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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.

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Vogue: Designer Lives

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2013 at 17:30

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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

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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.

Evgeny Morozov: “To save everything, Click Here”

In Uncategorized on March 22, 2013 at 10:44

evgenyLast night I went to the LSE to hear Evgeny Morozov speak about his new book, ‘To Save Everything Click Here’.

Morozov set out from the beginning the main territory of his argument, which essentially concerns the increasingly networked relationships between three groups: Designers/ Technologists at Silicon Valley, Policy Makers/Consultancies and the Government.

He argues that these technologists are irresponsibly using new tools such as sensors, big data and ‘gamification’ to intrude on the personal and political environment in ways which have not been fully discussed or considered by the public- morally, emotionally, philosophically. The increasingly central, and, as he would see it, dangerously empowered role designers now have in shaping the world through social media and technological tools, has been encouraged and driven forward both by the directives of neoliberal markets and lazy governments who would rather use quick fix ‘solutionism’ to social problems, than plan and design longer-term infrastructural change.

Morozov appeared to have a uniformly black vision of the role of designers at Silicon Valley  (maybe his book presents a more nuanced account?). He painted a pretty dark picture of how facebook, google and other evil forces have used cultures of creativity and design to sustain their market monopolies.

However, he was not pessimistic about the role designers can play in general. Rather he singled out the work of designers in Scandinavia who have employed an emotional approach to design and trigger a more thoughtful and morality-based response to social problems through the Never Hungry Caterpillar extension cord, which tells the user when it has been consuming too much electricity by twisting and contorting in ‘pain’.

I’m looking forward to reading Morozov’s book for a fuller account of some aspects of his paper which I found slightly contradictory- his at times moralistic and reformative attitude to public behaviour and at times quite narrow conception of the role and intent of the designer.

If designers and technologists have become as powerful and central as Morozov suggests, then this book will, I think, be part of an important debate for the design community about the social responsibilities it has in being a positive force for change.

Objects of a Passion

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2013 at 22:25

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This evening I went along to a Professorial Lecture given by Amy de la Haye at the London College of Fashion. Entitled ‘Objects of a Passion: Exhibiting Fashion and Dress in the Context of the Museum’, de la Haye took the audience on a journey through her work as Dress Historian, Fashion Curator and Ebay addict. As an undergraduate student,  De la Haye’s book Defining Dress, (1999), was one of the first texts that got me interested in fashion and design culture (I had to hunt it down in the anthropology section of the uni library along with Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams!), so I was really keen to go to hear her speak. 

The lecture began with some historical contextualisation of fashion curation, through a discussion of two major exhibitions at the V&A Museum: Britain Can Make It in 1946 and Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton in 1971. Both of these exhibitions, she argued, focused primarily on the designer and not the wearer; the emphasis being on the production rather than the consumption of design. Some fascinating archive material was shown, including a fantastic photograph of Cecil Beaton posing for a self-portrait  in his early twenties and some meticulously kept scrapbooks of his work. De la Haye was hinting towards the ways in which Beaton curated his own life through his exhibitions. 

She then moved on to discuss her own work, which started at the Brighton Museum in, The Messels: Six Generations of Dress, (2005) which told a very personal and yet universal story about the power of fashion and memory in a display of this family’s wardrobe. The next exhibition she discussed was Land Girls: Cinderellas of the Soil, (2009), which deconstructed the uniform of the Land Girl during the second world war. 

In addition to the unique archive material in her presentation,  it was de la Haye’s anecdotal asides that I found most inspirational (for example, the gushing way she described finding lipstick on a dress or how she got in contact with people who were out-bidding her for historical dress on Ebay to find out why they wanted it). Her work as a dress historian, fashion curator and Ebay addict has been held together by a genuine passion for the object. For me, her work has a real integrity, driven by the humanity of material culture- the reasons we wear clothes, rather than the reasons they are produced. 

RCA: 175

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2012 at 13:04

Tracy Emin, The Perfect Place to Grow, which lends its name to the title of the RCA Exhibition.

This morning, on my way to the National Art Library for another day of writing, I stopped in at the RCA to see their exhibition, “The Perfect Place to Grow”, which celebrates the school’s  175th year. The exhibition is to be part of a year long celebration of ‘the world’s oldest art and design school’.

The first room of the exhibition consists of what is essentially a timeline of esteemed alumni and staff: starting with Henry Cole and ending in James Dyson, with Sylvia Pankhurst and Tracy Emin in between. Although there are occasional references to internal shifts which mark greater social change (eg. admission of female students in 1841), this does quickly become quite a monotonous homage to the RCA celebrity-design-genius I think I’m pretty bored of reading about.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into four key themes: Art and Industry, Public Purpose, Personal Expression and Political Expression. In many ways the first section sets out the dominant theme for the whole exhibition, which seems to me to be the complex relationship between art and design at the school. The text to this section acknowledges that this debate, and the schools attitude to it,  has been unresolved or, as Christopher Frayling put it in his history of the school in 1999, ‘swung back and forth like a pendulum’. Interestingly, it also stated that this debate had been ‘laid to rest’ with the acquisition of the Royal Charter in 1967, after which the school had become more comfortable with the idea that ‘artists inspire designers’ and ‘designers inspire artists’. There was certainly evidence of how this had worked in some parts of the exhibition, particularly in the ‘critical design’ section in which designers used artistic ideas to challenge the commercial pressures of industry.

What was perhaps most interesting to me was the statement that today it is proud of the ‘cross-fertilisation’ between the two, which has made it a ‘formidable educational model’, when in fact from my research I know that the relationship between the two has been a source of anxiety rather than intent. If, as the press release states, on the of the main aims of the exhibition was to explore ‘the politics and polemics behind the perennial question of how Britain should train its artists and designers’, it would seem to me that the answer was that the RCA had arrived at its particular model by accident, rather than by design.

The exhibition had some really iconic and classic pieces of art and design by past students on display which will certainly cement the idea, (if it needs any further cementing), that the RCA is the place to study to really make it in design and that it has undeniably played a major role in Britain’s design history. What was missing, for me, was a greater sense of the character, values and ideals of the school which have been inculcated and handed down from generation of student to the next. Although the names of the students were boasted throughout, their voices and viewpoints were notably absent from what could have been a really fascinating exploration of what it has actually been like to study there.

2 Willow Road

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2012 at 12:10

After a gorgeous walk on Hampstead Heath yesterday I stumbled upon 2 Willow Road, the modernist home designed, built and lived in by architect Erno Goldfinger and his family.

Although the architectural structure of the reinforced concrete house is very striking,  I was more excited by the details in the interior of the house- the industrial plastic floor, the light switches embedded in the wood panelled rooms, the wardrobe designed with sections to fit the exact dimensions of a freshly pressed shirt. I was also mesmerised by the use of colour, which Goldfinger used as a kind of branding in the house in bold, fresh primary colours of blue and red. A solid blue which welcomes you at the door carries you up the staircase. With everything he did, Goldfinger displayed a great sense of conviction.

And yet, I could not help but also be struck by the overwhelming sense of egocentricism of it all. The design of the house said so much about him and so little about the rest of its inhabitants. His wife Ursula was eerily absent in the house. I was quite disturbed by the enormous amount of work space he gave himself at the centre of the house, spilling out in the main living area. I felt quite sad when our tour guide pointed out the clever shelving of Erno’s design which had literally hidden his wife’s canvasses behind his display cabinet. (This is even more frustrating when one learns that her inheritance financed the entire project).

Nevertheless, the building is a fantastic monument to the modernist ideal and much of its design still has the  capacity to shock and impress in its ingenuity, eighty years later. Now owned and managed by the National Trust, the building runs tours Wednesday-Saturday until the end of November.

Digital Humanities Congress 2012

In Uncategorized on September 10, 2012 at 08:07

Over the weekend I attended the Digital Humanities Congress 2012 in Sheffield and have sketched out some of the main trends of the congress above. I spoke about my research project on the Friday and received some really useful feedback. Thanks to the Doctoral Centre at the University of Brighton for the funding to attend this conference.

Designers are like cheese

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2012 at 09:27

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‘To talk about designers in general is like talking about cheese. There are as many different varieties, they have as many special local characteristics. They can vary from the delicious (if smelly), to the hard tough variety only palatable in small quantities and then preferably grated and sprinkled onto more substantial food’.

– Misha Black,’The Design Team’, Samuel Courthauld Lecture, 5 Feb 1959, 

Can anyone make any guesses who he meant by the smelly, delicious cheese and the tough variety? 

Poetry mapped

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2012 at 09:17

The guardian has created a ‘map of poetry’ to display the poems collected for the Poetry Parnassus, a week long festival at the Southbank which brings together poets from all the Olympic nations. Image