Sir John Sorrell on creativity for all

Throughout his career, Sir John Sorrell has championed access to design and the creative industries for the many. As he prepares for the next London Design Biennale, we talk to him about education, Brexit and the pioneering work of the Saturday Club

Having worked in design for over 50 years now, Sir John Sorrell is still able to pinpoint the beginning of his career down to the very day that his school art teacher first asked if he wanted to go to art classes at Hornsey College of Art on Saturdays. As a 14-year-old growing up on a council estate in north London in the late 50s, the rest of his friends were only a year away from leaving school for good and getting a full-time job. Having been picked out by his teacher for his natural ability at art, Sorrell’s spare time on the weekends became consumed by the alien world of the creative industries instead.

Saturday art classes had started a decade earlier as part of an initiative thought up by Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition and continued by the post-war government, with the aim of helping to maintain Britain’s position on the world stage during peacetime. “Towards the end of the war [the government] wasn’t so much worried about the war [itself], but about Britain’s ability to trade in the world after, because they thought the design of our products wasn’t good enough,” says Sorrell.

“The idea was to get 14-year-old kids to have a taste on a Saturday and if they liked it, maybe they’d repopulate the UK’s design industry with people who would design stuff that the world would want to buy,” he continues. “The initiative ran until the early 70s and to a large degree, the creative industries as we know it really came out of that.” As well as the designer himself, other alumni of the initiative include his now wife Lady Sorrell (born Newell) and BBH founder Sir John Hegarty. Two years after joining the club, Sorrell enrolled on a full-time course at Hornsey, leaving aged 19 and setting up his first business, Goodwin Sorrell, with fellow graduate Chuck Goodwin not long after that, in 1964.