Growing up…

I walk into the local hardware store: Rob is standing behind the counter; one of his colleagues is carrying around several cups of tea and handing them out to the various assistants. I greet Rob and make some lame joke about having been missed out from the coffee run…
“What can I do for you?”
“Can you order me a tub of Cascamite, please”;
“What size?”
“Half a kilo…”
He makes a note in his order book:
“It’ll be in on Tuesday”.
“Great! Thank you” and I walk out.
By any means not an unusual interaction: the sort of thing that happens millions of times a day all over the country. Not unusual for me either: I go into that store several times a month for similar errands.  A couple of other details to flesh out the picture. The store in question is not a small corner shop nor a large chain store. It’s an independent store that serves the local construction trade with hardware supply and tool rental, including heavy plant machinery. It has a good reputation for service, technical expertise and range of products.
But that day it seemed extremely significant for me. Because as I walked out I had a memory of another errand, some 40 years ago.
A boy of 10 or 11 walks into the local hardware store.  It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from his house but it’s a big deal: this is the first time he’s done it on his own.
The shop is very busy. Men with greasy hands, or covered in plaster dust, walk in and out, talking some arcane language,  made of technical jargon and grown men humour… (I love the scene in “Grand Torino” where Clint Eastwood teaches a shy young man how men talk). He waits. And he waits. And he waits. After what feels like several hours (and might have been, who knows?) the store clerk finally addresses the boy: he’d thought the boy was there with one of the tradesmen and had ignored him up to that point. The boy finally gets to buy a pack of blades for his fretsaw and goes home.
That’s what struck me as I walked out of the TCL store: I’ve become one of those grown ups. I knew the store clerk by name, I could make conversation with him. He didn’t need to ask me my name or account number to process the order – if I’d asked him to deliver it, he would have known my business address.
I’m over 50. I have been working as a professional furniture maker for over 15 years: first as a maker, then as course manager training apprentices and finally I’ve been running my own business for some 6 years.
But so much of the time I still feel like that little boy in the hardware store. Shyly looking around myself, surrounded by “real” men that know what they are talking about. I am very aware of how much more than me some of my colleagues know about timber and furniture making. How some talk much more confidently about business matters. How others have much better design and drawing skills. And at those moments I can easily end up feeling small, ignorant, uncertain…
Lately I completed a major commission for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A set of benches in oak: bespoke seating for a garden in Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare’s house used to be, known as Shakespeare’s New Place. To deliver it I ended up hiring an articulated lorry some 15m long and putting together a team of 20 people to help me load and unload. I’d never had dealings with a truck hire company: I reached out to my contacts for advice and one of them replied very confidently that I “needed a 2 ton flat back”. That’s how real men talk.  I could tell that a “2ton flat back” is a lorry but I wouldn’t be able to pick one out of a lorry line-up. And for a few days I was that little boy again. Too scared to phone a truck hire company for fear of sounding stupid and ignorant of things that a “real” man of my age “should” know…  And finally I did it and the rep was really helpful and we discussed my requirements and hire charges and insurance matters, all grown-up like and matter-of-fact.

img_1229

Students from Warwickshire College Furniture Crafts courses helped me to move the benches for Shakespeare’s New Place

img_1240

The benches on the lorry

Those of you that follow my blog will be aware that much of my journey in the last few years has been about identity. Who am I? why and how do I do what I do? That’s the significance of the epiphany in the hardware store car park.
That I am a man: grown-up, capable, competent, confident. And I am a man: unsure, shy if not downright scared, needing help and support from other men. It’s taken me years to start to understand that. It’ll probably take me more to fully accept it. But I have been very very lucky. From my teenage years onwards I have had friendships  – with men my age and older, and nowadays, younger – where I have been able to have these sorts of conversations. I’ve been in men’s groups for over 20 years and I have been privileged to see the vulnerability, the pain, the fear that these men don’t (and, more often than not, can’t) show in their day-to-day professional, grown-up personas. And yet, I still feel bad when I fail to live up to the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood macho model of manhood I was brought up with…
I guess I’m not quite done growing up, yet.

20160610_140816

One of the New Place benches on site, with Simon and Philipp, who helped me make them.

I’ve seen the light!

I love it when serendipitous encounters suddenly shine a light on some undiscovered aspect of myself.

On my way back from a delivery a few days back, on the spur of the moment, I popped in to see Sarah Silver of Bastian Contrarian, an experienced copywriter and skilled translator, and a friend. We had a good chat over coffee and then she invited me to see the studio of Nick Logan, an artist and wonderful oil painter.

12049183_880174618728567_2648923156788814088_n

Nick Logan’s Portrait of an Old Man (work in progress) after Rembrandt

While looking around Nick’s studio, my attention was caught by an oil painting of a bearded man – a work in progress. I discovered later this is an homage to Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Man”.

I love art in many forms, I go to exhibitions, have my favourite paintings etc. but I don’t know anything about the actual technique of painting. Three years of art classes at middle school made sure of that. All I remember of those years is trying to paint a landscape with a tree a sheep and a road (or perhaps it was a stream)… failing miserably and not getting any real tuition on what I was doing wrong or how I could have improved… so I never really tried again. I can just about use watercolours to give a bit of texture to my sketches before I present them to the clients but I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Looking at the painting that Nick had been working on though, I saw something I had never seen before (probably because for the first time in my life I was looking at it as work in progress rather than as a finished piece).

When I visualize my furniture, when I sketch it, draw it and even when I am just doodling I see objects in solid blocks. I basically draw in the same way as I make: one square block here, one block with a corner cut off there, etc. Everything is defined: there are rigid lines to determine where a piece begins and the next starts. If I use texture lines at all is simply to indicate the grain direction and pattern rather than any depth.

But on Nick’s painting there were NO LINES! What I saw, for the first time in my life, was that the whole thing was defined not by solid objects, parts, components (this is the nose, this is the ear, this are the lips…) but by light. There was no line to say “here endeth the nose and here the cheek begins”… there were just changes in light! Changes in tone, in colour, in hue but just changes in light.

I was trying to explain my realisation to Nick and he knew exactly what I was talking about. In the same way as I look at objects as defined by the shapes of their components, he looks at objects as defined by the shapes of the light. He sees shapes too but he sees the shapes that the light creates.

I think that’s why I’ve never mastered the skill of rendering – because I am fixated on the “object” rather than the light. I don’t pay attention to the light because (in my mind) that’s ephemeral: it changes with the position of the object in the room, with the time of the day, with the weather; whereas for me the shape of the component (the leg, the handle etc.) it’s permanent and constant…

And so I am left wondering: what would happen to my designs if I started looking at light rather than at objects?  You’ll just have to wait and see: I intend to keep this insight in my awareness as I go about my business of looking at the world for inspiration.

Ticking away…

So much of my life has been influenced by the rhythm of the academic year that September often feels like a more appropriate time to take stock, re-evaluate and make plans than January.

This year I find myself very aware of the passing of time. The point was brought home to me very strongly while I was at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham at the end of August, the largest exhibition of designer-maker fine furniture in the country.

my Twirl2 coffee table and Hall Table at Cheltenham

My Twirl#2 Coffee Table and 7-Hall Table at Cheltenham

I first visited the show in 1998, the summer between the first and second years of my City and Guilds training. I had never seen such furniture and from there I was hooked! When I was working for Robin Furlong, we brought our work to exhibit. Later, when I was teaching furniture making, I visited to keep in touch with the industry, to see what techniques, materials and design features were coming to the forefront, to keep my teaching relevant and up-to-date. And since I started my own business I have been going as an exhibitor.

One of the things I became very aware of this year is that a number of exhibitors that I used to see regularly in the early years are not there any more. It started with noticing that Martin Grierson was not at the private view. He retired some years back but he’s still been very active encouraging networking and organising exhibitions. And his absence started me thinking… who else wasn’t there? A few names jumped out. Andrew Varah, a great inspiration to me and many others, died a couple of years back… Sean Feeney, Robert Hingham and others have scaled down their operations and don’t exhibit as much… Richard Williams and Barnsley Workshop seem to have changed their business models and exhibit elsewhere I guess…

24082015126

Tom Eddols Coffee Table at Cheltenham

And new people, recent graduates from a variety of courses are taking their places. I was particularly struck by the presence of Tom Eddols. Tom was a student of mine at Warwickshire College and after finishing his course went on to work for various fine furniture workshops. And this year he was there exhibiting under his own name… I enjoyed thinking that we had three “generations” exhibiting together: Robin was there – I trained under him and then I trained Tom… If Martin Grierson had been there as well, we would have had four “generations”…

I’ve been involved with this woodworking world, in one way or another, for 18 years: I started my formal training in September 1997. Many things have changed (new technologies, machines, materials) and many haven’t (wood is wood and a sharp chisel and a steady hand are still required to cut fine dovetails…) – but every year I go to Cheltenahm I meet new people that share a passion for the work and the materials. It never ceases to amaze me: the sheer variety of designs – from very “traditional” fine furniture to cutting edge pieces bordering on the “conceptual art” (Sarah’s concrete-canvas chair?!? Or fine oak pallet?); the time, attention, dedication that goes into producing that work; the research, planning, thinking, creativity that is required.

And witnessing this flow of people and ideas, the changes that I have seen in less than twenty years, led me to thinking about the slow majestic flow of “tradition”… Not something stuck in the past to be re-discovered or preserved but something alive where creativity and passion mix the old (the mortice and tenon goes back thousands of years) with the new (computer controlled machines, acrylic, synthetic resins) to make beautiful furniture. And it’s quite humbling to think that in some way I am part of that too…

The Designer’s Ego

Mark Newson’s Lockeed Lounge Chair recently sold for £2.4 million, making it the most expensive design object to date. While I don’t think Newson will make any money directly from such a transaction on the secondary market (unless, with clever foresight, he built any such conditions in the original sale transaction: would that be possible at all?), it will certainly affect the perceived value of any product even remotely associated with his name. Does that turn the chair into an art Marc-Newson-Lockheed-Lounge-at-Phillips-design-auction_dezeen_784_0piece? After all, you don’t spend that amount of money on a piece of furniture because it’s comfortable (though it might be, for all I know) or just the right size for that awkward space in the living room – in the same way as you don’t spend tens of millions on a van Gogh because the colours match the wall paper. The value of the piece rests not in the objects themselves and their functionality but on their significance, much of it resting on the “name”.

At the recent symposium “Ideas in the Making” in Oxford, one of the recurring themes was the importance for creative people to approach their work with humility, keeping their ego in check, whether by acknowledging a sense of ‘inspiration’ that is somehow extrinsic to themselves, or simply by accepting the need to subsume one’s personal preferences to the requirements of the design brief. The architect/designer Giuseppe Boscherini made an impassionate plea to recognise how the design process is a collaborative effort. While we are used to actors acknowledging and thanking a whole raft of people (family, producers, directors, colleagues) in their acceptance speeches and writers dedicate paragraphs to recognise the contribution of editors, researchers, advisers and (usually) long suffering family members, such expressions of gratitude seem to be much rarer in the field of design.

I found the same theme in “Artista e Designer”, by Bruno Munari. He takes the point even further making it the defining difference between the two fields. In his view art is a personal endeavour: the artist’s goal is ultimately always self-expression, whatever form they choose to work in (even risking inaccessibility, misunderstanding and rejection), whereas the work of the designer is one of collaborative efforts (with users, technicians, craftspeople, engineers etc.) in order to develop pragmatic, accessible and functional objects, where even the aesthetics are determined by materials, manufacturing and usability rather than personal preference. Paradoxically, despite his attacks on the cult of personality in design, he is probably the first designer I was ever aware of: my first school satchel in the early ’70 was designed by Bruno Munari – I remember being aware of the fact at the time, even though at 7yrs old I had no conscious interest in design and designers. (By the way, Munari’s book is well worth reading – while dated in some respects, it was published in 1971 – some of his sarcastic sideswipes at aspects of the art market he disapproves of and at artists’ attempts at product design had me laughing out loud – ).

I see much of this tension in the world of craft designer makers. On the one hand there is much talk of re-inventing and rediscovering a vernacular crafts tradition (hence the pastel colours and faux-rustic setting of the New Craftsmen gallery for instance) while on the other hand much of the ‘value’ of those same products is attached to the persona of the makers and a to practices that are closer to the art world: signed limited editions, numbered and catalogued short runs and one off pieces. Soetsu Yanagi in “The Unknown Craftsman” pointed out how much of the work of studio

The unknown craftsmanpotters seemed to be about deliberately recreating imperfections and asymmetries of earlier traditional (‘vernacular’) pieces; defects that in the original were due to the economic pressures of manufacturing: the makers were paid by the piece and the cost had to be kept low as these were, at the time, everyday objects not museum pieces; those same imperfections, in the world of studio pottery, now representing added value as well as an individual maker’s mark.

I see that same tension in my business. Some of my clients, in the best vernacular tradition, if you will, simply come to me because I am their local woodworker: what they want is a piece to fit a particular corner of the house (and there is nothing on the market of the right size, or shape, or colour), or they ask me to modify an existing piece to improve its functionality (take a shelf off for instance). They want somebody with the practical skills to do a good job of making a functional, usable piece that fits with the rest of the furniture in the room – regardless of current trends or of my own personal aesthetic preferences. I even had people walking into the workshop with a piece of wood simply to ask me to cut it up because their DIY skills or their equipment at home was not up to the task.

Others though, come to me because they have seen my work and they like my “style”. They still want a practical solution (a table, a set of shelves), but with the added value of my aesthetics, my craft skill, my problem solving contribution: my signature, as it were. They don’t just want a table but a Magnino table. From here to one of my pieces being resold for millions is quite a gap, but only a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

After all, no matter how self-effacing I would like to be (in some ways), for my business to be successful and sustainable I need to maintain a visible profile. I have to keep emphasising my Unique Selling Point, as they say. What I offer is a service, and not an essential one. Nor am I the only one, even locally. What makes my work different from other makers? Why should you choose me over somebody else? Ultimately just me: my approach, my sensibilities, my aesthetics, my listening and problem solving skills, my understanding of materials and production processes: the service I provide. So, not unlike the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping, how do I say “look at me, look at me” without ego?

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture

Twelve Days

…and it came to pass that I discovered that I carried an unspoken rule: that my posts should be well thought out arguments or at least clearly develop a specific theme and question. And I found that this kept me stuck: in the past 12 days several things have sparked thoughts and reflections; hints that might develop further… but at the moment they are no more than raw inklings. And I decided to share them anyway.

On 25th February I went to visit “William Blake: apprentice and master” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I haven’t had any dealings with Blake since my early twenties but at the time he was one of my favourite poets. And within minutes of entering the exhibition, I was under his spell again. What is it that moves me so much in his work? As the exhibition demonstrates he was a very skilled and accomplished printer and engraver but technically his poetry is relatively simple. His use of language does not have the subtlety of a T.S. Eliot (to pick another of my favourites…) but his work has power!

William Blake - Ancient of Days

William Blake – Ancient of Days

“Rinthrah roars and shakes his fires”… say it out loud a few times savouring the sound: you don’t need to know what sort of creature Rinthrah is, nor how it fits in Blake’s hellish visions to feel its fiery power.

Wondering why Blake’s work carries such strong resonance for me I was reminded of a clip from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon that I used to play at the beginning of the design lessons. Bruce Lee in the role of a Shaolin teacher asks his pupil to throw a kick and he is not satisfied until the student can do it correctly: not with anger, not for show… it’s not even a matter of technique: “We need emotional content” he powerfully admonishes the student.

I guess that’s what I hear in Blake’s work: “emotional content”. Not a facile appeal to pathos or bathos in order to spark a superficial sentimental reaction. Emotional content in the sense of being fully present and immersed in the work. Of pouring all of oneself into it, whether it’s a kung fu kick or an engraving.

 

On Saturday 28th I was at Warwick University attending TedX Warwick. It was an interesting day, with a wide ranging series of talks. But I must admit that the thing the struck me most was the photographs. Loads of people were taking photographs on their phones – all day. Some I could just about understand: of the speakers, of the dancers. But others I couldn’t: of the empty stage with the logo, of the food they were having for lunch, selfies next to a great big red X in the enatrance hall… I don’t understand it. I photograph my work because I need to keep an up to date portfolio to show prospective clients, to provide to magazines and websites and to attach to applications to exhibitions. But my lunch? Me by the beach? What is that about? Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria has several chapters that deal with photography. At one point she quotes Italo Calvino’s “The adventure of a photographer” whose protagonist refuses ‘to live the present as a future memory’. Is that what it is about? Seeing the present as a memory already? Or, given that those pictures more than likely will be shared online, is it that the experience becomes real only once it has been witnessed by our ‘friends’ and ‘followers’? How does it affect your experience of the “present” the fact that you are looking at it through a lens – effectively distancing yourself from it? That you are effectively constantly interpreting it not for what it is but for how it will be seen by others?

 

And finally on Saturday 7th March I was back in Oxford for “Love is enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol”. A very interesting combination. I don’t know much about Andy Warhol, and I can’t say that this exhibition has done much to make me want to look at his work in much more depth. It was interesting to discover that there is more depth than I thought to his art, that there is some serious phylosophycal thought behind it… but it still doesn’t grab me. As for William Morris… well, a couple of things struck me. I have always struggled with his wallpaper designs and now I know why: they are just too full, too busy… What I really enjoyed was looking at the “cartoons” (I believe that is the term) of the wallpapers . Full size pencil drawings on paper. Those were just great. What you could see in them was the very careful geometry that underlies the design. I knew it was there, otherwise you can’t have a repeating pattern, but these laid it bare. Usually there was only one iteration of the pattern with enough details of the surrounding repeats to understand how they tasselated together. And only a small portion of the pattern was coloured in… just enough to give all the information necessary to the setters so that they could carry out the work. And so what you had were bright patches of colour in the centre of an intricate geometric pattern that became more vague and diffused as it expanded: just gorgeous! Why would you want a whole wall of it? Repeating it over and over, filling every space, just kills it for me.

Morris, Burne-Jones and others - The Vision of the Holy Grail

Morris, Burne-Jones and others – The Vision of the Holy Grail

The other thing that struck me was about scale. In the first room there was a tapestry by Morris, Burne Jones and others, part of the series about the Grail quest. I would guess it was more than 2 metres high and 6 metres long. And at that size it made a much more powerful impact than the reproductions I have seen in books and catalogues…

And it made me think. I tend to think small: coffee tables, clocks, cabinets, hall tables. What would I design, if I thought big? If I had to create something to fill a whole wall? Linking back to the thoughs about the wall paper above: how would I balance filling and owning the space with my need for emptyness, for room around things?

Thinking about Blake’s powerful beings and Morris’s Grail knights and wallpapers: what creatures, gods, monsters, geometric patterns would I devise? And how would I ensure that their appearance has such power?

PS – while searching for an image, I discovered that Love is Enough will come to Birmingham Museum later in the year! I’m going again: more of the Grail tapestries will be on display. And if anybody with a better understanding of Warhol cared to join me to help me understand him better I would really appreciate it.

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture

 

Sir Christopher Frayling at Designer Crafts at the Mall 2015

On 15th January 2015, at the opening reception of Designer Crafts at the Mall, sir Christopher Frayling gave a stirring address pointing out the value of crafts and design in the modern world.

Here’s the full text:

Welcome to Designer Crafts at the Mall 2015—a special year, because this is the 25th Anniversary of the  Society’s  winter  exhibition  happening  here  at  the  Mall  Galleries.  Your  Silver  Jubilee.  Over  200   members, fellows and licentiates of the mall2015 are represented in the exhibition this year—including five former chair-people at one end of the spectrum, and 33 design graduates of summer 2014, new licentiates, at the other. I can think of few other survey exhibitions where the age-range goes all the way from 80-plus to 23-plus—a very healthy sign, and an important pledge  to  the  future.  Maybe  the  RA  Summer  Show…  but  that’s  about  it.  One  particularly  distinguished   exhibitor is Heidi Lichterman—who organised the very first winter exhibition here 25 years ago (when it included just 22 exhibitors), and who continued to curate the show for the next 20 years, 21 in all: her work is on display in the main gallery. Our guests tonight include John Deston, Gallery Manager, who  has  attended  all  25  of  the  Society’s  exhibitions  here.  A  new  feature  for  2015,  to  celebrate  the  25th, is that all members, fellows and licentiates have been challenged by the organisers to submit a small piece of new work—25 x 25 x 25 centimetres—to open the numbers out a bit: and the response to this call has been beyond all expectations. The results are also in the exhibition, in a special section.

 To  set  the  scene  for  tonight’s  reception,  Id  like  to  offer  a  few  snapshots  of  the  context  in  which  it  is  happening—to demonstrate just how significant this exhibition has become, and especially now.

 SNAPSHOT ONE

Did you watch the episode of The Apprentice on television a few seasons ago—the one in which the contestants  were  set  ‘a  design  challenge’?  The  challenge  was  to  design  a  product  that  would  appeal   to dog-owners, which the teams could then try to sell to three retailers. Well, the moment the word design’  was  mentioned  by  Alan  Sugar,  the  contestants:

  • glazed over
  • removed their smart silk ties
  • whipped out a flipchart
  • started doodling with coloured felt pens
  • and came over  all  ‘creative’,  as  if  this  was  a  holiday  from  more  grown-up concerns.

 

Needless to say, the retailers were deeply unimpressed—as was Sir Alan. There was no clarity of thought, no analysis of the brief, no discussion of need or of how the product might be sourced and made, no market research, no research of any kind, no sense of what the product might signify—or of whether  it  was  practicable.  Just  lots  of  diffuse  ‘creativity’—or rather, of what the contestants thought was creativity.

Which just goes to show how, despite 180 years of publicly-funded art and design schools  in  this  country,  70  years  of  the  Design  Council,  and  endless  public  education  about  ‘design’— its importance and its processes and its methods—there are still a lot of basic misunderstandings out there. All those superficial makeover programmes on television seem to have won the day.

 A well-known designer—known to all of us—has recently referred to the cycle of design in the real world  as  ‘the  five  Fs’:  they  are

‒ function and fabrication—an understanding of and use of materials, and a consideration of processes.

‒ fair exchange between wants and needs—an understanding of the context for the product—design as something that happens in social, cultural and economic worlds

‒ fashion—the look, and its emotional impact—what some commentators have called emotional  ergonomics’

‒ and of course finance, or funding—and pricing.

Too  often,  however,  the  eminent  designer  added,  design  has  been  reduced  these  days  to  the  three   Fs’:

‒ finish

‒ photography

‒ then f— off.

 Sorry about the spelling of photography—but  you  know,  I’m  sure,  all  about  spelling  and  art  schools.

This attitude reminds me of the story the architect Hugh Casson used to enjoy telling, of overhearing two young designers sitting and chatting with one another at the height of the Swinging  Sixties.  ‘Let’s  be  philosophical  about  this,’  says  one  designer  to  the  other.  ‘Don’t  give  it  a   second  thought!’

So  it’s  no  wonder  that  The  Apprentice  contestants  reacted  as  they  did—when some within the design world seem to have a similar approach. Or claim to.

And  it’s  no  wonder,  either,  that  they  were  muddled  about  what  a  product  might  be.   The  Oxford  English Dictionary  still  defines  the  word  ‘product’  as  ‘a  thing  made  or  produced  or   constructed  or  manufactured’.  And  yet  it  has  come  to  be  stretched  in  recent  years  to  cover  insurance  products’,  ‘investment  products’—packages  of  services,  in  other  words:  I’ve  even  seen  in  a  travel  agent’s  window  the  phrase  Sun  Products’, meaning  holidays  in  the  sun,  and  in  a  car  park  Parking  Products’,  meaning  different  deals.  So  the  word  ‘products’  is  in  the  process  of  being   stretched to cover the virtual world as well as the real one—and it is now in danger of losing sight of its  original  meaning  altogether,  a  tendency  which  has  been  called  ‘living  on  thin  air’.

 This  exhibition,  Im  glad  to  say,  stands  at  the  opposite  pole  to  all  these  tendencies—and it should begin to shout its distinctiveness, and its achievements, from the rooftops. More loudly, in my view, than it has in the past.

 Meanwhile— SNAPSHOT TWO

The language of design has been moving from out of the design world where it originated to statements about almost anything by politicians and media pundits. Have you noticed this?

‒ fitness for purpose (from the Bauhaus)

‒ form follows function (from Modernism)

‒ blue skies thinking (from Icarus challenging the gods, Prometheus Unbound; the two great foundation myths of human creativity).

 There are countless other examples—not  to  mention  assorted  ‘broad-brushes’,  ‘frames  of  reference’,  palettes’,  ‘sculptings’,  ‘patinas’  et  cetera.  The  language  of  art  and  design,  to  give  a  sense  of  ‘cutting   edge’  (there’s  another  one!)  to  whatever  is  being  discussed.  This  language  used  to  be  our   language—it started life as a series of technical terms—and now it belongs to everybody and has become  a  set  of  clichés.  If  I  hear  the  phrase  ‘fitness  for  purpose’  once  more,  I  think  I’ll  scream!  Like   the  debasement  of  the  word  ‘craftsmanship’  by  advertisers.  It’s  time  to  give  substance  to  these   phrases again—or to find new ones.

 Which brings me to SNAPSHOT THREE

At the National Portrait Gallery, there is currently an important exhibition, curated by Fiona MacCarthy—who has written a lot about British Design and Craft—on the subject of William Morris and his Legacy, from Victorian times to the near-present. It is about a man who saw the way things were going in industrial Britain—the 1880s especially—towards consumerism, over-consumption, brands, labels and verbal product differentiation; poor quality products with big labels; settling for second-best, and an increasing gulf, which he saw developing, between human beings, nature and materials: leading to all sorts of confusions and misunderstandings. Against this, he issued his own clarion-call.  I  quote:  ‘If  you  want  a  golden  rule  that  will  fit  everything,  this  is  it:  have  nothing  in  your   houses  that  you  do  not  know  to  be  useful  or  believe  to  be  beautiful.’  The  church  architect,  and   champion of the Gothic Revival, J.D. Sedding—a  friend  of  Morris’s  who  is  also  featured  in  the   exhibition, the man who helped to bridge architecture and the Arts and Crafts—added  this:  ‘There  is   hope in honest error—none  in  the  icy  perfection  of  the  mere  stylist.’

The great architect and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh was to turn this into his personal motto— to the point where the quote is usually attributed to him these days. It was Sedding in fact.

 SNAPSHOT FOUR

My  final  one.  This  exhibition.  Against  the  tendencies  Ive  mentioned  this  evening—and in many others—this exhibition is, and has been for 25 years and more, about long-term substance rather than short-term style. About an understanding of materials and their possibilities—borne of intimacy, experience and professionalism. About design through making and making through design. And about the special kind of design thinking which arises out of doing things well—through patient and reflective practices rather than cutting corners. This exhibition, in short, always makes a refreshing change  from  design’s  equivalent  of  fast  food—and from the widespread debasement of the word designer’  as  a  prefix,  as  in  ‘designer  carrier-bags’,  and  so  on.  ‘Designer’  as  a  brand,  to  justify   premium pricing. The exhibition is about second and third and even tenth thoughts—embodied in things.

 And, as it always has been, it is an opportunity to view, buy and commission work from across the range of contemporary crafts—textiles, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, metalwork and glass and mixed media—at a time when crafts courses in Higher Education are fast becoming an endangered species. Did you know that in the six years 2007-2013, the number of crafts courses in England, within  HE,  fell  by  46%.  And  that’s  according  to  the  Crafts  Council’s  latest  official  figures.  2015  is  a   critical time for the crafts in education—which makes the work of this society, the facilities it offers to members,  and  this  exhibition  all  the  more  important.  It’s  truly  remarkable  that  Designer  Crafts  at  the   Mall is arranged and managed entirely on a voluntary basis, from within the membership. Why is it that in the arts and design so much has to be achieved on a pro bono basis—for love? A bigger question.  It  doesn’t  happen  so  much  in  other  walks  of  life,  in  my  experience…  But  it’s  marvellous   when it does.

So,  in  opening  this  reception,  I  propose  a  New  Year’s—a 25th anniversary— Resolution: to use this exhibition, and the work of the Society, as a platform. To say some of the things about design that need saying—and  need  saying  urgently.  To  raise  the  Society’s  profile,  and   in parallel extend its sponsorship. And in the process, by a virtuous circle, to promote its sales as ambassador for what it stands for—sales which are already on a steep upward curve. I believe that sales this time last year (the winter exhibition 2014) were some 72% up on previous years, which is a hopeful sign. I know Christine Dove, your Chairperson, is keen on this Resolution and has already put a lot of effort into it—as has Dawn Thorne.

So, warm thanks to the Gane Trust for the prize it sponsors; thanks to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship  Trust  for  organising  this  afternoon’s  seminar;;  thanks  to  all  who  put  this  exhibition   together—organisers and exhibitors—and  thank  you  all  for  coming.  For  all  the  reasons  I’ve   mentioned, and more, Designer Crafts at the Mall is a cause for real celebration.

Answers on a postcard

Spring Fair Stand - courtesy of Sonya Vengrova

Spring Fair Stand – courtesy of Sonya Vengrova

A few days ago I attended the Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham. This is a massive trade show for the retail industry: possibly the biggest in Europe – but only one of many throughout the year and the country. It’s where shops come to find the stock for the next season: accessories, gifts of all shapes and sizes, novelty items, products for the home, the kitchen, the bath and so much more. It’s all there. Rows and rows of stands selling scented candles, greeting cards, handbags, picture frames, humorous placards and fridge magnets (an exercise for graphic design students: can you find a version of “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen” that hasn’t been tried yet?)…

I was there to explore the possibility of engaging with the retail market. I have a few designs that I believe could be manufactured in small production runs at a lower unit cost and marketed through more outlets than I have been able to reach so far. Do I want to go down that route?

Such a move would definitely challenge me. I know nothing about production processes. I know nothing about the retail sector. I feel excited at the thought of engaging with new networks, learning about new techniques and approaches… a whole new world! But it’s going to require a considerable investment in terms of time, energy and possibly money. There is a big risk of failure: at the very least I make a fool of myself and at the worst I actually lose money. So, it’s scary and exciting and the adventurer in me says it’s worth at the very least exploring more… who knows where it might lead?

But (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) seeing all that “stuff” – much of it utterly ephemeral by design, prompted me to question how I engage and relate to that world.

You see, when I was a teenager I got caught in the confluence of two apparently conflicting ideological streams. On the one hand a good Catholic education encouraged me to look with suspicion at our materialistic society, stressing the importance of looking for ‘higher’ goals than a success measured purely in status and property. On the other hand, that critique was reinforced, ironically, by the anarchist/left-wing political discourse I encountered through the music of a range of Italian singer-songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s (for instance Fabrizio de Andre’ ed Edoardo Bennato), as well as the last reverberations in the educational system of the student movements of ’68 (which, alas, I had missed being too young).

I decided then that in my life I would refuse to become enmeshed in the machinations of the capitalist system, that I would be wary of the brainwashing that leads people to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of an illusory, limited and limiting ‘success’ (the house, the car, the wife, the holiday, the career, the second home, the exclusive social milieu, etc.) and that my quest would be one for freedom and spirit, not in any particularly religious or transcendent sense, but in the sense of personal creativity, integrity, authenticity and self-awareness.

In some ways I have succeeded. Throughout my working life, I have mostly had a variety of jobs, basing my choices on my passions and interests rather than on salary and career opportunities. And I have left jobs when the demands of my employer felt irreconcilable with my sense of who I was. Even the decision to set up my own business was brought on not by a new found entrepreneurial spirit, but by the fact that I wanted to be able to both make, design and teach and I couldn’t find employment that would allow such flexibility: I had to design my own job.

However, I am wondering whether in some ways I have not been deceiving myself. Because I have little disposable income and little interest in property (books are my main weakness in that sense: I am a glutton for books); because in employment I never had any financial or strategic power or responsibility, I told myself that my involvement with the ‘system’ was so small as to be negligible. I told myself that I had managed to escape from the Matrix.

Even now, keeping my business small – the poor but happy craftsman in his dusty workshop – allows me to believe that I am not really part of the world of commerce. My turnover is measured in a few thousands of pounds, not in hundreds of thousands, or millions or billions. My pieces are made by a free and independent craftsman, with care, with appreciation of the materials and the skills involved, not mass-produced by wage-slaves in sweatshop conditions. My designs are bespoke, unique – they come from an emotional engagement from my part and from the part of the client: they’re not generic, one-size-fits-all compromises. I offer an individual, personal service: I am not some faceless corporation. I use quality materials, from well-managed sources, not cheap wood from illegally logged tropical forests. And wood is the re-usable, recyclable material par excellence… Besides, my work is bordering on (if not actually) art. And art is something different from mass-produced, mass-marketed ‘stuff’, isn’t it? Otherwise, why would people pay so much more for a picture of a tin of soup than they would pay for the real thing? (yes, the reference to Andy Warhol is intentional). And my measures of success are to do with the quality of the experience for me and for my clients, not with financial considerations (although I do need to earn enough to keep going…)

But is all this enough? Does it really absolve me from my involvement (or is it collusion?) with a psycho-socio-economic system that I believe to be flawed in its premises and responsible for many of the ills of the world? And what happens if I go down the production-for-retail route with its deeper ramifications into the ‘market’? Is it really possible to act within the system without working for the system? Or is the only honest congruent solution that of taking the red pill and disconnecting completely? Is any compromise a collaboration?

What would William Morris say?

Answers on a (virtual) postcard, please.

 

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture