TOWARDS A STANDARD

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 Arts 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: Why, if poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales was it necessary to educate the consumer in good design?

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 Bergson, although I don’t have any direct evidence that Leach had read Bergson. But Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and the frequency of terms like “vitality” in art criticism and in Leach’s writing, come from him indirectly if not directly.

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.

TOP DRAWER

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.

FITNESS FOR PURPOSE

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.”

LETRASET

letraset

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. 

bawden
Edward Bawden
 
ariel
Berthold Wolpe

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.

higher education in the ussr

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.

SUMMER SHOWS

colman1 small

Spring was a period of experiment and development for me as I worked on  a range of new shapes and glazes which I have designed with the modern home in mind. Now I have lots of shows planned for the summer and autumn where my new work will be on display.

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6 – 8 July
Childwickbury Arts Fair
Childwickbury Estate, Harpenden Road, St Albans, AL3 6JX

13 – 21 July
Hand of the Maker – Celebrating 130 years of the Society of Designer Craftsmen
Chelsea College of Arts, 16 John Islip Street, London SW1P 4JU

16 July – 16 September
The Hay Makers
St John’s Place, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5BN

13 – 16 September
Dacorum and Chiltern Potters Guild
Kingsbury Barn, Branch Road, St Albans, AL3 4SE

22 – 23 September
London Potters – In Design@Battersea – London Design Festival
Grosvenor Arch, Battersea Power Station, Circus West Village, Battersea Power Station, London SW11 8AH

ST ALBANS MUSEUM AND GALLERY

Today is the opening of the new St Albans Museum and Gallery in the centre of the city.

The early Victorian town hall with its neo-classical facade has been looking for a purpose for fifty years. It’s been shabby and under-used, the grand entrance under the portico closed off and the public having to go through a gloomy side door for the occasional bric-a-brac sale and book fair.

The driving force behind the conversion is Councillor Annie Brewster, who has had unusual vision and energy. When I first heard about the funding target of £7.5m I put in my two penn’orth but wasn’t sure it would be reached. It was, and the building was completed on schedule. Always glamorous and dressed in startling colours, Cllr Brewster has been a ray of light in an otherwise dull council.

Now we have a museum, a gallery and an event space befitting our historic city. I’ll be visiting it next week.

MONSERRATE, SINTRA

On our last day in Lisbon we took the advice of Miguel, the helpful receptionist at our hotel, and visited Sintra, where Lisboetas used to build their summer residences. From there we took the bus to Monserrate, the house in expansive, hilly grounds that records the eccentric tastes of its former occupants.

Now owned by the state, it is undergoing extensive restoration and has a thorough exhibition about its history, “Monserrate Revisited: The Cook Collection in Portugal”, open until 31 May.

Monserrate has been Anglo-Portuguese for over two hundred years. The first English intervention was William Beckford’s (whose only remains are the Romantic waterfall and cromlech) immortalised by Byron as “Cintra’s glorious Eden” in Childe Harold.

In 1856 Francis Cook, a hugely rich textile magnate, took over the estate for his summer residence, reconstructed the house as a Moorish-Gothic fantasy and filled it with an eclectic collection of Italian art, English furniture, Oriental ceramics and a Bechstein grand, including Pugin chairs and a reproduction of the Alhambra Gazelle Vase. The gardens, also eclectic, benefiting from the warm but not harsh climate, and designed by a Kew head gardener, have an Indian arch acquired (perhaps one might say looted) after the Sepoy Mutiny, exotic succulents, an English rose garden, ponds and ferny woods. Cook’s collection demonstrates mid-nineteenth century taste and Orientalism extraordinarily well, as only the collection of a very rich man can.

Monserrate stayed in the Cook family for ninety years. At the end they could no longer afford it and rarely visited. In the 1930s they hired Walter Kingsbury as estate manager, despite his lack of experience or knowledge of Portuguese. Kingsbury lived there with his family until after the war, when the estate was sold and the precious collection broken up.

I found the period of Kingsbury’s stewardship to be the most fascinating part of the Monserrate story. It is narrated in a memoir by Walter’s son Richard, who lived there as a boy.

During the war, Portugal was a crossroads for spies, including Ian Fleming and Malcolm Muggeridge. “It is reported that on one occasion,” says Richard Kingsbury, “a dinner party was given, attended by an agent who travelled specially from England for the purpose of being seated next to a Portuguese lady (a certain Mrs Espirito Santo) who was known to have pro-German sympathies, in order to feed her false information which, it was believed, would be conveyed to the Germans in Lisbon.”

In a filmed interview, Richard Kingsbury appears as a tall, handsome old man, fluent in Portuguese but with a self-deprecating English manner. Montserrate was a peculiar and fortunate place for a boy to grow up in. He remembers his childhood there as perpetually sunny, taking his impractical, Gothic-Oriental home for granted and riding his toy car round the rooms. It’s actually an uncomfortable house, cold inside when we visited and presumably impossible in winter, but it was Kingsbury’s idyll, magical and eerie, and he often returned to Sintra in adult life.

He worked as an interpreter until his death at the age of 83. His colleague Felix Ordeig recalls meeting him, at first doubtful of the abilities of someone so old, but quickly coming to appreciate his professionalism and competence. Kingsbury translated into English and Portugese, had a good knowledge of Spanish and a passing acquaintance with several other languages. He had a passion for travel, and as a young man went overland from London to Cairo via Istanbul and the Middle East, “on foot, hitch-hiking and by whatever other means of transport became available” says Ordeig, “a trip that would be very difficult if not impossible today. ” He taught English in Argentina and travelled in Latin America, visiting indigenous peoples before the continent was opened to tourism.

Ordeig says, “I got the impression that he lived his life to the full right to the end, with an adventurous spirit, but also a very practical approach to life, as well as with an enquiring mind. In the short time I was with him I took a liking to the man; he was good company and I enjoyed his sense of humour, his unfeigned modesty, and total lack of snobbishness, his intellectual curiosity about both his surroundings and the people he came across, his friendliness and good manners. But I also suspect that he was a very decent human being.”