-spotted its own new product designers for 10 years. But its “Heal’s Discovers” collective seems younger than ever this year.
Newbie Sam Lloyd is only 22, and developed his “sand-cast stools” with their distinctive aluminium tops while still at Kingston Uni, boning up on metal techniques in a foundry in east London. His aim was a ready-to-go product, for which he had even done the costings. Now the stool tops and footrests are cast in Belvedere, oak legs are turned in Whitstable, and the finished furniture is available in Tottenham Court Road.
Woolwich “woodsman” Sebastian Cox, 28, is building a career on coppiced timber, creating furniture and accessories for Heal’s and Benchmark. Particularly poetic is a tall chest for Heal’s, with a different British hardwood for each of the five drawers.
Others have become excellent entrepreneurs with burgeoning business skills. Richard Brendon, 27, who graduated from Kingston University in 2010, dreamed up his unique product, Reflect, in 2011. It’s an elegant bone china cup with a shiny gold or platinum finish that reflects a decorative “orphaned” antique saucer, thus creating a beautiful new/old pair.
In his first year Brendon sold 150 pairs. Now he is selling hundreds a month, to prestige stores such as Fortnum & Mason, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, Le Bon Marché in Paris and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. He is developing other ranges and is determined to maintain manufacture in Stoke. “I want British industry to thrive again, and design can help,” he says.
Talented young pattern-makers include Kit Miles, with his own London studio, and Nancy Straughan, who has created wallpapers for Graham & Brown. She hosts workshops to share her skills, and her Christmas decorations workshop will be on November 23 at Smug in Islington. Visit www.ifeelsmug.com (020 7354 0253).
Leader of the pack is Benjamin Hubert, 30. In 2009, he packed a stand, won through an award, in the “futures” section of the 100% Design festival at Earls Court with eight ranges of furniture and lighting for seven UK and continental manufacturers — astounding for one so young.
Now Hubert works for major global brands, has moved into a new north London studio and employs 10 people. And his super thin, ultra-light table was chosen for the annual Designs of the Year show at the Design Museum this year.