As regular listeners will know, every once in a while I break free of Material Matters’ self-imposed format and meet someone with an overview of the design world. And in this episode, I’m delighted to chat with Sir John Sorrell CBE.
It’s a question really of where to start with John’s career (but here goes). He was chair of the Design Council from 1994-2000; chair of CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) from 2004-2009; vice-president of the Chartered Society of Designers from 1989-1992; and chairman of the Design Business Association from 1990-1992. In 2014, he founded the Creative Industries Federation, stepping down as chair in 2017.
Not content with any of that, he co-founded the London Design Festival in 2003, as well as the London Design Biennale in 2016 – both with Ben Evans. Perhaps most importantly, in 1999 he co-founded The Sorrell Foundation with his wife Frances, that aims to inspire creativity in young people and improve lives with good design. Subsequently, they co-founded The Saturday Club Trust, which offers young people the opportunity to study subjects such as art and design at a university for free on a Saturday.
And I haven’t even mentioned Newell & Sorrell, the pioneering design business he set up with Frances in 1976.
This, I guess, is a long way of saying that he has been one of the most influential figures in British design for well over four decades.
In this episode we talk about: adapting to the pandemic; bringing 400 trees to Somerset House for this year’s London Design Biennale; creating the London Design Festival and why it took a while to find its feet; being born during an air raid in 1945 and growing up on a north London council estate; how going to a Saturday art club changed his life; starting his career in the sixties; his extraordinary marriage to Frances; Margaret Thatcher’s handkerchief and a wildly controversial project for British Airways; the importance of the Sorrell Foundation; and creating a new generation of leaders for the design world.