Driving from St Albans to Letchworth this morning, I was struck by the intense frost in open country.
Driving from St Albans to Letchworth this morning, I was struck by the intense frost in open country.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’
In Winchester I looked in at the Cathedral, which, in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, made me think of The Nature of Gothic.
Ruskin said that Gothic ornament was made by uneducated men who were allowed to do the best they could without direction, and because it was the expression of free labour it was bound to be rough and imperfect. The 19th century demanded perfection and accuracy and made workmen into slaves because that could only be achieved if they were told exactly what to do and weren’t allowed to be inventive.
I couldn’t see how this applied to Winchester. The stone carving is accurate and regular and the workmen were not free to work as they pleased and to invent as they worked.
Ruskin’s dislike of factories was understandable in the conditions of the mid-19th century, but he mythologised pre-industrial work and created false antinomies between supposedly rough pre-industrial workmanship and smooth modern workmanship
I was demonstrating my painting of tin-glazed ceramics and noticed that one of my visitors was watching me keenly. Customers who are that interested are often evening-class potters.
“Hello. Do you make pottery yourself?”
“No, I make brushes.”
“Really? Who do you work for?”
“A S Handover.”
“What a coincidence. I always use your brushes.”
“I thought so. That’s a 2115, isn’t it?”
“Blimey, I came out on my day off, and I can’t get away from work.”
Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.
The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.
Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions. In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.
The art and industry movement of the thirties wanted to integrate artists into industry, improve the standard of consumer goods, democratise art and improve public taste. There was a strong interest in education, and Frank Pick, who was one of the leading figures of the Council for Art and Industry, used his influence to nudge the Royal College of Art towards the teaching of industrial design and hastened the resignation of William Rothenstein as principal.
I said earlier that this movement for design reform and education reform was able to push forward on all fronts like this – on the industrial front, persuading manufacturers that their products needed to be better designed, and on the consumer front, dissuading shoppers from buying badly-designed objects – because of its belief in objective standards of beauty and the spiritual potential of good design.
This commitment to objective artistic standards answered a question that had puzzled me: If poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales, because customers wanted good design, why was it necessary to educate public taste? The answer is that design reformers thought they knew better than everyone.
Another puzzle had been an influential essay written at the end of the 1930s by Bernard Leach, Towards a Standard. Towards a Standard is the opening chapter of Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has been in print since 1940 and which has shaped the thinking of generations of potters. It expresses an anti-industrial philosophy as severe as anything in Ruskin and I read it as a restatement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Leach was active in the rearguard of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, utterly opposing its engagement with industry, and he resigned over its acceptance of items designed for manufacturing in its 1938 exhibition.
Leach took an anti-intellectual line in his essay, in fact an irrationalist line, in which I read the ideas of Henri Bergson. There is no evidence that Leach had read Bergson and Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, based on Leach’s diaries and correspondence finds no mention of him. Creative Evolution is exactly the sort of book one would have expected Leach to read and to have talked about if he had read it, but he does not. Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and terms like “vitality” in Leach’s writing and criticism were absorbed from his cultural environment.
Leach thought pottery could help to regenerate a civilisation marred by industry and ravaged by war and political conflict. The standard that potters were supposed to follow was absolute and unchanging, was not personal taste and was most certainly not a matter of consumer preference.
Thus in the modernist culture of the Council for Art and Industry and the anti-modernist aesthetic of A Potter’s Book, there is the same crusade to establish an absolute standard for artists and a mission among a benighted public who don’t appreciate “good design” or what they ought to have in their homes.
I was at Top Drawer today. The trend in tableware is to artisan style, pottery. These bowls are by Nkuku, fairly typical of what’s on show there, though though the insides are rather brighter than the dominant earth colours.
These bowls are not thrown on the wheel but they’re made to look as if they are. There’s a strong desire among consumers for things that are handmade, or at least that look as if they’re handmade. Some of Nkuku’s ceramics are made in Vietnam and are much cheaper than anything an English artisan can produce.
The functionalist idea of fitness for purpose was an important part of Frank Pick’s view of design. (See my previous post.) Michael Saler says the phrase comes from Ruskin, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone has a reference, I’d be pleased if you could share it with me.
From Google ngram it seems that “fitness for purpose” had scant mentions until the 1920s, then a few until 2006, when usage shot up exponentially following its popularisation by British home secretary John Reid. Its main use isn’t in design at all and it appears a lot in consumer and contract law. And its first use may be in Pugin rather than Ruskin.
On page 1 of Contrasts he says, “It will be readily admitted that the great test of Architectural beauty is the fitness of the design to the purpose for which it is intended, and that the style of a building should so correspond with its use that the spectator may at once perceive the purpose for which it was erected.”
I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?
Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.
In a clear out over Christmas I threw away the sheets of Letraset that I accumulated when I was a graphic designer. Letraset was transfer lettering that revolutionised graphic design in the 1960s and it had a good run for thirty years. When I was at school we were taught what they called “book design”, which included hand-drawn lettering, but Letraset made that unnecessary. There had been some good lettering artists in the book trade – notably Edward Bawden and Berthold Wolpe – and their covers had a quality that you could say was lost when artists started using Letraset.
Letraset accompanied the offset revolution in printing, which replaced metal type with lithographic plates that were produced photographically. The process was quick and simple. You could originate a design, take it to the printer and have the final product in an hour.
You never used all the letters on a sheet of Letraset – perhaps they made their money like Colman’s mustard, from what was left behind – and you sometimes had to buy four sheets to produce a piece of short text.
When I worked in the publicity department of North East London Polytechnic, we combined text produced on an IBM golfball typewriter, Letraset headings and graphics, as in this poster (above). The artwork was put together with Cow Gum and a scalpel.