Hello My Name Is Paul Smith

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2013 at 14:03

paul smithThis morning I took a trip to the Design Museum to see the ‘Hello My Name is Paul Smith’ exhibition.

The last three exhibitions I have been to see at the Design Museum have been Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern, Terence Conran: The Way we Live Now and this, Hello my Name is Paul Smith. Perhaps it’s best not to think about what this hero-worshiping of the ‘great men’ of British design says about the Design Museum’s scope and ambition. After all, all three are and have been major figures in British design and will, no doubt, pull in an audience. But, in a city as interesting as London and in a field as wide and expanding as design, it does make you wonder what the Design Museum is doing. More worryingly, it also makes you think about the power relationship between the designer and curator, which seems to have been (intentionally- i think) bent pretty far in one direction at ‘Hello my name is Paul Smith’.

The premise of the exhibition is fairly simple and unambitious, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It tells the story of Paul Smith’s retail expansion from a small room in Nottingham to a global business, replete with ‘designer collaborations’ from HP Sauce (my fav) to Evian water. What it fails to do is fill in the gaps in between.

A large part of the exhibition is devoted to explaining the creative process in design. This involves a strong immersive element: recreations of his studio in covent garden (twice) and , quite bizarrely (i thought), a room which goes ‘inside the head of Paul Smith’ through a very groovy video installation. What this seems to suggest about Paul Smith is largely what we might expect a designer to tell us: he likes to keep a notebook in his pocket at all times ‘inspiration is everywhere’ (haven’t heard that one before), ‘photographs are great’ etc etc. His desk and studio is, of course, a mess. Designers , we know by now, cannot work in any other way.

And yet: the rest of the exhibition, which shows the end result of a series of clever marketing strategies, brand collaborations and PR exercises, is very different. What results is a disjointed sense of how the two, creativity and business, are related. The financial success and global expansion of the Paul Smith brand is thus presented as a wonderful outcome of the creative process. While this of course has some role to play in it, (and the fashion collections on display are testament to this), there are many other factors involved which are missing. For me, an interesting story about fashion retail is completely lost.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is how it presents Paul Smith as curator. He has handwritten the labels. He has ‘handpicked’ the clothes from the archive. The role of the real curator- Donna Loveday- is overwritten. I can’t help but wonder what is being sacrificed here in the apparent aim to massage the designer’s ego and further amplify the public image of the designer-hero. I wonder why and how this has been allowed to happen. I also wonder, why and how (on earth!) the exhibition came to be called Hello My Name is Paul Smith.

To end on a positive note- because actually the exhibition is great fun and aesthetically lovely, especially if you are a Paul Smith fan- the final room features one of the best catwalk show experiences I have seen at an exhibition. These are now becoming a pretty well-worn feature of fashion exhibitions (although they were also a really interesting aspect of the isabella blow exhibition I saw recently). But at Hello my name is Paul Smith, the use of new Sony 4K tellies (not currently on the market) actually makes this feel like a real experience. The depth of the image and vivid colours are brilliantly deployed. In summary, the exhibition was enjoyable and certainly got me thinking, but not really for the right reasons.

Paul Smith's 'chaotic' working environment.

Paul Smith’s ‘chaotic’ working environment.

Vogue: Designer Lives

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2013 at 17:30


I haven’t bought Vogue for a while, but today, on a biscuit mission in my local newsagent, the words ‘Designer Special: At home, at work, at play’, made me pick it up, (well, that and Kate Moss on the cover)…

The December issue,  guest edited by John Galliano, celebrates the fashion designer, ‘their imagination, their creativity, their vision and their application’. In particular, a feature entitled ‘Designers Lives’ looks at the influences at play in the designer’s work. Editor Alexandra Schulman states, ‘Sometimes the connections are literal and sometimes less obvious, but all their designs are almost always rooted in a personal mash-up of experience and environment’.

The twenty-page feature presents the aesthetic and lifestyle choices of nine designers, including Erdem and Isabel Marant. The article pours over elements of the designer’s identity: their travel tastes, art collections, watch collections, reading material, furniture and even, in the case of Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCullough, their gardening skills. The result is a highly successful and alluring image (see: Isabel Marant on red vespa, Paris), of the designer as an expert and taste-leader.

As my thesis investigates, this fascination with the interior life of the designer has a long trajectory which forms part of the professionalisation discourse in design history.

The last chapter of my thesis, which focuses on the image of the designer, deals in part with the representation of the individual designer, ‘at home and at work’ in lifestyle and fashion magazines, including Harpers Bazaar and Vogue in the 1950s. Editorial features on the designers FHK Henrion and Gaby Schreiber, for example, both Consultant Designers and members of the SIAD, rests on strikingly similar motifs to do with the designer’s expertise in lifestyle choices.

However, in the 1950s, the identity of the designer was still relatively novel and a discourse of taste and expertise was only beginning to be built up.  This public interest in the personality of the designer accelerated in the 1980s, when a plethora of new design magazines emerged to fuel the ego of an expanding profession.

Paying greater attention to the public perceptions and stylistic representations of ‘the designer’ in fashion media can give a revealing insight into the potent mix of professionalism, creativity and cultural status that continues to define the image of the professional designer.

Vogue magazine is available from all good newsagents. 

Classifying Design

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2013 at 08:25


Why has design been so resistant to definition? How do other fields define and represent themselves? Does this affect how government understands design? Does this affect how the public understands design? How does the media present design to the public? How do museums and galleries? How does industry exploit its design credentials?

Yesterday evening, while Andy Murray was battling it out on centre court, a parliamentary group on design and innovation met in the Houses of Parliament to debate the above questions on the topic of ‘Classifying Design’. Peter Luff MP chaired the panel- Pete Collard (Curator, Design Museum), Edwin Heathcoate (Financial Times), Max Fraser (London Design Festival) and Anna Scott-Marshall (RIBA).

Presenting some quick initial responses, the panelists each said more or less the same thing: design is not easy to define. Why? Because it’s everything and, as Wang and O’Ilhan (a much quoted source in my PhD thesis) recently argued, everything is hard to define. So, it wasn’t the most hopeful starting point for a discussion.

Things got a bit more interesting when the chair, Peter Luff, backtracked somewhat to ask not how, but ‘Should we define design?’ The panellists mostly thought that we should and their motivation seemed to be driven by the need to secure greater social and economic leverage for design within government. There was a little bit of panic in the room about what would happen, if we didn’t: will design slip even further off the government’s radar? Edwin Heathcoate also presented a more culturally based argument- suggesting that we are currently facing a philistine government who need to be presented with concrete evidence as to the value of design and how it can improve our lives.

For me, the most helpful intervention came from the floor when Mary-Rose Cook, co-founder of the consultancy UsCreates, asked ‘how would classifying design help designers?’. In other words, who are we classifying design for? This allowed everyone in the room to think more clearly about if we were to classify design, what the object would be, and more specifically, who the audience would be. Designers, as one man in the attendance pointed out, know what they are doing, it’s the government that needs to have some more clarity.

With this in mind, the whole discussion started to move in a more practical direction. Rather than an identity building exercise within the design profession, classifying design would be about presenting a role for design to the government, to clear a more direct route into policy.

But who should do the classifying? When chair Peter Luff asked the  simple question of ‘Who represents designers?’,  I didn’t expect there to be such a deathly silence. Representatives of the DBA and the IED were present, but no one could think of any others. (Eventually someone offered that they thought there was a chartered society of designers). There was a great deal of confusion in the room over the Design Council’s remit. Jocelyn Bailey reminded the chair that they don’t represent designers, they promote the practice of design. It was a revealing moment that highlighted the invisibility of of design institutions even within their own industry, never mind outside of it.

A number of members of the audience and the panel then moved on to discuss why designers had been resistant to the idea of classification. “Designers don’t like conformity”, “designers like anarchy”, “the RCA graduate is beyond classification”….etc etc. Many more casual cliches about the image of the British designer were dropped and I wondered why everyone so happily accepts this idea (maybe we have a broadly accepted definition of design there). Part of my PhD will argue that this image of the designer has been historically constructed and sustained in contemporary design through a range of cultural enactments (including the art school, the museum and the media).

Has this identity crisis in design ever been resolved? Max Fraser suggested that design’s propensity to constantly re-invent itself makes the London Design Festival more interesting. Some of the panellists and the audience, surprisingly I thought, harked back to the ‘good old days’ of ‘Cool Britannia’, when the government started to ‘get it right’ on the role of design in cultural diplomacy. I hadn’t heard anyone praise Cool Britannia with a straight face for a long time, so it was interesting.

For me, the discussion came to a more satisfactory conclusion than I hoped for at the outset. There seemed to be a broad agreement about what who would benefit from a better classification of design (us, the public, via the government). And that, it seems to me, is an important step in the right direction.