Achive Articles: Sunday Telegraph Magazine

Sunday Telegraph Magazine 

A Bull in the backwaters of British Design

You might think that Britain’s Design Centre in the Haymarket was a fairly uncontroversial institution. Does it not offer the casual West End browser a free (and warm) look at the best-designed British goods? Is it not encouraging people to make prettier washing machines, more glamorous tin-openers and more titillating tin-tacks?

Some people, it seems, just are not satisfied. One of them is a large economist and statistician called Ross Bull, who, when he is not advising the Philippines Government on how to raise its gross national product, is running what he calls “a rival Design Centre”. He wants, he says, to “ruffle the feathers of the Haymarket brigade”.

Currently he is ruffling them by means of an exhibition of chairs on the top floor of the furniture and design store he runs with his partner Mary Wiggin in Covent Garden’s Floral Street.

“The Haymarket Design Centre is so insular,” he complains. “They do not offer any comparisons between British design and what is going on in the rest of the world. But the British public ought to be shown what is happening elsewhere, so that they are educated into demanding better products from Britain’s own manufacturers, who have been living a sheltered life.

“I set out to get together 30 chairs. I was hard put to find one British product that measured up to examples from Italy, Germany or Scandinavia. We have to live by exporting and competing. But the Design Centre is just fostering a cosy British backwater mentality.”

Mr Bull’s shop is called Coexistence. The top floor will be devoted to a series of design exhibitions (next: Lights). The idea for these displays germinated when Mary Wiggin took him to see an exhibition of Italian furniture at Harrods in 1971. “I was astonished,” he says. “I wondered why similar stuff was not being produced in Britain.”

He and Mary decided to see whether there was a market for this kind of product. They launched Coexistence as a small shop in Bath, found there was a demand, and have recently expanded into Covent Garden.

They specialise in offering whole packages. “Someone writes us a cheque for £15,000 and we give them the lot: wallpaper, fabrics, carpets, lights and furniture.” One of the minor oddities about all this is that neither Ross nor Mary are trained de­signers. “Just because someone goes to art college doesn’t mean they come out with an eye for design. We know how to look at things,” he says.

Ross himself worked as an economist for the United Nations before branching out on his own as a lecturer and consultant. “I now spend six, months working in developing countries.” The other six months he spends trying to bring poor old Britain up to scratch.

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