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Just what is British design ... exactly?

British design is not only alive and well in 1999, it is "cool." Or so a small exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art suggests.

"Cool Britannia: Recent British Design" displays 19 items selected by notable English design retailer Sir Terence Conran. Mr. Conran first came to prominence in the 1960s with his Habitat stores offering fresh design to young buyers. Today he runs the Conran Design Group, Europe's largest design consultancy.

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The Philadelphia exhibition presents a cross-section of objects that show British design as a blend of invention, pragmatism, and visual imaginativeness. The show includes a conservation-conscious wind-up radio; a technologically original and remarkably successful "Dual Cyclone" vacuum cleaner; "Flat Pack" hats; an all-terrain stroller (designed in conjunction with Land Rover); a bath; an inflatable screen; a bicycle.

Design is taken seriously in Britain today: Some 62,000 college students enroll in art and design courses each year in Britain. Yet almost all the objects in this exhibition had to be shipped to the United States. Hardly any are available on the American market (though you can buy the "Freeplay" radio at Radio Shack.)

"In [the US] the term 'cool Britannia' is not exactly an oxymoron," says Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, the museum's curator of European Decorative Arts after 1700. "But we don't really know much in terms of British design, we don't see much."

It seems that design may be one of the last bastions of national identity in a shrinking world market. There is a sense of distinctiveness about Scandinavian, German, Japanese, or Italian design, for instance.

Yet to define precisely what is "British" about British design has defeated many a commentator over the past century. A design history that includes William Morris wallpaper, Mary Quant miniskirts, the "Polyprop" stacking chair, anglepoise lamps, Burberry raincoats, punk anarchy, Rolls Royces, and the Austin Mini (think of Mr. Bean's tiny car) is hard to generalize about.

At the start of her 1988 book on image and identity in British design, Dutch design curator Frederique Huygen presents a typical view: If German industrial design is "rational," Italian "sensual," French "inventive," and Scandinavian "natural," then British Industrial design should be called "workmanlike" and "solid." By the end of her book, though, she writes: "The identity of British design is no easy thing to pin down.... Fashionable tendencies intermingle with tradition, visual styles from elsewhere are quickly absorbed, and most design areas testify to a great diversity."

Ms. Hiesinger expresses a degree of surprise at "how strong the show is, how powerful the ideas are both functionally and visually." She finds these British objects "quite surprisingly beautiful and interesting to look at."

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Yet she notes the underlying British practicality, describing the designs as "seriously thought out as to how they're going to work." She compares this with certain visionary French or Italian stars of the design world whose work "may be short on functionality."

"Though," she adds, "I wouldn't say so to their faces!"

Thimo te Duits, design curator at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, similarly contrasts the "realistic" quality of British design with current tendencies in his own country.

Dr. Te Duits recently staged a small exhibition of works by recent graduates of the Royal College of Art (RCA), Britain's premier art and design college. He compares it to Dutch "Droog" ("dry") design (used in the cafeteria in New York's Museum of Modern Art), which has "a great portion of gimmick." It is design that "makes people smile." It has more to do with "philosophy" than practicality.

He says Dutch designers are supported by public grants, while British designers are forced to be more practical and "serious." British design "shows a lot of experiments in ideas ... but you can really see the young designers are working on shapes, on techniques of production...."

When I mentioned to Te Duits that some prominent designers in Britain today complain loudly (as they have for decades) that British industry still hardly supports new design at all, he laughed. "But if you would compare that to Holland, I think, it is like heaven in Britain."

Yet it is to Milan, Italy, that British designers still look as "the world capital of design."

British furniture designer Ron Arad, now teaching at the RCA, wrote in the foreword to his book "New British Design" (1998): "[Milan] is still the capital, not for its designers but for its manufacturing culture and for its industry, which is committed to design."

A number of British designers have found success by designing for Italian firms. Are they then making British or Italian design?

Mr. Arad himself straddles the world of the designer-maker, the stance of the vast majority of British designers, and the world of real industry.

Yet the complexity of British design is epitomized by the paradoxical character of this Israeli-born "British" designer. His "Rolling Volume armchair" of 1990, made of sheet metal, hardly partook of British practicality. Critic Edward Lucie-Smith wrote that although it "mimics the shape of a 1990s club chair,... it is almost impossible to sit on."

Which may be why the very English Sir Terence didn't include it in his Philadelphia show.

*'Cool Britannia: Recent British Designs Selected by Sir Terence Conran' is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through March 7.

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