Meeting of Minds

Mike Reed
18 May 2011

For a few years now brand and business consultant Jan Casey has been hosting Meeting of Minds: an annual gathering of branding and design folk focused on a talk or debate between industry luminaries.

I’ve been to the last four now, I think, and they’re always great. Each year, the question for debate is:

‘How can design not only meet a client’s commercial objectives but also enhance our lives and the culture around us?’

Last year, while exploring that theme, former Rector of the RCA Sir Christopher Frayling made a statement that Jan wanted to pick up on and explore more closely. He said:

‘There was this great tradition of British design and craftsmanship which was grounded in ideas which went right back to the origins of modern design in the mid 19th century – and which in turn were embedded in the culture, understood by specialists and non–specialists alike.

‘In the 1980s, all this seemed to be forgotten or at least left behind. The headlong rush towards business and profit – which was a huge plus in terms of profile and status and public awareness – was a turning point.

‘I think British design lost much of its theoretical base, and some of its substance, when that happened.’

It’s quite a statement, so you have to applaud Jan for getting Sir Christopher back to talk about it some more. Which he did, in conversation with the Director of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic.

The conversation was long, slightly meandering, but generally fascinating. As ever, it’s just a pleasure to sit and listen to people talk with passion about things they know far more about than you do. (One of the reasons I’m a fanatical listener to In Our Time.)

Changing words
There were lots of interesting nuggets, one of which in particular pricked this copywriter’s ears. While describing how non–practitioners used to have a clear sense of, and opinion about, design, Frayling quoted some words delivered to his historic namesake, Sir Christopher Wren.

Apparently, King James II (or possibly Queen Anne) described St Paul’s Cathedral as amusing, awful and artificial. But it wasn’t the damning verdict it appears today. The King (or Queen) meant the work was pleasing, awe–inspiring, and demonstrated skill and artistry.

(The process by which words shift their meaning like this is covered inthis good language blog.)

A loss of public understanding?
Nuggets and meanderings aside, there was a clear theme, at least for Frayling. He was concerned that modern times had seen a decline in the discussion of art and design outside the ‘industry’ itself, and that this was in large part the fault of those within it, who no longer talked in serious terms about their subject to the wider public.

These days, he said, a talk by a big–name designer was more likely to be a run through his or her portfolio than any sort of detailed discussion about the deeper concerns in art and design.

‘Post–modernism,’ he said, ‘likes breadth, not depth.’ In 21st Century British art and design it’s ‘naff to be serious’, and no one talks about serious things like ethics or truth.

(Coincidentally, a few days after Meeting of Minds, I came across this rather more optimistic article in The Observer about the British attitudes to intellectualism.)

Frayling compared this with the Victorian era, when practitoners likeJohn Ruskin, William Morris, Christopher Dresser and Owen Jones (who helped found the V&A) would write and speak about their work in real depth to audiences outside the practice. They felt an obligation, he said, to explain what they did for a living.

He told us about the V&A’s early exhibit, ‘Decorations on False Principles’ – also known as the Chamber of Horrors – which collected examples of what the curators believed were bad design. (Frayling covered this in more detail in his inaugural Henry Cole Lecture at the V&A, which you can watch on Vimeo.)

Deyan Sudjic took some issue with the idea that one can pin an item down as ‘bad design’. But Frayling’s point was not that we should have ‘rules’ on what’s good or bad, but that the curators were giving their reasons for thinking as they did. It was part of an active, informed public discussion about design.

He compared that with an episode of The Apprentice, where a team had to design pet food packaging, and clearly had absolutely no sense of what ‘design’ meant. They didn’t consider any of the practical issues in the brief, but treated design as ‘the icing on the cake’ – a shallow, frothy business little more sophisticated than colouring–in.

(That may be a bad example, given that most Apprentice contestants seem the sort who’d have trouble, as the saying goes, knowing their arse from a hole in the ground.)

From designer to ‘Designer’
In the 1980s, Frayling said, there was a split between ‘art’ and ‘design’ which saw designers producing limited ‘art’ editions and rejecting the idea of design for the high street, which Frayling defended as a ‘noble’ pursuit.

He clearly saw this as partly to blame for a public sense of ‘design’ as essentially superficial, and perhaps rather pretentious, rather than a real art and craft, with complex theoretical roots and a rich history.

That rings pretty true to me. We still use ‘Designer’ to denote a premium item, creating a skewed understanding of ‘design’ – and the obviously nonsensical implication that ‘ordinary’ things haven’t been designed at all.

Art and design on the brink?
The most startling claim of the evening came right at the end, when Frayling spoke about the Browne Report on Higher Education. Before the report was published, he said he was convinced it would prove the moment art and design at last got the recognition they had long fought for as serious, valuable academic disciplines.

But they didn’t. Instead, Frayling believes art and design are being relegated in Government thinking to purely vocational, practical subjects, rather than ‘serious’ academic ones. Unfortunately I didn’t jot down the name of the official he quoted, who dismissed art and design on exactly these grounds.

Frayling’s final words were an impassioned, almost despairing, plea against this potential loss of status. But it wasn’t just a plea to Government. It was a plea to artists and designers themselves – to be more active in ‘spreading the word’ about the thinking behind, and importance of, their subject.

It was stirring stuff. I learnt a lot (I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about Christopher Dresser or Owen Jones), and as you can tell it sent me off looking in various interesting directions. You can’t ask for much more from an event like this.

Thanks are definitely due to Jan and her speakers for another great evening. Can’t wait for next year.

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