How the creative industries can change Scotland for the better
Scottish design is thriving and prized abroad, but there is more we could do to improve our economy and quality of life, writes design curator Stacey Hunter, who has been inspired by a recent two-month residency in Japan
Jennifer Kent, Instrmnt, Hilary Grant, Banton Frameworks, Karen Mabon – never heard of them? They are not yet household names, however these Scottish designers have not only established successful businesses in the UK but can legitimately say they are ‘big in Japan’. From the luxury department stores of Tokyo to the boutiques of Fukuoka in the south and Hokkaido in the north, Japanese consumers are buying into contemporary Scottish design. Maximalist umbrellas, minimalist watches, elegant menswear and handmade sunglasses are just some of the products you’ll find heading to Japan via Glasgow, Edinburgh and Orkney.
There are a number of reasons why Scottish design is prized in Japan. Our longstanding heritage of the highest quality knitwear travels well, and our engineering prowess gives product design from Scotland an edge. But it’s not past triumphs and designs from hackneyed pattern books that the discerning Japanese consumer chooses, it’s original, contemporary design at its best.
As a design curator working closely with Scotland’s design community I was invited to prepare a small exhibit
of contemporary design businesses exporting to Japan for Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs to present to Japanese leaders during her trip there in July 2018. This served as one of a number of opportunities to discuss Scotland’s use of culture as a promotional tool in domestic and international markets.
Something that’s not well known yet at home, is that modern Scottish design is increasingly popular internationally. Buyers in Los Angeles, Athens or Singapore place orders for design they know will sell in competitive and often luxury marketplaces. The origin of the design studio is secondary; it’s not Scotland the brand they’re buying into – it’s outstanding design.
I travelled to Japan myself at the beginning of 2019 to spend two months as a resident design curator in two locations: Tokyo – population nine million – and Arita in the rural south – population 20,000. I was a guest of the international organisations Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT) and Creative Residency Arita on the journey of a lifetime supported by the British Council Scotland/ Creative Scotland, The Daiwa Anglo-japanese Foundation and The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. This was developed by Scotland’s Cove Park, Hospitalfield and Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.
There I saw first-hand how Japan appreciates heritage and tradition whilst celebrating and promoting its contemporary design culture. A design exhibition called Long Life Design curated by d47 Museum founder and ‘design activist’ Nagaoka Ken Mei brought together products from the 47 prefectures of Japan. The items featured were varied from Tajika Kitchen Shears and a Snow White cloth from Nara to the Marni 60 Oak Frame Chair from Hiroshima. All designs skilfully incorporate elements of what the curator describes as their “personality” and something that is “rooted in the land”.
This beautiful design exhibition took place on the upper floors of the prestigious Tokyo department store Hikarie. It is perfectly normal to see well produced, intelligent design exhibitions in shopping centres in Tokyo. In fact, it’s perfectly ordinary to see high quality, contemporary design in public spaces all over Japan, a country that values design at every level. How do you move nine million people around a public transportation system without utter chaos? Stickers applied to the station floor show train passengers where to wait in an orderly queue for approaching trains in just one low-tech example of how design is appreciated and utilised. Design is not about luxury or aesthetics – it’s just as much about systems and tools.
Elsewhere in Japan, exquisite tableware is commonplace and staff uniforms are impeccably tailored and neat. Even tourists are treated to the highest quality of design souvenirs – Kihara’s range of Tokyo Icons in distinctive Arita white and blue porcelain start at around 500 Yen (approx £3) and manage to be modern, cute, attractive and affordable – aspects visitors to Scotland are unlikely to find from our souvenir provision on the Royal Mile.
As a design curator I see exceptional design being created in Scotland – but few outlets for it. Despite the fact that accessories, fashion and even portable architecture created by Laura Spring, Kestin Hare, and the Bothy Project easily rival like-forlike products from Finland, Denmark or Italy; we are not yet thought of as a design nation. Why is that? With great design schools: affordable work spaces and housing in comparison to London, Paris or Milan; and a healthy arts and tourism sector surely Scottish design should be one of our key cultural exports?
I founded Local Heroes in 2015 to shine a light on an opportunity missed and to champion the Scottish design community. My tiny organisation (total staff: one) puts design from Scotland on an international stage, presenting and promoting Scottish products and industries to the public, with a focus on high quality design. Through exhibitions and events we provide unique opportunities for people to appreciate Scotland’s contemporary design landscape. Through
commissions, we support designers to develop exciting new work and encourage experimental approaches to new products which celebrate Scottish design and innovation. But it’s not enough. Local Heroes exists in the vacuum where a design policy should be.
Fostering a strong design culture begins with acknowledging the purpose and value design makes to everyday life. Show me one person who doesn’t return from a design led city like Copenhagen, Helsinki or Stockholm wringing their hands about the missed opportunity here to make our public realm friendlier, easier and more beautiful. Instead we still have planning departments where no staff hold a design qualification. We have no government policy for design and no national programme of design. The public support for Scotland’s Year of Design in 2016 demonstrated that every year could be a year of design if only there was the commitment of elected officials.
So why isn’t design prioritised as it is in Japan? And why does it matter? Having worked in the sector for over 15 years
I can see clearly that we are experiencing a golden age of design. Our country’s diversity, pluralism and connections to international networks is influencing a whole generation of talented designers and design entrepreneurs. Supporting our design community properly and extensively is important because we need to retain the best design minds. We all benefit from embracing design culture because over time it leads to better services, fulfilling jobs, more efficient and safer public realms and a richer culture.
Design has become a significant asset and is a major part of the fastest growing economy in the UK during austerity – the creative industries grew at twice the rate of the wider economy in 2015-16. Now worth £91.8 billion in terms of gross value added to the UK, the sector grew by 7.6 per cent over the year, while the economy as a whole grew by 3.5 per cent in the same period. Particularly high growth was shown by the crafts industry (14.6 per cent), design and fashion (11 per cent), creative tech including games (11.4 per cent), publishing (7.7 per cent) and film and TV (6.6 per cent). By disregarding the contribution design makes to our economy and our society now we are throwing away the chance to take our place in the world as a design nation and failing to capitalise on a major asset.
The smart move for Scotland is to begin investing in our design culture by celebrating contemporary design and creating opportunities to see and buy high quality Scottish design at home and internationally. The Creative Industries is one of the top five growth sectors of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy so I have high hopes that the new Scottish Enterprise chief sees the opportunity to champion design and will, alongside Creative Scotland, get behind design entrepreneurs by supporting a long-term and consistent programme of international projects and exhibitions – similar to the way sister art forms and industries like TV and food and drink have been prioritised for success.
To date, Local Heroes has pioneered cross-sector partnerships uniting expertise in design, culture, cities, creativity, enterprise and tourism. We want to work together with like-minded organisations and people to present Scottish design talent to the world. Now is the time to rally behind the design community so that we can all benefit from better products, places and sustainable solutions for the future.
Clockwise from main: Hilary Grant knitwear; a watch from Glasgow-based Instrmnt; sunglasses by Banton Frameworks; a scarf by Jennifer Kent; Stacey Hunter; Tokyo Icons souvenirs; stickers help passenger flow in a Japanese train station