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 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, I’d 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.
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’:
‒ 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, I’m 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.
My final one. This exhibition. Against the tendencies I’ve 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.