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.

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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.

 

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Yoga and Craft

Apparently in Silicon Valley, the ancient spiritual practice of yoga is now presented as a technology (yes, not a technique, not a discipline or a practice: a technology!) to achieve peak performance…

I had a strong reaction when I read this so I followed the link and I watched the video to understand what it was all about. It amounts to a few minutes of quick variations of standard yoga poses – with the encouragement to focus on your breath and develop some awareness of what you are feeling, where the tension is in your body and so on… (Milarepa will be annoyed to know that a few minutes here and there is enough to reach ‘consciousness’… all those years he spent deepening his practice…)

sawThe nub of my reaction was that it seems to me that this new ‘technology’ speaks exactly to the critique that so many social philosophers from Marx and Engels to William Morris  and  to Gramsci levelled at the working conditions of the industrial era – the concept of ‘alienation’. My understanding is that with that term they described the profound disconnection in the worker between who s/he is as a person (thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations, beliefs, interests) and who they are required to ‘be’ in the workplace so that the company can prosper – a cog in a machine, a small part of a much bigger organisation, whose value is only in his/her ability to facilitate the progress of the task at hand (be it the flow of information or the next step in an assembly line sequence…) And this “new technology” offers the illusion of being person-centred and care about the individual while reinforcing the fact that what is required of you is to be at your best for the benefit of the organisation (“achieving peak performance”: whose? yours or the company?)

But perhaps I misunderstood something – I don’t have much experience of large corporations and that kind of work… I’ve never risen far in those sort of organisations

In any case, my thought process then moved into a different direction. I realised that one of the reasons I felt frustrated with the news of  this revolutionary technology, is that for me it’s old news. I’m not a yoga practitioner: I’ve dabbled in Zen meditation and T’ai Chi over the years but never with much consistency and I cannot claim to have ever achieved any proficiency or expertise in those practices. No, it’s old news in the sense that in my work as a furniture maker I have learned some time ago that it’s imperative that I am aware of how I’m feeling, where my focus is, where my energy is at etc. if I want to do a good job. I work with my body and my mind and my spirit (I mean that part of my mind that is not the logical/problem solving side…). The sort of furniture I make requires deep focus and concentration. There’s very little of routine tasks. Every operation needs my full attention. Especially with hand tools, but also with machines, I have learned from bitter experience that if I am tense, out of focus, somehow unbalanced, I will make mistakes. I’ll rush, I’ll try to take too thick a cut and tear the fibres, I won’t take the time to sharpen the tool or change the blade and it will show in the finished result. Or I will simply not cut it straight and square. And so I have learned that it’s important, as I move from one task to the next, to re-centre, re-focus, let go of distractions… For me it often takes the form of having a drink and a wander around the workshop. Or putting all the tools back so that I start the next phase with a clear bench. Or stretching my back by hanging from the architrave on the main door. And sometimes it means saying “sod it, I’ll go and do some filing, work through my inbox and leave the practical work for later on, when I’m in a better place”

Surprisingly enough, I learned much of this by teaching. When beginners are struggling (especially with hand tools) I have found that very often what I need to do is to help them shift their attention from the task (the line that they are struggling to follow in sawing, for instance) to their body and centre. Sometimes just changing their stance slightly to one side means that they can approach the task in a completely different way. But as long as they insist on focusing on the line, they contort their elbows and shoulders in ways that make it pretty difficult for their body to cut straight. In the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days, a baseball player explains how important it is to keep the focus not on the target but on your body: how you hold the ball, how you release it etc. Those are (seemingly) small things, but they are the ones you can control – the target is outside and therefore not worth worrying about: once you’ve let go of the ball, it’s out of your control… If you focus on the target you’re out of balance. If you prefer to get your philosophical insights from more literary sources, I think Eugen Herrigel in Zen and the Art of Archery says pretty much the same thing.

All of this led me to wonder whether this might be what distinguishes “craft” from other disciplines. I have always struggled with the label of craftsman – I am never sure exactly of what it means. Other jobs require a high level of skill or a good understanding of materials or a creative approach – and yet they are not classed as craft.

But perhaps this is it – craft is a particular approach to working, a particular attitude from the maker, an attunement to the task and the material that requires the whole person to be ‘present’ and eschews alienation. At the end of the day, what William Morris called “meaningful work” as opposed to the “useless toil” of the factories. And what I aspire to.

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Tradition? La tradizione siamo noi.

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.

William Morris

William Morris

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.

“A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.” William Morris
Up and down the country there is a plethora of designer makers, working in a range of disciplines and materials, designing and making beautiful work because that’s their passion. It’s not necessarily an easy way to make a living – but it’s a way of life. An active choice. (Am I getting romantic and misty eyed and idealising things now?).

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.

http://www.magnino.co.uk