Peta Levi, 1938-2008; founder of Design-Nation
Hello! As a design journalist, I have written about Design-Nation from its inception in 1999, and gave many of its early members their first blast of publicity. Last year, I was honoured to become a Brand Ambassador, having sat on the selection panel for several years. And now I have been invited to write a monthly blog which is the icing on the cake.
I wanted for openers to pay tribute to the founder of Design-Nation, Peta Levi – I met her several times, when writing about the early days. But our association went way beyond that, as Peta was the original founder of New Designers in 1985, and would regularly ring me up with news of her protégés. Leaving ND in 1991 in the capable hands of the Business Design Centre, Peta set up The Design Trust and New Designers in Business, which later grew into Design-Nation. Several of our most established members go back to those early times.
Peta so very sadly died of cancer aged 69 on 24 April 2008. Speak to any Design-Nation member who joined before then and the tributes come flooding in. Even now there is the sense that grief is still sharp and sharing memories is cathartic.
Everyone in Design-Nation owes a debt to Peta, whether or not we knew her personally.
“It was actually Peta that coined the title of designer maker – for us that sat somewhere in between manufacture, craft and design,” says Andrew Tanner, celebrated ceramicist (and currently design manager of Sainsbury’s Home) who, as the first of our Design Nation Brand Ambassadors, has done so much to foster Design-Nation over the years.
Movingly, he speaks of Peta’s “wings around me” when first setting up in business 23 years ago. “She helped me with contracts supported by Briffa Legal, with accounts through Sydney Levinson, and with meeting clients through her Eureka project. Her entrepreneurial beliefs bridged design, craft and retail.” He adds: “She showed me a world I never knew existed.”
“Peta had such energy, drive and passion,” remembers specialist writer Corinne Julius (instigator/curator of the innovative Future Heritage platform for contemporary craft at Decorex, who, as friend and former colleague, gave the address at Peta’s memorial service. Peta, says Corinne, had a rule of five: “Never leave a gathering without introducing yourself to five new people and leaving a card.”
“Actually, I thought it was ten!” interjects Andrew, considerably upping the ante. “Well, Peta had the skill to make things happen in a big way,” says Corinne.
And passion was Peta through and through. It’s the word used by Patricia van den Akker, the dynamic director of the Design Trust, our sister organisation, which tutors creatives in business skills. She worked with Peta for nearly three years at the the end of the 90s. “Peta actually once said that designers had nil business acumen,” Patricia laughs. “But she took them in hand, connecting designers with industry, manufacture, and the media, bringing education and government together. She really made a difference and launched so many careers.”
Like that of Amy Cushing, acclaimed glass artist known for the ambitious abstract installations she fashions in a custom-built studio at the bottom of her London garden. “I am an original New Designers in Business member, joining in 1996, and I remember Peta fondly,” she told me. An early venture was a group show at Decorex (then as now!). It was a form of invaluable financial support – “there wasn’t a huge outlay.” And it nurtured a heartening sense of community. There were also visits to Peta’s home, as Amy recollects, “and she kept us in touch with each other.” Yes, Peta was a “great host”, says Patricia.
Peta, say all “her” designers, put huge energy and time into exposing and supporting young creatives. This was her cause, and it was absolute. “Her commitment was relentless,” Amy reveals, “and she never missed an opportunity to connect people”- a queen of networking before the term became a hashtag.
Design-Nation members Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell of Wallace Sewell are internationally-acclaimed weavers now with a global brand supplying 400 stockists in 25 countries. On graduating from the RCA in 1990, they were members in the ’90s of Peta’s elect cohort of design graduates.
“Many talented and fledgling businesses were involved,” Harriet recounts, “such as Stemmer and Sharp, Timorous Beasties, Petter Southall, Nina Moeller and us, to name but a few. Peta took us under her wing and fought tirelessly and forcefully for free exhibition space and sponsorship at such exhibitions as Decorex and IDI International, where we all travelled to Amsterdam.”
In Peta – who was hard-working, elegant and charming – professional skills and personal gifts merged into a powerful charisma. “She was confident, calm and never flinching, always with an informed and intelligent answer,” Harriet continues. “She could talk to anyone, be it a student, captain of industry or politician – a true diplomat, gentle but determined. She wanted the best for us, to get us help with production, prototyping, advice or collaborations. She passionately wanted us to succeed.”
Margo Selby is a younger weaver who started her business in 2003, joining Design-Nation “as a doorway into the design world – an opportunity to meet with and learn from other designers and get involved with industry projects and exhibitions.” She took part in Eureka, initiated by Peta to team designers up with manufacturers and retailers. The Bloomsbury bedlinen and rug which she created for Habitat in 2007 is still one of their best-sellers. She remembers that “Peta was calm, collected and focused on altruistically supporting and promoting young designers and innovation in design.”
Just before Peta died, Corinne and designer Ella Doran put together a beautifully-bound book with contributions from all over the design industry – I myself submitted a photograph. “People were queuing up to be in it,” says Corinne. “Yes, we just wanted to show the love,” says Ella.
“We will always be grateful for such selfless support, enthusiasm and generosity, “ adds Harriet. “Thank you Peta.”
Some words about me:
“I’ve been writing about design, furnishing and decoration over 45 years, spending half that time as freelance design writer/editor of award-winning Homes & Property, the Wednesday supplement at the London Evening Standard (www.homesandproperty.co.uk), for which I write most weeks. I started as furnishing editor of Ideal Home magazine, and have also contributed to The Sunday Times, House & Garden, Homes & Gardens, and many more.
Judging awards is an occupational hazard – notably for the furniture Design Guild Mark, and Homes & Gardens Designer Awards, for whom I chaired the judges for many years. I’ve got a few gongs along the way – I particularly cherish my Life Time Achievement Award 2016, from Homes & Gardens magazine, and Services to the Design Industry Award 2008, from the Designer Magazine.
I’ve written a clutch of books. My favourite is Flat Broke (1976) – a Guide to Almost Free Furnishing – for people in flats who were broke! As a photographer, I’ve held many solo exhibitions, including Joy of Design (over 60 portraits) at designjunction in 2013, and 20/20 Vision (20 designers) at 100% Design in 2014. My show Love London was in Habitat on Regent Street in 2008. Over 180 of my photographs of London are in my book Love London, and many are printed onto tea towels and cushions.
I love designers and the events at which I meet them. They tend to be original, energised, and passionate. They are perfect subjects for photography – and their innovative and creative work is the life blood of my articles.”
www.barbarachandler.co.uk; Instagram: @sunnygran; Twitter: @sunnyholt
Portraits are Barbara Chandler, Andrew Tanner, Amy Cushing, Emma Sewell and Harriet Wallace-Jones, Margo Selby. All photos by Barbara Chandler, except Wallace Sewell (courtesy the designers themselves).