Barnsley has seen the light in its support for innovative design. Michael Prestage reports
A former electricity board premises in industrial south Yorkshire may seem an unlikely home for some of the United Kingdom's most talented young designers. But the transformation from showroom to showcase is part of a bold initiative that aims to make Barnsley a leading centre for innovative design and technology.
The 2,500 sq ft showroom now comes under the auspices of Barnsley Design 2001, a specialist company set up by the local council, business leaders and FE colleges to attract and retain talent in the creative industries.
The project aims to marry designers' skills with the manufacturing and marketing potential of local companies. The gallery acts as a shop window for local talent and designers of national and international standing.
Roy Fellows, director and driving force behind the project, says: "We want to find the best and most innovative people. They will talk to local industry and get their ideas into production, creating a climate of creativity that will see local talent flourish."
If his dream succeeds, Barnsley will become a centre for creative design. He hopes to see a range of locally designed and manufactured products on the market, all bearing the "Barnsley Product" label.
Another important role for Barnsley Design 2001 will be to deliver an education programme on design and technology issues, part of which will involve production of education packs linked to the national curriculum.
The project also offers a support structure for young designers wishing to set up in the area, including business mentoring and advice on grants. And students have the chance to work in an industrial setting where they can develop new products and prototypes.
One of the first to benefit is Nic Wood, whose award-winning design for a multi-purpose lamp is already well on the way to production. It will be the first high-street product to bear the "Barnsley Product" label.
Nic Wood says: "Initiatives such as this are vital. Without them there is no way I would be talking to companies now."
The Sheffield Hallam University graduate was in the gallery's first exhibition, which ended last month. He says he never would have raised the estimated pound;20,000 needed to get his lamp into production alone.
As it is, local companies have been contracted to produce the lamp, which will retail at pound;350. Mr Wood says: "Everybody I have shown it to is confident and shops already want to sell it. The companies obviously believe the investment is worthwhile."
His success, and that of the two other exhibitors who have so far attracted commercial interest, is vindication enough for Roy Fellows, who fought a long battle to get Barnsley Design 2001 established.
The centre was first mooted in 1993, but opened only in September last year, in the face of local opposition. Originally the council wanted to use the pound;30,000 from the Single Regeneration Budget to set up an indoor craft fair.
Mr Fellows says: "I knew there were far more innovative ways of spending the money. Our young designers have to leave the area to go on to university. I want to encourage them to bring their new skills and knowledge back."
And it is not just the designers who will benefit. Spotting a gap in the market, Barnsley College has taken over the centre's top floor, where 70 students are learning tailoring skills up to HND level. The college hopes some of them will eventually set up in business and supply textiles for the designers' work.