Sir John Sorrell CBE on design and London

19.01.21. Internet


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.

(Pictured above, is a render of Forest for Change which will be at the London Design Biennale 2021. Render by Es Devlin Studio, courtesy of Somerset House and 
  • Kevin Meredith.)


Find out more about Sir John Sorrell and The Sorrell Foundation

The Smile was an installation for the London Design Festival 2016 by Alison Brooks Architects and AHEC. (Image courtesy of the London Design Festival)

Please Feed the Lions by Es Devlin Studio was one of the highlights of 2018’s London Design Festival. (Image courtesy of the London Design Festival)


Double Space at the V&A’s Raphael Gallery was designed by Barber Osgerby for BMW during the London Design Festival in 2014. (Image courtesy of the London Design Festival)


Young people learning about art and design as part of the National Saturday Club. (Image courtesy of the National Saturday Club)