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.
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…
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…
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 piece? 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
potters 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?
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.
A colleague posted a request for help on an internet forum of which I’m a member. He had built a door for a client but after a relatively short time the construction had failed badly – the door was falling apart.
When he described the construction of the door, several contributors pointed out that his design did not allow for timber movement (wood shrinks and expands with changes of humidity in the environment) and that he should have stuck to “traditional” construction (such as frame and panel door construction). His reply was that that design of door was “traditional” in Cyprus (where the door was located) – indeed he could see examples of it all over the island. They were working just fine and had been for many years…
And that started me thinking.
In the crafts arena there is much talk of “tradition”: traditional techniques, traditional materials, traditional methods, traditional approaches… Every designer-maker at some point will have to make a statement on tradition. Whether they eschew tradition completely for “new”, “modern”, “contemporary”, “innovative” designs and techniques. Or blend modernity and tradition to various degrees and in many combinations. Or whether they stick strictly to traditional designs, techniques and materials (often claiming therefore a post-modern edginess to their work for the simple fact of transposing, say, 17th century manufacturing into the 21st century).
So, what is this “tradition” we speak about?
It seems to me that we have a tendency to treat tradition as something fixed, a force from another time and space. A wisdom accumulated over the centuries and now crystallised in particular designs, materials, techniques. As if at some point in time the craft reached its apogee (at the time of Chippendale? Adams? William Morris? Ed Barnsley?) and never improved since.
I am sure (and it’s a statement I have read/heard in a number on places…) that Chippendale would have used CNC machines if he had had access to them. The tools and the techniques he used were the best at the time.
The image of the “traditional” craftsman, whistling at work as his beautiful hand tools effortlessly turn a rough piece of wood in a work of art, owes much to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. In their disgust at the horrific production methods of the Victorian factories, they searched for a better paradigm and found it in an idealised view of the Middle Ages: the happy peasant, contented in his simple life.
I am not a Morris expert, but having read some of his essays recently, I wonder if this is not a misunderstanding. Yes, it is clear that he strongly disliked much of what was produced at the time in the factories, but it seems to me that the reasons for this rested largely on his political and moral concerns. The work produced in the factories could not be beautiful because the working conditions were such that the workers could not take any pride in the work, could not create any emotional attachment to the products and therefore could not imbue them with the sense of quality and beauty that comes from being able to work with care, attention and freedom of choice. Working for meagre wages, little more than slaves, the workers were (are?) churning out products they could not relate to. Any decoration in the piece would have to be artificially added and as such a mere gimmick… So different from the decoration that his ideal craftspeople would apply to their artefacts, out of a sense of pride in their work, of a relaxed approach that would give them time to reflect on what they were doing and fettle and whittle at it till they were fully satisfied and could hand it over with the sense of a job well done!
The value is therefore not in the tools, not in the rural setting, not in the local materials (though all of these might help) – it’s in the attitude of the craftsperson to the work, in their sense of having chosen their crafts, of having the time and space to fully focus on their work and carry it out with a sense of pride, ownership and creative latitude. Beauty and quality rest not on the choice of materials, in the aesthetics of the design or its functionality or on the skill of the maker. These are by-products of attention, care, concentration, a commitment to the process and to produce one’s best.
We are still experimenting with materials, techniques, designs… the learning goes on. Whether any of our work will still be around, will still be admired in 5 years or 50 or 500… only time will tell. William Morris knew this. For all his harking back to the Middle Ages, he talks of “the ceaseless evolution of countless years of tradition”.
As a designer maker of the 21st century, I see myself part of that ceaseless flow. To paraphrase a song by Francesco de Gregory – la tradizione siamo noi. We are the tradition.