My Design London: Sir John Sorrell

A key player in the London design scene, Sir John Sorrell, takes us through his favourite designs, personal treasures and inspirations for the big city
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Sir John Sorrell, the son of a north London milkman and knighted in 2008 for services to the creative industries, was born in an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. Now he is a key player in the London design scene, and with his wife, Frances, has run his own successful design consultancy through a career lasting 45 years.

He has chaired the Design Council and the government advisory group, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. The London Design Festival, which marks 10 years this month (September 14-23, 2012), was his idea and he is its chairman.

John Sorrell's Highgate home
© Charles Hosea
John Sorrell's Highgate home is "as modern as you can get". He is a big fan of designer Thomas Heatherwick and has his Plank stool (bottom left), made from a single piece of wood

My home

It's about as modern as you can get, all glass and light and air — a two-year project finished in 2000 and a first for our architects, Eldridge Smerin, who brilliantly got permission in a Highgate conservation area.

Sir John Sorrell
© Charles Hosea
Sorrell with his treasured book, John Skeaping's Animal Drawing
Extensions are wrapped around an existing Fifties house. We added a floor and doubled the space but now our three children have left home we plan to build somewhere smaller nearby.

Design tip

Keep it simple. Buy the best you can afford for long-term enjoyment. Good design is what's well-made and works well.

Favourite design

A folding stool in our living room by Thomas Heatherwick (of Olympic cauldron fame) — and typically ingenious. He designed it while still a student at the RCA, and I was given a very early one when I left the Design Council in 2000.

Tip Ton stacking rockers
£197 each: Tip Ton stacking rockers at Conran
It's called Plank, and when open and leaning against the wall, you can see it's made of one piece of wood with the grain running through the wonderful joints.

Treasured possession

A book called Animal Drawing by the sculptor John Skeaping, published in 1936. My father gave it to me when I was about seven years old, and it opened my eyes to art. He was a milkman and I was born in Hornsey in an air-raid shelter. Later on I went to Hornsey Art School.

Best design shop

It's got to be Conran — he has sold design so brilliantly for such a long time.

The V&A museum
© Alamy
Sorrell finds inspiration in an inscription above the V&A's door

How London inspires

Just look up — London is so full of high-up building details. For example, the V&A has that wonderful inscription over its front door: "The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose."

Design idol

Any of the artists, illustrators and designers who were my tutors in the early Fifties at Hornsey Art College where I went at 15 to study commercial art full time. They had huge talents, and taught to supplement their income. People like John Hoyland, Bridget Riley, Martin Leman and Allred Daniels.

Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley, one of Sorrell's designer/lecturer idols from Hornsey Art College

My Olympics highlights

Thomas Heatherwick again. His cauldron made the whole world gasp: it was risky, a bit dangerous, and breathtakingly beautiful. I also loved the glorious planting and John McAslan's Energy Centre is a little-sung treasure.

London design memory

Visiting the Festival of Britain — I was seven at the time, brought up through rationing and austerity. I was awed by the sheer scale of it all — even the river looked like the Atlantic Ocean to a small boy.

My vision for London

London is the creative capital of the world and we need to make sure everyone knows it. The London Design Festival is the largest in the world — and I'm told the best — but I want to make it even better. This year, for example, we hold the Global Design Forum, a day of international design debates, on September 18, in the spectacular new Central Saint Martins campus, King's Cross.

John McAslan's Energy Centre
Rated: John McAslan's "unsung" Energy Centre for the Olympic Park
But we need to have fresh talent to sustain excellence. So Frances and I have set up Saturday Art and Design Clubs for children. We both went to Saturday art classes in our early teens and it changed our lives.

Festival must-see

The "sound portal" in Trafalgar Square (19-23 September), a big black rubberised box where people can listen to five specially commissioned "sound works" from the new breed of sound artists. It shows how design affects all our senses.


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