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From his Oxo Tower offices, Simon Turton muses on a future where designers have their own night-spot and clients see interior design as more than a commodity. It's a future his Design Union agency is working hard to promote by robert booth. photograph by

Sitting in the eighth floor Oxo Tower bar on London's South Bank, designers' agent Simon Turton confides that he has a plan to open his own London watering hole, dedicated to promoting the work of cutting-edge designers. The 34-year-old has a dream of using the interior of a London bar or restaurant as a showcase for the work of the designers and architects he has signed up to his new agency, the Design Union. The idea of designer bars is nothing new, but Turton's plan for the bar is to divide up ownership among the designers, regularly rotate its interior design, and give designers a forum to display and discuss their work. The unstated spin-off is that the biggest commercial clients can be wined and dined to a backdrop which proclaims the value of good design. Turton is clearly a marketing man who knows the value of good client entertainment.

But, looking out over the humming bar on a grey spring day, Turton admits that the opening night will have to wait while he puts his back into the more mundane side to marketing his 'thoroughbred' consultancies - firing out mailshots, making presentations and booking meetings.

The practices, Casson Mann, Noble Associates and Fern Green Partnership, are expecting a steady stream of new work from Turton, who claims he can deliver the hungry designers the choicest commercial jobs around. He names blue-chip retail giants such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer as the kind of clients he is targeting.

After six years bringing in business as a marketing manager to interior design companies in London and Birmingham, Turton has struck out alone to form his new marketing agency. Each practice pays him a monthly fee of 'less than £1000' and two per cent of any fees earned from work he wins on their behalf. The deal has already paid off for Fern Green Partnership with one £1.5 million job in the bag and Turton estimates he has made around 50 presentations to potential clients, suggesting that more wins could be on the way.

Only one practice, Ben Kelly Design, has so far bolted from the stable, and Turton wants to recruit another three practices with less than 20 employees to complete the picture. He thinks it is these smaller practices which have the greatest need of marketing help.

'I quite enjoy seeing new companies grow and develop, but I just don't think they like marketing themselves,' Turton says. 'Most designers aren't particularly good at shouting about their own work.'

For his fee Turton will do the shouting for them, shuttling up and down to his Oxo Tower office from his Derbyshire home. He intends to iron out the feast-and-famine pattern to workflows which have designers and architects working into the small hours one week and bunking off early with little to do the next.

'There is an assumption that good design will beget good design, but when a designer is working this is the best time to market,' he thinks. 'I always point to the major brands in the world which spend more on advertising the more successful they become.' The business side of Turton's brain appears well tuned and he admits he is no designer himself, but he claims he is determined to secure his designers leading edge work.

'Sitting me down to design on a Macintosh would be like giving a monkey a scalpel,' he jokes. 'But I can see that some of the Design Union agencies' work is very beautiful, leading-edge stuff and that there's no point in introducing these people to the Mark Ones and Barrett Homes of this world.'

In an effort to educate himself on the nuances of his designers' work and their aspirations, Turton spends one day each week working from one of their studios. But he also sees that there is a need to educate clients about designers' talents if his stable is to avoid being typecast for a particular sector of work.

'It is unfortunate that design is currently being treated as a commodity with people using brochures as if they were buying a car or a table,' he says. 'If it's a graduate trainee [working for a corporate client] who needs to buy some design, they're not bothered about the ethos of the consultant as long as they've got a track record in a sector.'

Influencing the way that commercial clients procure design is a theme which Turton often returns and part of his mission with Design Union is to help his designers break out of the vicious circle which sees them approached for the same kind of jobs, again and again. Instead he wants to see his designers branching out into new fields and clients taking a chance with practices which have already proved their worth in different sectors.

But, when and if quality work does start to come in, how will Turton divide up the spoils? 'Work will be divided up by encouraging the client to work with their chosen designer from the outset. If they don't decide then I'll pick the most appropriate,' he says.

There is potential for spats, but Turton is bravely trying to foster a level of transparency and collaboration between his designers which is unprecedented in an industry where competition is tight and getting tighter as the number of practices balloons. One of his initiatives is to organise a meal for senior staff at the practices every six weeks to talk about designing and work.

'I feel I've created a new entity in getting eight designers round the table because most are not very good at being open and honest with each other,' he says.

But, despite the dinner table bonhomie it can't be long until designers at separate practices lock horns over a piece of work which is up for grabs at the Design Union.

Turton hints at things to come when he says that 'collaboration [between different Design Union members] is likely and even to be encouraged.' He doesn't say it, but the idea of a shared marketing resource could be the first step to shared design work, and so towards full mergers in an industry which is clearly ripe for fewer but larger operations.

Meanwhile, Turton has his feet on the ground and his contact book of blue chip clients is becoming dog-eared as he tries to pull in business and prove Design Union's worth. Dreams of a new designer night-spot might have to wait, but Turton feels sure he's heading in the right direction.

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