Susanna Beaumont: 'Design is not about luxury goods, but enhancing the way we live our life'
Mirrl – Double-sided Mirrl trestle table, 2019
Curator discusses the second year of her pioneering project, Design Exhibition Scotland
Last year, the curator Susanna Beaumont launched Design Exhibition Scotland (DES), a pioneering project celebrating 'exceptional objects for the everyday'. Over 20 artists and designers from across Scotland were commissioned to make new works, ranging from tables and seating to lighting and textiles.
Beaumont initiated DES to address a gap in support for designers in Scotland: 'We talk a lot about the Mackintosh era of Scottish design, but where is support for design today, particularly for recent graduates just starting out?' she says. With this in mind, Beaumont took a hands-on approach with each commission, mentoring and supporting each artist, visiting their studios and 'incubating ambition'. It was also something of a test, to gauge the market's appetite for Scottish design: 'You don't know whether there's demand until you introduce a supply,' she says.
The culmination of the project – an exhibition in Lyon & Turnbull's showroom in Edinburgh's New Town last June, showed promise: 'One very exciting thing that happened was that an exhibiting designer, Alice Jacobs, was commissioned to create bespoke new furniture for a school in East Renfrewshire,' says Beaumont. Jacobs presented birch ply stackable chairs at the Lyon & Turnbull show, which were seen by the agency Architecture Design Scotland, who then invited Jacobs to tender for the school project. 'That's what [DES] is about – creating visibility, building relationships and encouraging people to choose bespoke, high quality design rather than off the shelf solutions,' she says. Jacobs has since gone on to create furniture for Craigbank Primary School in Alloa, and, with the evidence that the demand is very much there, is currently putting together a catalogue of designs to send to more schools.
The success of the first Design Exhibition Scotland also encouraged Beaumont to continue to pursue the project, and over the last 12 months she has been working with 25 artists on new commissions, continuing to mentor and support the development of new work. The second DES exhibition will open at Lyon & Turnbull on Friday 28th June. 'It's a bit like putting out your second album,' jokes Beaumont, as the opening date approaches. But in the last year DES has only grown in its significance, chiming with a much larger movement around sustainability and ethical sourcing: 'Design is not about luxury goods, but enhancing the way we live our life,' says Beaumont: 'Restaurants talk about being locally sourced, but what about your chairs?' she gives as an example.
Particularly resonant amongst this year's new commissions are two drinking fountains; one designed by Tania Kovats and another a collaboration between James Rigler and Laura Aldridge. 'I would love to see these drinking fountains installed at Dundee V&A, or imagine if Scottish Water got involved?' she says: 'It's an idea that London mayor Sadiq Khan has been talking about a lot recently, but this amazing civic gesture has its own Scottish roots – look at Walter Macfarlane, the Glasgow foundry owner who installed free drinking water around the city in the Victorian era.'
'There are lots of things that need to develop for designers in Scotland,' she says, 'it's great that opportunities for big commissions have already arisen from DES, but the ability to turn around high quality work without losing what made it special in the first place – the infrastructure isn't quite there yet,' she says, wary of the project moving too quickly, while also holding huge ambitions for it. 'But Scotland has so much going for it that other places don't – the smallness of Scotland means it can be nimble, it can tickle things into action.'
'We are our infancy in the way we talk about design,' continues Beaumont: 'The Scottish design scene right now reminds me of what the visual art scene was like in 2000. When I arrived in Scotland then there was the modern art gallery and the Collective, but not a whole lot else for the visual arts. I remember buying an A-Z to find the Transmission gallery in Glasgow.'
At that time – and again, to address a gap in the cultural landscape, Beaumont set up the now legendary Doggerfisher, a commercial gallery in Edinburgh's Gayfield Square. The gallery launched the careers of Scottish artists like Charles Avery, Claire Barclay and Louise Hopkins and operated for ten years before closing in 2010, leaving behind a visual art scene that had completely transformed. 'I learned a lot from Doggerfisher; how to visit studios and private spaces; how to introduce myself and how to talk to artists; to not accelerate the journey,' she says. 'When Doggerfisher closed I had a sense of loss, but now I am reinvesting it [into DES]. This is its legacy.'
Lyon and Turnbull, Edinburgh, 28 Jun–2 Jul.