3. A Difficult Beginning
Although John Sorrell publicly called for a celebration of British design in 2002, it was an idea that was born during his time as Chairman of the Design Council in 1993. During his two terms as Chairman of the Design Council (1994-2000) he oversaw a radical transformation of the semi governmental agency from a bloated bureaucracy with a focus on preservation activities with over 100 members of staff to a future oriented, project and initiative based design advocacy group with only 50 permanent staff. (Appendix 27)
The new role of the Design Council would be to promote design and its various uses to new audiences around the UK. He had three ideas to do so. His first goal was to reengage political leadership. He thus organised a competition with the country’s best design schools to re-imagine the Houses of Parliament. Of the hundreds of submissions that came back his favourite was the submission for a virtual parliament. An idea that was “inconceivable in 1994-1995. Most MP’s weren’t even using computers back then,” he said.
Another project that later became all consuming was the Millennium Products initiative. In preparation for the arrival of the new millennium the Design Council identified 1000 examples of design and innovation to “celebrate” Britain’s role as a world leader in design. The Millennium Products exhibit later became a popular travelling global exhibition and attraction.
His second term ended before he could launch the London Design Festival. In the final years of his chairmanship of the Design Council and before he wrote the Design Week article. He sold his private design agency Newell and Sorrell, which had grown to be one of Europe’s largest design and identity businesses and founded the Sorrell Foundation which inspires creativity in young people.
The Festival itself really began to take form only after a dedicated effort of public speeches, brainstorming and planning. A key speech in the effort was delivered to the Globe Theatre renovation committee. It was there that Mr Sorrell made the first public call for the Festival. The speech was quickly followed by the Design Week article and then a small team was assembled in 2002 to begin the planning for a dynamic, new and young Festival.
Mr Sorrell brought together Ben Evans and Lynne Dobney to discuss and develop the details and plan for launching, what would later become a major event on the international creative calendar, the London Design Festival.
The first Festival of 2003 only had 45 events. Financial support, from the London Development Agency, arrived after the Festival, said Sorrell. But the support did come. The first few years were difficult. The relationship between the Festival team and the LDA was new for both parties and at times difficult to define.
Several years later the support and partnership is growing stronger and the role of policy support is becoming more evident. Although the relationship remains strong festival organizers remain vigilant, recently Ben Evans said as much in an interview in Hidden Art magazine, “Other cities around the world are playing catch-up. When we started the festival there were three or four comparable events in international cities. There are at least 20 now. I’m sure that before we know it there will be 50.”
“It is important,” he continued, “for London to stay in that leading position, and that’s why we need the support of government and the Mayor’s office: I’m pleased to say they understand that as well.”
It took several years for the Festival to grow from an idea to reality and then it took five more years for the Festival to grow into an international event. Today, celebrating its fifth year, the festival enjoys strong public and political support. Its growth has coincided with that of the London Development Authority. A third of the festival’s funding is from the LDA. The relationship between private creative industry and public authorities has become a win-win partnership.
Evidence of the growing importance of the Festival to London are found in the words of Ken Livingstone, Mayor Of London, expressed during the opening of the 2007 Festival at Royal Festival Hall, “I would rather London be second in financial services and first in creative industries. No one comes to look at a city for its bankers. If the creative industries are successful, it’s good for everyone: for Londoners, for visitors to the city, and for the financial services industry.”