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Hilary Cottam
Design Strategist (1965-)
Designer of the Year 2005

From radically rethinking the design of the UK's schools, the prison system and health service, to her work as director of the Design Council’s experimental RED team, HILARY COTTAM (1965-) is championing a more inspiring and efficient approach to design in the public sector.

Design affects every area of our lives – whether or not we are aware of it. One area where the quality of design affects us most is in the public sector: in the design of our schools, hospitals, housing and the prison and transport systems. Hilary Cottam champions a more inspiring and efficient approach to public sector design by demonstrating how design can be used as a tool to “tackle some of the more intractable social problems of our day”.

Born in London in 1965, Cottam studied at Oxford, Sussex and the Open University and worked for the World Bank in Africa and Latin America. As founder of School Works, she collaborated with teachers, students, designers and other professionals to identify what we need from the design of our schools today – in terms of the curriculum and management systems, as well as the buildings. The government invested £10 million to test these ideas in a pilot project, Kingsdale School in Dulwich, south east London - which was redesigned by the architects dRMM - and has since adopted School Works’ proposals in many areas of education policy.

Cottam then analysed how design could address the problems of the prison system, critically by curbing re-offending. As founder of the Do Tank, she assembled a team to reinvent the design of the prison and the way it operates for the 21st century. Now the director of the Design Council’s experimental RED unit, Hilary Cottam is working to redefine the role of design in other areas of life, starting with health, transport and citizenship.

Design Museum

Q. How do you describe what you do?

A. I use design to tackle some of the more intractable social issues of our day. I see myself as a facilitator, problem solver and inventor. All the projects are developed by a team which includes designers, other professionals from a range of disciplines, front-line workers and members of the public who, with me, are challenged through the design process to abandon their initial preconceptions and co-create something new and beautiful that works.

Q. When did you first become interested in design?

A. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in design. I grew up in Spain where colour, form and attention to detail seem an organic part of life: beribboned pastries, the intricate embroidery and cut of Moorish war tents.

Q. And when did you first become interested in design and the public sector?

A. For several years I lived and worked in a barrio in the Dominican Republic - a network of open sewers inhabited by 40,000 people in the heart of the capital city. I became increasingly struck by the way design in the form of the built environment, domestic surroundings and personal possessions affected people’s emotions and through this, their social and economic opportunities.

This experience changed my thinking on urban regeneration and issues of social policy more generally and since then I have been developing a design- driven approach. It seems clear to me that public policy cannot succeed if these issues and most importantly people’s opinions of them are overlooked.

Q. What do you consider to be the principal shortcomings in the conventional public sector approach to design?

A. Despite rhetoric to the contrary the public sector continues to be driven by short term calculations of cost. The failure to compute the emotional, social and therefore economic benefits that accrue from good design has led to procurement processes which exclude the real experiences and needs of the people who will use the buildings, objects and experiences that are designed.

For example, we are happy to continue building cheap, sub-standard housing to warehouse a population in need, while failing to connect the huge personal and social costs that result. Those responsible for commissioning design in the public sector largely fail to appreciate its potential. Briefs are issued which ask the wrong questions and thereby fail to capitalise on the wealth of design talent within the UK.

Q. How can those problems be addressed? What differentiates your approach to public sector design to conventional approaches?

A. Three things seem key. Firstly within my approach all briefs are developed in partnership with those who will work with and use whatever is to be the final product. This is not simply a consultation exercise or populism, but a rigorous design process whereby a range of professionals work with users to develop a solution. Secondly all projects develop practical, workable solutions for the users while also developing policy guidelines – a set of principles which could help to change the framework within which future designs will be commissioned. Thirdly we have an underlying principle of smart spending. All my projects are developed within the same budgets as traditional approaches. We don’t need to spend more, we just need to spend differently. Sometimes this results in solutions which turn out to be cheaper than those developed through more traditional approaches.

Q. How did you come to found School Works?

A. In 1997 the government announced that millions of pounds were to be spent on refurbishing the UK’s post-war secondary schools. Our world has changed dramatically since the 1950s and so has education - intuition suggested that it would be a wasted investment to simply refurbish these schools.

With the Architecture Foundation and Demos I initiated a project to explore contemporary ways of tackling this problem, which led to the creation of School Works. Working with my colleague Sarah Vaughan Roberts, we ran a series of workshops with pupils and staff in a range of London schools. This gave us a plethora of ideas as to how things should be done differently to support 21st century learning. The Architecture Foundation published our ideas and sent them in a pamphlet to every secondary school in England. The resulting publicity helped us persuade the Schools Minister of the time to commit £10 million to put our ideas into practice. This led to the revitalisation of Kingsdale School in south London.

Q. What is the role of design in the revitalisation of a school like Kingsdale?

A. At Kingsdale, it was not only the building that was re-designed, but the curriculum and management structure too. It is critical that all three work together because an award-winning building alone will not change the fortunes of a school. Our work there was conducted in an extensive process that involved pupils, staff, parents, the architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan, educational experts and psychologists. This design process was the first step in the revitalisation of the school, by boosting morale and supporting the leadership in persuading both pupils and staff that Kingsdale could have a different future. In 2004 Kingsdale went from being a condemned school in the “special measures” category to being one of the UK’s 20 most improved schools.

Q. How did the prison project come about?

A. The UK currently has the biggest prison building programme in its history. Following on from the success of School Works I was invited by a Treasury official to look at some of the newly built prisons. Coming new to this field I was shocked by what I found. The design of the “new” prisons differs little from those of the 19th century. The same long wings made famous in the 1970s television series Porridge house young men or women with little to do all day except learn to become better criminals. Six out of ten prisoners have such severe literacy difficulties that they are ineligible for any available work. Almost eight out of ten go on to re-offend within two years of release.

Given that it costs £27,000 per year to keep a person in prison – ten times that spent on a secondary school pupil – it seemed to me there had to be a better way of doing things. I spent the next two years visiting prisons in the UK and abroad in a personal capacity, and running small workshops with prisoners and prison officers. Through their eyes I saw new opportunities and put together a team of architects, criminologists and prison governors to develop an alternative prison for the 21st century.

Q. What is the 21st century prison like?

A. We set ourselves the challenge of designing a prison that would contain prisoners at Category A, the highest level of security, cost no more to operate than current prisons, while freeing up resources to support a learning programme which is proven to reduce re-offending. Currently 80% of a prison’s resources are spent on security and 20% on programmes for the prisoners. With a design-led approach we have been able to reverse that ratio.

Within the prison the design of all spaces, individual and communal, the use of technology and the planning of the day are designed to facilitate a learning programme for prisoners. By designing the building in the form of a house structure, we minimise the costly movement of prisoners while providing clear sight lines for surveillance, thereby freeing up staff time to support prisoners in their learning activities. The use of modern materials and technology reduces both the initial land costs and ongoing building maintenance.

This concept has been welcomed by government officials and the private sector companies which are increasingly building and operating prisons. Towards the end of 2004 the House of Commons opened a select committee enquiry to look into the issues of learning raised by the project.

Q. And how can design improve the efficiency of the health service?

A. Design has so much to offer the health service: from simple interventions to make sure that staff wash their hands, to the more complex issues of the physical design of hospitals. Our current project, however, is focused on reducing the pressure on the system by designing services to prevent people from needing traditional health care altogether.

The biggest challenge we now face as a nation is the prevalence of chronic disease. Diabetes alone absorbs 5% of the NHS budget. Yet however much we reform the health services on offer, they cannot address the long term management of these issues or promote the necessary lifestyle changes. At the Design Council, the RED unit is designing a new co-creation approach in which potential patients are working with health professionals in new partnerships to design innovative preventative services. Communities of this kind are well developed in open source software and other fields.

Q. What is the role of the RED unit at the Design Council?

A. We are an experimental unit challenging accepted thinking on economic and social issues through design innovation. We run rapid turnaround projects as opportunities to develop practical design solutions for a range of social issues while continuing to prototype design processes. Some of these projects are designed to provoke debate. Others provide the foundation for longer term Design Council campaigns. Through debate and the publication of RED papers we are also developing new thinking on big issues which make links to our practice. Our small inter-disciplinary team has been up and running for just over six months in which we have tackled issues of citizenship and health. Our approach is human-centred, open and collaborative and we invite comments through our blog: www.designcouncil.org.uk/RED.

Q. Are there any other examples of interventions in design and the public sector that you admire – in the UK and elsewhere?

A. Lots – I am learning all the time from others doing important work in this sector. Whilst it is possible to cite examples in the UK, the projects I admire most are all small scale, from playgrounds in Hackney to street furniture in Glasgow, largely the result of the work of individuals – both inside and outside the public sector – who are battling against the system. It is hard to think of an example of systemic intervention. Internationally the much-quoted, but still inspirational example must be that of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, where design is at the heart of a human-centred approach to urban policy. The result is the development of new housing, sustainable transport and waste collection systems to name but three, which have been copied the world over.

Q. What are your priorities for future projects?

A. There is much to be done. With prisons the argument is still to be won and, in education, while the principles of School Works are now widely accepted, there remain the challenges of large scale implementation in the context of often unrealistic government timelines. For the future, two subjects are particularly dear to my heart: housing, where the design process might help to unlock entrenched debates and the design of the product is so important; and transport where again I believe that our approach has much to offer questions of mobility in terms of both process and product.

Design Museum


1965 Born in London.

1984 Studies modern history at Oxford University.

1987 Joins the humanitarian arm of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, working in Northern Ethiopia.

1989 Appointed field representative for CARE International in the Dominican Republic.

1991 Returns to the UK to complete a master’s degree at Sussex University.

1993 Joins the World Bank in Washington DC as an urban policy specialist with responsibility for Southern Africa.

1996 Returns to the UK to complete a Doctorate in Social Sciences at the Open University.

1998 Founds School Works with the Architecture Foundation and Demos, and is appointed a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

1999 Starts the Do Tank Ltd. and begins a research project into the future design of the UK prison system.

2000 School Works is awarded £10 million by the Department for Education to implement its ideas in the modernisation of the Kingsdale secondary school in Dulwich, south east London with the architects dRMM. The Department of Education forms a policy group to assess how to implement School Works’ proposals for the future design of schools.

2001 Joins the Design Council as Director of Learning and Public Services

2002 Publishes The Do Tank’s research into the design of the prison system as Learning Works: The 21st Century Prison. The proposals are endorsed by the prisons minister and the director of the Prison Service.

2004 Kingsdale School is completed and recognised as one of the UK’s 20 most improved schools. School Works starts to work with ten more schools. Cottam establishes the experimental RED Unit at the Design Council and becomes its director. RED launches a design strategy for citizenship. The House of Commons launches a select committee enquiry into prison learning.

2005 RED unveils a new design strategy for Health. Hilary Cottam is shortlisted for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year prize.

Design Museum

Learn more about Hilary Cottam's work at:

For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain


Hilary Cottam
Edmund Clark


Kingsdale School, London
Architecture by dRMM
Photography by A. de Rijke


Model Prison
Architecture by Buschow Henley
Buschow Henley Ltd.


Model Prison
Architecture by Buschow Henley
Buschow Henley Ltd.


Model Prison
Architecture by Buschow Henley
Buschow Henley Ltd.


Hilary Cottam (on the right) participating in a Learning Works workshop at HMP Wandsworth in London


An inmate welding at HMP Dartmoor in Devon


A hairdressing class at HMP Downview in Surrey

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