Holding a mirror to the zeitgeist: the RSA Student Design Awards

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Last week the RSA published a report I co-wrote for them, looking back on 90 years of their Student Design Awards scheme. There are more official blogs here and here about it, and you can of course read the (quite fascinating) report itself here. However if you don’t have time for the whole thing, you can either read pages 11-14, which pretty much sum it up, or read on for some bitesize takeaways, also known as ‘my favourite things that I learned from working on this report’.

  1. Who knew (well probably lots of people), but the RSA was fundamentally about design from the very start, although it wasn’t termed as such. The Awards and its other design work are only one of many things it does today, but in 1754 the organisation was initiated on an agenda of eliciting innovations and inventions from the public that would solve the some big problems facing the nation. These competitions were called ‘premiums’, and clever ideas were sought across the domains of: manufacturing, agriculture, trade, the ‘polite’ arts, chemistry and mechanics. After a while the RSA diversified into other activities, but the idea of triggering creative responses to a brief, and the importance of drawing, and other artistic skills, have always been somewhere in its DNA. This is all the more remarkable given the number of other initiatives instigated by the RSA that have spun out, been taken on by others, or simply ran their course. Design has been quite tenacious, which I think says something about its universality as a mode of human endeavour and practice.
  1. If you ever needed convincing that the idea of ‘the zeitgeist’ is actually a thing – trawling through 90 years of design briefs and projects might just do it. I’m a big fan of understanding design in its historical, social, cultural and political context. I’m less interested in the design itself, and more in what it tells you about the world in which it was made. In the Awards in the ‘20s you can see the vestiges of 19th century belief that the environment had the power to enlighten or corrupt, as – against a backdrop of far too many things of German provenance invading the homes of Britain – artists and makers were encouraged to design domestic and decorative objects that would crowd out foreign imports. Post WWII, it all gets very utilitarian as the nation tried to rebuild itself. Not a decorative porcelain figurine in sight: ‘solid fuel burning appliances’ were called for. The end of the 20th century was dominated by the rise of the computer, businesses worrying about ‘customer experience’, and environmental concerns becoming mainstream. More recently the awards have reflected widespread concerns about the damage inflicted on the environment and society by the designs of yesteryear, as well as the increasing agency and autonomy citizens expect in their own lives.
  1. It’s amazing how what constitutes ‘design’ has evolved over the course of the last 90 years, and I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the simplicity of the 1920s, a time when the boundaries of design were more narrowly and definitely drawn, and the knowledge of what constituted designing was more certainly held. The briefs read delightfully: students were asked to produce designs for a book jacket for Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’; the layout of a bedroom in the ‘William and Mary style’ (whatever that is) and a library for a collection of rare books, including the positioning of certain ‘objets d’art’; the form and surface pattern of earthenware vegetable dishes, tea cosies, clerical vestments and other homely items. At a time when many designers seem almost embarrassed to admit that part of what they do is fundamentally about making aesthetic judgments, it’s rather refreshing to be immersed momentarily in a world where such values were openly debated. By contrast, today’s young designers are wading into a profession where they are required not only to make decisions about the appropriate arrangement of things, but to do a whole load of other stuff first: conceptualise a problem requiring solution, determine the best mode of solving that problem, before going on to plan the execution of that response. This is both exciting for students, and incredibly demanding – and possibly a little scary for the rest of us. Because when the skills required in designing are things like:
    • an ability to understand systems, to determine causes and effects within a system;
    • an ability to choose between alternatives for intervening in that system, and evaluate the likely effects;
    • the knowledge of how to intervene;
    • and finally skills in the arrangement and execution of elements,

…it’s not immediately clear that only those grounded in a craft-based training are qualified to act here, and in fact a traditional design education may omit a few important things.

  1. Finally, we are now, apparently, in the era of ‘the system’. The challenges of the 21st century will be ones of scale and complexity – so really we should all get involved in solving them. This idea is already being embodied by a wave of problem-solving initiatives such as global jams and hackathons, open innovation challenges, and projects that crowdsource scientific and creative work. Perhaps the next stage then for the Student Design Awards is to open up beyond designers?

If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can check out this year’s briefs here.

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What I learned from losing my phone. (A handwritten blog).

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Consume with care

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An image from the new calorie-visualising app, Calorific

There is something peculiarly modern about the obesity crisis, which, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, has reached new proportions. The consultancy recently released a report stating nearly 30% of the world’s population is technically obese. Leaving aside the inequality issue (one in eight are chronically undernourished), this is a problem for society because of the costs associated with the health implications of being overweight, and the impact on the general wellbeing of the individuals concerned. It seems a bizarre and ridiculous state to be in: when the cause of the problem is seemingly so clear – people eating more than they need – why is it so difficult to find a solution?

Part of the reason this crisis of consumption is so hard to solve is systemic – it’s all bound up in the dominant economic model, where production and consumption is the organising principle of almost everything in modern life. Obesity is one unfortunate result of urging corporations and people to produce and consume more and more in order to drive the economy – and now it’s gotten out of control.

The McKinsey report lists a number of tested interventions and their efficacy. Only a couple of these, and they are not the most successful, are based on education. Mostly governments are now considering measures which involve controlling supply in some way – limiting portion sizes, changing the makeup of food, restricting access to bad things. It seems that simply trying to help people make informed decisions, and have an appropriate relationship to food, is something we have given up on in favour of a more paternalistic approach. However none of these interventions have particularly staggering success rates.

It’s interesting to see though, that the problems associated with production and consumption are becoming an increasingly popular subject among designers.

Designers are clearly implicated in the production/ consumption merri-go-round. In fact they are the grease that keeps the whole thing spinning, and have been richly rewarded for doing so. The tide does seem to be turning, however. I suspect that those once lauded as great visionaries, talented manipulators of desire, will soon be viewed less favourably – for complying with business demands for planned obsolescence, and persuading us all to keeping buying lovely new things. There has long been an element in the design community protesting against this kind of work (Papanek, Fry et al), but it’s interesting to see it becoming increasingly an mainstream concern – as noted in a previous blog on the socially-motivated projects emerging from the RCA’s new Service Design MA, and as has been manifested through much of the RSA’s design work in recent years (such as The Great Recovery and Student Design Awards).

Here are a few more interesting design responses to the problem of rampant consumption:

Disclosed helps you understand the values that are embedded in the things you buy, and tailor your consumption according to things you care about.
Calorific helps visualise the energy content of what we eat.
Silo is a reimagining of the restaurant on zero-waste grounds – without compromising the quality of the food. Founder Douglas McMaster makes an excellent point in this article about the inverse relationship between choice and quality when it comes to restaurant menus.
Emotionally Durable Design is the brainchild of Brighton University’s Jonathan Chapman, who explores ways design can persuade us to hang on to our stuff rather than discard it.
– And The Ocean Cleanup works at the other end of the chain, trying to mitigate the environmental impacts of disposability and reckless and prolific consumption.

These projects are little moments of resistance, and attempts to politicise and problematise consumption – which is ultimately what needs to happen. Because the truth is, as much as governments are now trying to find ways to counter the disastrous externalities of consumer culture, it also suits governments and private enterprise to keep populations consuming. Not only to create an impression of a thriving economy, but to keep the peace: expressing our agency and individuality through buying and consuming is altogether less troublesome for those in charge than demanding more political or democratic power.

There’s a great piece of graffiti on the back of a Stoke Newington pub toilet door that says something to the effect of, ‘teach us to think, not to consume’. A nice sentiment, if a bit self-righteous. But in reality we are asked to do both at the same time. Mindlessly consume for the sake of the economy – but stop mindlessly consuming for the sake of… everything else. Which is probably why the symptoms – such as obesity – will continue to resist treatment.

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Wedgwood and LDF: yet more shiny baubles?

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Last weekend, while the 12th annual London Design Festival was gearing up across the city, I went off on an odd sort of design pilgrimage of my own, to Stoke on Trent. Specifically, I wanted to see the Wedgwood Collection, just in case it all gets broken up and sold off in the near future. However the trip prompted some unexpected reflections.

The story of the peril facing the Wedgwood Collection, for anyone who hasn’t been following it, is that the Waterford Wedgwood manufacturing company, having gone into administration in 2010, has been drawn into a lengthy legal battle over its pension liability, and it turns out its most valuable asset is its 250 year old collection of ceramics. So, unless the money can be raised to buy this collection for the nation, and fill the hole in the pension fund (which the Art Fund and V&A are trying to do right now), this rather unusual and historically significant archive will go down with the ship.

This would be sad. Whether you’re into Wedgwood or not, its collection is an amazingly comprehensive range of pieces – from chamber pots to a Russian Empress’s dinner service – of breathtaking skill and creativity. As a whole, it maps out a story of changing tastes and technological innovation in Britain since the 18th century. To walk round the museum is to receive a potted history of design. Many of the things we now take for granted in our kitchens and on our tables wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Wedgwood’s constant experimentation.

And the significance of the company goes beyond the world of design and manufacturing – its founder Josiah Wedgwood was not only a restless inventor, but implicated in the intellectual life and society of the day in multiple ways. He was a member of the Lunar Society, he intervened in debates on slavery, and the building of infrastructure across Britain, he was a patron of George Stubbs, who painted his family’s portrait, his family friends included Mary Wollstonecraft, he was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. An interesting chap. I can’t think of many contemporary manufacturers with the same polymathic profile.

Social history aside, factories are fascinating places anyway – or they are to me. My love of watching things being made started in childhood – my favourite bit of the local zoo was the room with the man forging tiny animals out of glass. And for some reason I’ve never lost this ability to become completely absorbed in watching skilled craftsmanship. In the case of ceramics, I’m always astounded at how something so pristine can emerge, magically, from such a mess of raw materials. Equally astonishing is the skill and precision of the men and women whose hands know how to make such things. I would much rather watch this slow metamorphosis of formless to formed, than marvel at the finished object.

So with all these various reasons why I should have loved it, I was surprised to find I felt curiously ambivalent about the whole day. But it’s because, in spite of all the richness of design heritage on show, there is a salutary and uncomfortable lesson to be taken from Wedgwood.

There was something horribly sobering about leaving the Museum, with its predominantly well-dressed, middle-aged, middle-class clientele, and where one can purchase an exquisite bone china tea cup and saucer for a staggering £50 (although they are lovely), and then wandering round Stoke on Trent where, to judge by the number of boarded up shops and lack of any life at all in the town centre, most people are struggling to afford a basic cup of tea. Stoke on Trent on a Saturday afternoon sadly typifies what recession has meant for many British communities. And it is slightly ironic, although no less tragic, that the global flows of trade whose early years made Wedgwood, and the Potteries towns generally, a great deal of wealth, have also been the author of their current downfall and deprivation. The great God capitalism giveth and taketh away.

Which brings me back to what’s been happening in London this last week. Clearly, shiny baubles create commercial bubbles, and are not a long term solution to any kind of problem. And yet the Design Festival – as a recipe for economically reinvigorating the city – thrives. I’m wary of the hubris of the London Design Festival. Every year it becomes more and more aggressively commercial – and no doubt more financially secure – with ever greater numbers of swankier sponsors, funding more shows, where more visitors flock and more champagne is drunk, all in admiration of yet more stuff. It’s quite fun, and for a while at least, nice to drink the champagne and look at all the pretty things. But where does it all lead? How bizarre would it be if this glittering display every year were set against the grimness of a post-industrial midlands town? It’s only because it’s set in the relative affluence of London that we can’t see how perverse – and horribly connected – it all is.

To me, there is something truly amazing in the human ability to create – whether that’s eliciting poetic forms from mud, or whatever else – what an incredible capacity. But I can’t believe, 250 years on, we’re still so caught up in the idea of plying our creativity in the same old way, to make and sell baubles for rich people. Haven’t we learnt that lesson? Aren’t there bigger problems to solve?

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The V&A gets a bit political with Rapid Response Collecting

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Tucked away in a poorly-signposted corner of the V&A, an interesting little experiment in curating is afoot. Most people will know the Museum for being brimful of old treasures in vitrines. However alongside the temporary exhibitions programme, which upholds a more active conversation about design, old and new, there is now a team responsible for the Museum’s dealings with the contemporary world of design, architecture, and digital artefacts: and they have developed a new practice that they’re calling ‘rapid response collecting’.

What this means is, instead of hopping over to Milan and acquiring the most interesting new chair, they are fishing around in current affairs, global politics and supply chains – identifying and collecting items that are particularly telling about the world as we know it. Or rather, more interestingly, that reveal the inequalities, injustices and awkward facts about the made world that we often choose to ignore.

So in this first round they have a digitally printed gun, some Katy Perry fake eyelashes handmade by low-paid third world workers, an IKEA toy that became an unlikely mascot of protest, the App that proved so addictive its maker removed it from circulation – and eight other objects of similar potency.

This all feels, of course, highly political (even though the text accompanying the objects is nicely neutral). Consequently – better than just positive coverage for the V&A – it has already sparked quite a bit of commentary and debate – including in the New York Times. It’s absolutely appropriate that the Museum should be instigating a public conversation in this way, but how often does it really happen? This step towards repositioning the public role of the museum is no small achievement by Kieran Long, Corinna Gardner, and their colleagues. I look forward to seeing what they do next: especially in an election year.

The other thing to say is that for those who know very little about design history – and even those who do – this collection is a perfect entry point to the rest of the museum. Context, after all, is what makes design interesting – and we are all immediately familiar with the context of these objects, in a way that most of us aren’t with the historical and political milieu of a pair of medieval church doors, or Italian renaissance ceramics. I wonder if these 12 objects – and whatever else comes next to the Rapid Response team – might make the rest of the vast collection seem somehow more approachable? Perhaps eventually it could be moved to somewhere a little more easily in the path of the casual visitor.

For now, if you’re intrigued, go up the stairs by the Exhibition Road entrance, along to the end of the 20th century gallery, and just beyond the 1940s, there it is.

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Dirty Rotten Socials: making the Good City

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Photo courtesy of Alison Haigh/Wolff Olins

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the inaugural event of the House of St Barnabas’s ‘Dirty Rotten Socials’. The House of St Barnabas is a curious institution in the very heart of Soho: housed in a lovely Georgian building on Soho square, it is both a homeless charity, and a private members club. The Dirty Rotten Socials are an attempt (in partnership with Pioneers Post) to bring some discussion of the social issues with which the charity is preoccupied to the creative community that makes up its membership.

This first event, ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’, curated by Wolff Olins, invited five speakers from the world of design to present the audience with a provocation or question that they themselves ‘give a damn about’. The audience was then asked to tackle each question in small groups, proposing a ‘magic wand’ solution, an ‘ideal’ solution, and a realistic, actionable solution.

So, what do I give a damn about? I wondered. Having never been one for causes, I can certainly say I’m interested in lots of things, but I’m not sure that’s the same. And then, as is so often the case, a silly answer provided the kernel of honesty that set me on the right track: ‘Well obviously I just want things to be lovely all the time’, I sighed to myself. And in London, where I live, and where this debate was taking place, it is increasingly true that things can only really be lovely all the time if one is very wealthy. Except even then you’d be occasionally faced with the unlovely side of the city the rest of us have to contend with, which might take the shine off your otherwise perfectly composed day.

One thing I have always been caught up by is the nature of cities, and what makes places the way they are. What makes Rome so convivial, Copenhagen so civilised, London so dynamic? Far too much to tackle in one blog – or a five minute provocation. But through conversation with colleagues at BOP, who know far more about this than I do though their work on the World Cities Culture Forum, we boiled it down to a central challenge. That is, right now there is a force physically and socially reshaping London with astonishing rapidity: the influx of global capital.

It is de rigueur these days for cities to orient their policies toward attracting inward investment, and in London it is the oil that greases the machine of the city for which we should all be thankful. But unchecked it will run away with us: as in the 250 skyscrapers in the offing, an onslaught of urban surgery the scale of which the public, and apparently even Boris, was blissfully unaware. It’s also fuelling the (utterly bizarre) inflation in property prices, which means that no one with even a decent salary – and certainly not students or key workers – can afford to live anywhere near where they work. This commodification of the basic human need for shelter has negative consequences for so many people – something I’m sure the team at House of St Barnabas are acutely aware of. Ironically, the creative and cultural industries (who form the majority of HOSB members) are partly to blame. They are the frontier explorers leading the cycle of gentrification that ultimately often threatens their own place in the city.

So this was my question to the audience, and the poor souls in my group who had to try and come up with an answer: how do we protect our cities from the ravages of global capital, and make them decent places for everyone?

Needless to say, in the allotted time we didn’t solve this one, and in fact we spent quite a while debating what the Good City looks like anyway, and for who. In the end, our ‘magic wand’ solutions included putting something in the water that tempers greed, or at least detaching money-making from property. Our ‘ideal’ solutions included an obligation on those who make money out of money, without demonstrably creating jobs, to contribute to the public life of the city in some other way (funding free child care places for example). We also want to enforce a three day work week. And our realistic solution was an empty homes tax: making it more financially punitive for the global class of uber-rich to own property in London without either living in it or at least renting it out.

For my own part, I think crucially we need the complicity and leadership of politicians, planners and civil servants with vision, prepared to say no to development for private gain in favour of promoting more democratic solutions: Amanda Burden, the New York planner who fought for years for the high line to be turned into a park, is a good example. I wonder if ‘wishing for better politicians’ is in the magic wand category though?

But to end on a more positive note, one of our group (who wasn’t British) pointed out that – cost of living aside – in fact London is already more ‘for everyone’ than almost any other city in the world. ‘You can be whoever you want to be here, whatever that means, and thrive.’ So clearly it’s not all bad. The question is, how do we keep it that way?

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Forward into the past: Italian glamour and sustainable fashion

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The Glamour of Italian Fashion – the current V&A blockbuster – charts the rise of Italy as a fashion producing nation from the post-war years to the present day: a story not just of designers, but of the people who produced the raw materials and constructed the clothes, and of those who wore them. In fact its title is rather too narrow. Beyond simply celebrating ‘glamour’, it lays out the ecosystem of Italian fashion, and reflects on the way it is changing: production, supply chains, and taste itself are increasingly globalised as international markets for elite fashion converge.

In many respects this is a very thoughtful exhibition; however I came away harbouring one particularly strong impression which the show itself said remarkably little about. That is: the striking way in which the relationship between designer and customer (wearer) has changed over the 70 or so years compressed by the exhibition.

The first rooms, featuring clothes from the 50s and 60s, are a quite surprising lesson in the timelessness of good tailoring. The pieces on show – although 70 years old – seem strangely modern in their classic styling, whilst invoking serious nostalgia for a time when people used to take much greater care over their dress. Of course just as persuasive as the clothes themselves, are the black and white stills of beautiful people wearing them: Loren, Hepburn, Taylor, and countless nameless Italian catwalk models, all accentuated, nipped in, and let loose in just the right places.

As the exhibition continues however, through the 70s and 80s to the present day – something changes. Fashion frees itself from tradition and becomes more exploratory. But with this comes a sense of the clothes becoming more awkward, less inviting-looking, neurotic even. A reflection perhaps of wider cultural changes, but also, critically, of a transformation in how fashion relates to the body.

The earlier pieces were quite clearly designed with real women’s bodies in mind, and the objective was to flatter them: patterns were cut to accentuate people’s natural shapes. I was surprised, but then again not that surprised, to note that many of these early Italian fashion houses were led by aristocratic women, presumably designing things they themselves would want to wear.

By contrast, in the later rooms there is a distinct and increasing marginalisation of the wearer. The clothes pay less heed to the body, and rather more to the artistic expression of the designer. Success is not measured by the ability of the clothes to look well on full-figured women. In fact, they begin to look best on bodies that almost aren’t there, tall, coat-hanger figures with no bumps or curves to interrupt the fall of fabric.

Given that this transformation is so striking, it would be nice if the exhibition could have unpacked it a bit more.

Partly, I suppose it has to be acknowledged that the very purpose of the catwalk, and the point of haute couture, has changed: those early shows in Florence’s Pitti Palace were an exercise in selling clothes to (admittedly wealthy) people who might really wear them. Today’s global fashion weeks are more about trendsetting, and defining an artistic identity for a brand.

And, clearly, the economics of the two situations are very different. The exhibition details nicely the centuries-old ecologies of making in Italy’s regions, the network of small tailoring businesses clothing their local population, and the long term view people took in buying and caring for their clothes: in this set-up haute couture and everyday clothes are not very far apart. Today this ecology is being gradually superseded by outsourced manufacture, mass production, and cheaply bought things that don’t last very long: in this system haute couture and everyday clothes are entirely different things.

The contemporary situation is a shame in respect of the quality that’s accessible to the general public. Very few of us can buy made-to-measure or bespoke any more. Rather we are locked into a perverse situation where we live clothed in a second skin that has been designed – not specifically for us – but for a generic body shape, and made by people far away that we will never meet.

But more importantly: the current situation is surely not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly. The lesson of this exhibition, for me, was that in thinking our way to sustainable fashion – a new ecosystem of making and wearing that provides individuals with high quality clothes that fit well, supports local economies and maintains specialist skills – we don’t have to look much further than Italian history for a role model.

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