Left brain. Right brain. If we're to believe all that pop-neurology, you're either a creative type or someone who just loves solving maths problems. Design manufacturer and retailer Thorsten van Elten, curator of One Year On, the show for entrepreneurial designers, explains how it's all about firing on both cerebral cylinders...
The One Year On satellite event at London's annual New Designers show features the work of motivated designers who have been in business for less than 12 months
The One Year On satellite event at London's annual New Designers show features the work of motivated designers who have been in business for less than 12 months×
It's becoming increasingly hard to remember those analogue days before the advent of design magazines and blogs. Certainly for a trend-spotting design journalist, they've become one of the most relied upon (perhaps, too relied upon) tools in the research box, disseminating as they do with increasing rapidity images of, and information about, new products, projects and people. For young designers, particularly in parts of the world where the opportunities to show their work are limited, they've become an effective way of making a connection with the wider creative field, the more adept users of such platforms skillfully exploiting the economy of exchange that the medium allows – that is, the opportunity to promote their work online to a wide audience and, at the same time, to monitor the practice of their international peers that might influence that very work.
Aluminium 'Spun Stool' by Edward Robinson, now produced by Thorsten van Elten
Aluminium 'Spun Stool' by Edward Robinson, now produced by Thorsten van Elten×
But, there's clearly still a place for real-time design shows (man is, after all, a social animal), where chemistry plays it part, relationships are formed, and, of course, the very materiality of designed objects can be experienced at first hand. 'New Designers', the annual London showcase for design graduates, has been a stalwart of the UK's design calendar for the past 25 years. Here, thousands of young creatives, emerging from the institutions that have helped foster their talent, present their designs to a public made up of, among others, manufacturers, collectors, press and would-be design students. While one of the objects of the exercise for any participating individual is to generate interest in one's own work, with hope of this converting into real career opportunities, there has always been a sense of a creative community about it, with ideas and advice circulating among those exhibiting, in no small part because of the size of the event and the fact that it is truly multi-disciplinary – furniture, products, ceramics, glass, textiles, graphics and illustration are all represented.
Furniture designer Andy Murray's 'Sea Defence' shelving
Furniture designer Andy Murray's 'Sea Defence' shelving×
A design fair wouldn't been a design fair without a satellite event. In the case of New Designers, this is One Year On, an exhibition opportunity for designers who have set up their own business in the last 12 months. 'Personally, I'd like to call it One Year In,' says the show's curator Thorsten van Elten, the London-based design manufacturer and distributor known best perhaps for producing such iconic and whimsical products as the 'Pigeon Light' by Ed Carpenter and Alexander Taylor's 'Antlers' coat rack. 'In'. 'On'. What's a preposition between friends? But the grammatic substitution is an important one, underscoring as it does that we are seeing here is just the beginning of a long creative journey. Or, rather, a slog, as van Elten reluctantly sees it. 'It's hard, hard, hard work,' he says. 'Working as a designer can provide you some great personal achievements, but in terms of financial reward, as we all know, it's bloody hard to make a good living out of this.'
Robin Grasby's 'Desk' was also shown at this year's One Year On exhibition
Robin Grasby's 'Desk' was also shown at this year's One Year On exhibition×
This year's One Year On show – which was lucky enough to be located in one of the few spaces in Islington's Business Design Centre that's air-conditioned – featured 40 entrepreneurial designers, selected by a panel that included Design Week editor Lynda Relph Knight, Isobel Dennis, the director of New Designers, and, of course, Thorsten van Elten. Originality, creativity, and relevancy were, almost needless to say, on the checklist of criteria, but it was equally about possessing an attitudinal edge. 'There were some people there I wasn't so keen on,' admits the show's curator, 'but they had their own merits and the right to be there. It's about demonstrating that you know where you're going and what you're aiming for.' For New Designers' sales manager Louisa Pacifico, who also sat on the selection panel, the decision-making was informed to a certain extent by a desire to help those who most needed help. 'Together, we selected a broad range of designers and discussed if we felt each particular designer needed a platform such as One Year On to elevate their work,' she explains.
'Cave Ring' by Imogen Belfield, who picked up the New Designers One Year On Award 2010
'Cave Ring' by Imogen Belfield, who picked up the New Designers One Year On Award 2010×
Once elevated, the One Year On-ners profit from the exposure that such an event gives them. Furniture designer Andy Murray was nominated by The Guardian newspaper as 'One to Watch' and received several commissions for his 'Sea Defence' light and shelving. Edward Robinson, who caught Thorsten van Elten's own eye at last year's New Designers main show, presented his aluminium 'Spun Stool', which van Elten himself is now producing. Comprising two pieces of aluminium that are held together by rolling the metal over, it eschews the need for welding. Meanwhile, jeweller Imogen Belfield, whose exhibited work included a distinctive ring that pulls no punches (it's aptly named the 'Knuckle Duster'), was recognised with the New Designers One Year On 2010 Award.
Edward Robinson's formally reduced vase privileges the horizontal
Edward Robinson's formally reduced vase privileges the horizontal×
But creative nominations and plaudits aside, it's the chance to increase one's business acumen that participation in such an exhibition affords. 'You need to have a reasonable awareness of how to run a business, however small or large it might be,' says van Elten. 'Some of the designers don't want to know, but you have to understand what you're doing. You need to understand how it works. So I try to give them help on that.' Starting up creatively it always going to be a challenge, particularly if the whole business side of things harshes your creative buzz, but you've got little chance of making if you don't engage with the economic reality of it all. 'It's your business,' van Elten puts it bluntly. 'Unless you're 100% committed to this, don't do it.'
Armchair from Luke Trybula's 'Home Concept 2' collection
Armchair from Luke Trybula's 'Home Concept 2' collection×
Such tough talking would seem to match the tough times we find ourselves in. Yet it's often said, as van Elten points out, that going into business when the economy is sluggish will do you a favour by truly testing your mettle, the thinking being that if you can survive the drought then you'll have no problem at all when the rains start to fall again. Call it natural business selection. That doesn't mean, however, that mistakes aren't allowed along the way. 'I've made my share of mistakes,' admits the show's curator readily, 'but in passing on some of my experience to the designers, I try to get them to learn from them.'
London-based design manufacturer and retailer Thorsten van Elten, who curated One Year On
London-based design manufacturer and retailer Thorsten van Elten, who curated One Year On×
But what about Thorsten van Elten himself? What has he learnt through his involvement with One Year On? 'Well, I've been doing it for four years now,' he explains. 'I thought it would be a challenge to learn about disciplines I didn't know anything about, like jewellery and illustration art. Obviously, you have an opinion about it, but it's nice to meet people and learn about the processes.' Maybe they should call it Four Years On.