I have been thinking about contemporary furniture, design practice, and the matter of making – and recently learned about what sounds like a very promising lecture/event to be held at The Design Museum in London (England) on the evening of Tuesday, September 5th, 2017. (Read more about the event here.)
What caught my eye was the list of speakers, including Richard Sennett, Glenn Adamson, John Makepeace and Catherine Rossi. Sennett is a sociologist. Adamson is a Craft Historian and Museum Curator. I follow Rossi on Twitter, but I don’t know her work very well. Makepeace has been an influential figure in the world of contemporary fine furniture. In 1977 he founded Parnham College, a design school that nurtured and pioneered a human-centred approach to craftsmanship. As The Design Museum’s press release notes, “Arguing that British design and woodcraft education at the time was inadequate, the school set out to develop an educational model that would integrate design, making and business management as a single discipline.” To mark the 40-year anniversary of Parnham College, and celebrate the launch of Makepeace’s book ‘Beyond Parnham’, The Design Museum is “bringing together leading voices in the field of craft to discuss the legacy of Parnham College and the value of making and craftsmanship in design today.” (link: https://designmuseum.org/things-to-do/talks-and-events/parnham-the-matter-of-making)
I know that I’m certainly not the first to be fascinated by this topic, but I think that there needs to be more discussion about the designerly thinking involved in the practice of making. This is especially relevant to the practice of furniture design and its ever-shifting position in relation to functionalism, craft, industry/technology, design and creativity, cultural and sociological context. In a general sense, there has been some work done on the distinction between the skilled labour that goes into the decorative arts and the creative planning that is at the root of design. At various times in history, this distinction has shifted and become more or less highlighted – I’m thinking of the shift from the era of Medieval craft to Renaissance art and design (discussed in Laura Morelli’s TEDed lesson here), and then again in the late 18th and early 19th century with a western response to functionalism and industrialization. This was partly Sennett’s topic in his book The Craftsman (read Fiona McCarthy’s review of The Craftsman in The Guardian here). In Glenn Adamson’s recent publications, he has been part of the academic move to open up a more global discussion of craft and design that isn’t necessarily predicated on the maker’s relationship with technology. (Adamson co-edited Global Design History, available here.) The application of these ideas to the topic of contemporary furniture practice is very encouraging.
We are currently in the midst of a shift in values that makes today’s design culture different. There are new reasons to bring craft and design – making and planning – practices back together. Designers are coming up with new practice models that are not binary. The ability to make what they design, direct and even own the technological means to create it, or at the very least to be very involved in the decision-making of how their designs are developed/made/assembled/manufactured is, for an increasingly large number of designers, inseparable from the design process itself.
I haven’t yet booked an early-September flight to London, but I’m hoping to hear much more about this topic!
Image: While not a contemporary example, this is a chair designed and made in the 1950s by my great-uncle, Hugh Dodds, at his studio/factory ‘Aero Marine Industries’ in Oakville, Ontario. He was also responsible for distributing the product widely to mainly educational institutions across Ontario. Photo: Karen R. White