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.