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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