This review was written in response to the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition last year and explores ideas around curation, and around a sensory approach to architectural practice.

SSKUM031_Kengo-Kuma1

The central problem of curating a show about architecture is how to attend to the qualities of space, light, and scale which are so central to the discipline, but which are difficult to assess from the elevations, models and renderings which populate more traditional exhibitions of the craft. The notion of commissioning architects to produce environments that somehow embody their philosophies and central concerns is not totally new (the architectural pavilion serves this function) but it is a concept that some more adventurous institutions are now willing to bring within the walls of the gallery. Exhibitions including New Nordic at Copenhagen’s Louisiana museum (2012) along with their current Arab Contemporary have invited architects to install structures that engage the viewer more directly and experientially in their work. While architectural biennales in Venice, Shenzhen and Hong Kong and elsewhere have a slightly longer history of employing installation to communicate the abstract qualities of the built form.

The Royal Academy’s decision to emphasise the spaces created by architects and architecture in their current exhibition Sensing Spaces is, however, a significant one. It signals a desire to move away from popular discourses around contemporary architecture which emphasise the external, structural, monumental qualities of the form (discourses frequently reinforced by illustration and photography that draw attention to glittering façades and gleaming towers) towards a more phenomenological, experiential mode of engagement with the built environment. To emphasise this point, and to enable visitors to gain an understanding of the output of architects whose studios are located as far away as Chile, China and Germany, the Royal Academy has invited seven architectural practices to intervene in its extensive galleries.

As I wandered through the cavernous rooms occupied by Irish practice Grafton Architects’ installation I felt ambivalent about the exhibition. The suspended volumes that occupy the high ceilings of the gallery seemed to take the brief to explore space rather literally, so I was pleased to enter into the environment that represents Chinese architect Li Xiaodong’s contribution to the show. Xiadong’s exhibit evokes a grove at the centre of a forest, large dusty pebbles crunch under-foot in a clearing magically extended by use of mirrors. One then enters into a series of maze-like corridors in which branches still covered in bark form screens allowing some light, sound, and movement through, but simultaneously creating a sense of containment. These narrow pathways are lit from below by patchy panes of translucent plexiglas beneath which halogen tubes hum like cicadas, casting up a cool, bluish moonlight as if the sky were beneath my feet. Here and there a booth appears, niched into the tactile surface of the screens, dim spaces of quiet isolation. It is a pleasing, playful installation strongly relating to Xiadong’s practice in which natural, untreated elements form cladding, partitions, and platforms. But Xiadong is not the only exhibitor to signal an interest in contemporary uses of natural materials.

A few galleries later, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a sepulchral space: fronds of bamboo grow from concealed spots of illumination, conducting light along their fine filaments into the darkened room. These twisting fronds form networks of undulating shapes captivating in their combination of structural complexity and material simplicity. The installation would have felt perfectly serene, a secular temple, if not for other visitors whose clumping feet disrupting the calm. While Xiadong’s environment felt uncannily familiar, referring both to the natural world and to traditional East Asian methods of construction, Kuma’s piece seemed much more abstract and alien: as if viewing microscopic organisms enlarged to a massive scale.

This sense of disorientation, and scale is employed somewhat divergently by Chilean architectural duo Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, whose enormous platform, supported by four massive columns, fills one end of an expansive gallery. Ascending to the top of the platform – via spiral staircases concealed in a column – I was suddenly brought startlingly close to the gallery’s ceiling. From this vantage point I became much more aware of the Royal Academy as a building, and I reflected on the strangeness of the original fine, detailed mouldings (incorporating neo-classical and gothic motifs besides pouting Pre-Raphaelite angels in Liberty-robes) installed high above the visitors’ heads. Perhaps, I reasoned, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s formalist treatment of the platform juxtaposed against the lush ornamentation of the gallery was intended as a comment on the status of decoration in contemporary architecture, so I was perplexed by their statement on the gallery wall:

‘we are not trying to express the structural properties of buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequences, the way they open – simple things that taken together suggest something more complex.’

The Pre-Raphelite angels in whose company they had placed me suggested something very complex, but it wasn’t to do with the sequence of rooms.

Perhaps architects aren’t always the best advocates of their own work, but while Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s comments on their practice alienated me, I noticed that the video accompanying the exhibition had the reverse effect of warming me to some the exhibits. Berlin based Burkina Fasoian architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, presented an installation featuring an arched structure thatched in brightly-coloured plastic-straws which could be slotted in or taken out at will. While it had seemed a fun and engaging piece in the gallery space, it gained a greater significance in his description of a practice that incorporated the community into every part of the design and construction process. Not all of the exhibits were equally successful or eloquent and I was left cold, for example, by Eduardo Souto de Moura’s cast of an existing doorway in the Royal Academy placed at an acute angle to the original. As an exhibition, however, Sensing Spaces achieves much: reconnecting the viewing public with the tangible qualities of architecture experienced up close, and to demonstrating the ingenuity of architects in creating spaces that speak to us in subtle, beautiful and engaging ways. Of course, ‘real world’ constraints often impinge on architects’ abilities to construct the harmonious environments of their imaginations, but that too is the value of an exhibition of this sort, freed of practicalities it can exist as pure rhetoric: a manifesto in concrete, bamboo and plastic straws.

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The Critical Writing in Art & Design area at the Royal College of Art show looks fantastic! Here are some images of the space and of the final publication that I produced focusing on contemporary menswear entitled Menswear in Motion.

You can access the digital version of the show catalogue here, and find writing from Critical Writing students and graduates here.

Critical Writing Jay McCauley Bowstead Menswear in MotionCritical Writing RCA

 

Jay McCauley BowsteadJay McCauley Bowstead2

Me Reading at Battersea

We launched ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978 with a party at RCA Battersea including readings and presentations. The book is an anthology of articles from the original ARK magazine featuring new introductory essays and some beautiful and enticing imagery (including all the covers of the original magazine during its three decade run). You can find a version of my essay ARK Magazine from Cover to Cover – though sadly without the images – in a previous post.

Link to Book

The essay below was conceived as an exploration of form and craft: here the form and manufacture of garments (and garment details) is emphasised, but the essay also seeks to draw attention to its own formal properties.

The jetted pocket is characterised by the simplicity of its appearance. Often found in tailoring, it is employed to provide a neat, reinforced finish to pocket openings.

Untitled-1

But the apparent simplicity of this small and modest detail, two narrow bands of fabric divided by a slit, belies the complex operations required in its manufacture. This process, in which strips of reinforced cloth are required to pivot, with acrobatic deftness, through a slashed aperture requires both precision and patience, but the result is worth it, seeming to communicate – silently if not inexpressively – a sense of elegance, modernity and perfection.

Interface a fabric of your choice with medium-weight fusing.

The dimensions of the jets are ~3cm longer than the desired opening of your pocket and 2cm thick. Cut two jets from the interfaced fabric.

The process of making a jetted pocket seems disconcertingly complex at first, but with practice, the very protractedness of its manufacture becomes part of its charm. Like the ritual production of mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism, repeated circumscribed actions bring with them a sense of calm: the machine’s rhythmic thud as its needle pierces the cloth, the steam of the iron. Making, so long as it is going well, is a glorious thing.

And so it seems I have become addicted to jetted pockets, applying them to whichever garment I am making irrespective of their appropriateness or necessity. They satisfy the modernist in me by obeying Constructivist designer Varvara Stepanova’s edicts: “do not add ornament to the garment, allow the seams and elements of construction to give it form” (Stepaonova, LEF 1923). Secretly, my attachment to the jetted pocket exists entirely independently of function and I have been known to apply them without a pocket bag rendering them entirely decorative and useless.

Interface the wrong side of the fabric with light-weight fusing no more than 3cm either side of the pocket. Fold your jets in half lengthways (with the fused sides together) and press flat. They are now 1cm thick.

Despite the iconic nature of the jetted pocket in tailoring, frequently applied to dinner jackets and other formalwear, the first written reference to one comes curiously late in 1866. The Gazette of Fashion, a journal devoted to the needs of tailors and cutters, records the jetted pocket in a list of average time requirements for the completion of finishings, in this case one and a quarter hours.

On the right side of the fabric place the two jets either side of the line marking the slit so that the raw edges of the jets are butted together
Mark 1.5cm from the edge of each jet on both sides. Draw a horizontal line to mark the centre of the jets.

Gazette of Fashion2Gazette of Fashion

Starting 1.5cm from the edge, as marked, stitch a horizontal line (along your drawn line) and stop 1.5 cm from the end as marked, back-tack at the beginning and end of the line of stitching. 

It is possible that prior to 1866 jetted pockets were widely used but were either too common a detail to warrant mention, or were referred to by a different name. Examining early 19th century uniforms in the National Army Museum’s handling collection, however, I was struck that none featured a jet: pockets forming narrow slits were instead placed in the centre of seams with the pocket-bag attached to the seam allowance. Perhaps then, the popularity, if not the invention of the jetted pocket, is owed to the revolutionary power of the first commercial sewing machines patented in 1856: This innovation meant that details requiring multiple operations of stitching – rather than deft cutting or applied ornament – became much more economical. In this sense, there is an argument for seeing what Flugel describes as the “male renunciation of ornament”, as well as the tendency of early 20th Century modernist dress-design to draw attention to “elements of construction” as closely related to the sewing machine. Fastenings, plackets, pockets and seams with their requirements for extensive accurate sewing, became more complex in manufacture displacing hand-applied ornament which had previously predominated.

Military jacket

With tailors chalk or a coloured pencil mark the dimensions of the finished jetted pocket onto the area of the garment where the jetted pocket will sit. Your paper pattern should feature four small holes to indicate the dimensions of the finished pocket. Mark these onto the wrong and right side of the fabric. On the right side mark the centre of the jetted pocket with a horizontal line to indicate where the slit will be. Draw two triangles pointing towards the centre of the pocket at either end, with the point of the triangle 1 centimetre from the edge.

With small scissors or a scalpel cut along the line of the slit stopping at the point of the triangle, cut along the two innermost edges of the triangles.

And yet, what was lost in this transition to more mechanised production? The uniforms of the 18th and early 19th century are notable not only for their applied ornament but also for the relationship between this decoration, the form of the garment, and the three-dimensional structure of the body: Seams engineered the cloth to cleave to the figure while simultaneously mapping and describing its contours. Embroidery, frogging, gold and silver lace emphasised the breadth of the shoulder and taper of the waist: nowhere was the garment conceived as a back and front, but as a unity, a fully three-dimensional object. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly given my affection for both overt decoration and modernist design, the jetted pocket with its perfectly rectangular form and machine finishing is part of the tendency toward a greater flatness, squareness and standardisation in dress which found its expression in Ernesto Michahelles’ Tuta, Varvara Stepanova’s Prozodezhda, and more prosaically in Levi’s jeans. Born of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, each of these iconic garments, in its own way, symbolised the spirit of democracy. But it is in the tiny details, as much as grand aesthetic narratives that the essence of the age expresses itself, the countless anonymous craftspeople who despite their anonymity created the material culture that defined its époque.

Now, push your jets through the slit to the wrong side of the fabric so that, pivoting on the line of stitching, the two folded edges of the jets face one another. The small triangles should also be turned through, the opening and jets may be pressed at this point so that they liflat. On the wrong side of the fabric sew the two triangles to the jets so that they are secured in place. 

This text appears in ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine published by the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the RCA. The essay draws attention to the important role of the cover in the history of the Royal College of Art’s ARK magazine, while simultaneously offering a cultural context for the shifting approaches adopted by designers and illustrators in ARK between 1950 and 1972 during the years that it existed as a regularly published journal. (Images – apart from the cover image – have been omitted for copyright reasons)

ARK: Words and images from the RCA magazine

The covers of ARK are an invaluable historical document: A treasure trove of graphic and illustrative gems, that map and often anticipate aesthetic shifts over the three decades of the magazine’s existence. They point both toward institutional changes within the Royal College of Art and shifts in the wider culture outside it. At the same time they capture changing ideas about the nature of communication design at the college: From a crafts based specialism of drawing and printing, to a modern graphic discipline, and subsequently to the subdivision of the area into illustration, photography and design. Conscious of its significance as an international cultural artefact ARK strove to project a confident image through its covers; its student contributors keen to use the journal to innovate and effect changes in the languages and techniques of graphic design.

‘Graphic designer’ was not a widely used term in the 1950s; ‘commercial artist’ being the more usual designation for those employed in producing advertising imagery, illustration, typography and layout. Richard Guyatt, appointed Professor of Publicity Design in 1948 – in the same year that Robin Darwin was appointed as Rector of the College – settled upon the title ‘Graphic Design’ to describe what was to become the college’s largest school.[1] Darwin’s founding of a School of Graphic Design, and at the same time courses in fashion, engineering and furniture design was central to an attempt to render the RCA better suited to the needs of industry. ARK gradually gained the support of the college and became part of Darwin’s broader project to focus attention on the RCA. The magazine was to remain closely associated with the School of Graphic Design throughout its existence. While Darwin’s programme was undoubtedly one of modernisation, it was of a somewhat conservative kind in which the hierarchy between traditional fine art practice and the other disciplines was maintained with the hope that by mixing with artists and studying art history, designers would become more creative, more cultivated, and as a result, could be dissuaded from some of the ‘vulgar excesses’ associated with commercial design.[2]

It would be easy to caricature Guyatt, with his love of Victorian illustration and typography, as representing a retrograde tendency in the design of the late 1940s and 1950s at the RCA. While his ethos – unlike his counterparts at the Central School of Arts and Crafts[3] – was clearly not one of uninhibited enthusiasm for contemporary European modernism, nor was his work – and by extension the work he championed within the college – a straightforward reproduction of nineteenth century aesthetics. Like other figures associated with Graphic Design at the RCA, including Eric Ravilious and John Nash, Guyatt’s visual language is one that employs a clarity of line, a sense of lightness communicated through a colour-palette favouring tints and tertiaries (rarely bold primaries and secondaries) and strongly delineated ‘graphic’ image-making that emphasises the flatness of the picture plane. These are tendencies that, along with Eric Ravilious’ mark-making (drawing attention to print and drawing processes), are clearly present in the student work of many early ARK covers. This somewhat romantic approach speaks of a relationship to continental modernism, which processed through the British art school, has gained a textured, chromatically muted quality.

David Gentleman’s cover for ARK 4 of winter 1952 demonstrates these romantic and playful tendencies at work, depicting a fantastical barge bearing the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion from the recent Festival of Britain. More than Guyatt, it is lecturer Edward Bawden whose influence is most strongly felt in Gentleman’s references to traditional printmaking, though his expressive and autographic line – hand drawn and then transferred to letterpress plates – distinguishes the image from Bawden’s more geometric linocuts. It is intriguing to see Gentleman, a hugely prolific and successful illustrator, producing accomplished work so early in his career, and the cover certainly has a relationship with his later work for Penguin and London Transport (though perhaps not so obviously with his celebrated ‘No’ poster for the Stop the War Coalition of 2003).

Less than a year later, ARK 6 of November 1952 – with Carol Jeffries as art editor – features a cover of white, intersecting linear elements forming a scaffolding-like lattice on a red-orange background: a reference, it seems, to an article on the design of a new hospital by architect Basil Ward featured inside. The cover strongly recalls the bright optimism of the Festival of Britain of only a year before, the linear elements suggesting space by evoking a diminishing perspective while simultaneously reading as flat abstract pattern, the grainy, irregular, hand-drawn quality of the line pointing towards a tension between ‘organic’ and geometric which often characterises design of this period. Though the cover of ARK 6, distinguished by its more modernist, abstract approach, differs markedly from Gentleman’s treatment of issue 4, a closer inspection also reveals continuities with, for example, the energetic scratchy mark-making of Ravilious. In this sense, this ‘Festival of Britain aesthetic’ is the result of a coalescence of more explicitly modernist elements (particularly those associated with industry) and an earlier practice of image-making which itself reveals links between an internationalist style and a more traditional (British) approach. Even the title ‘ARK’,rendered in a squashed serif that superficially resembles nineteen century advertising typography, communicates these genealogies: like the white scaffolding girders of the cover, like the atomic motifs of print designer Lucienne Day, like the wiry frames of Ernest Race’s furniture design it has become spikey, angular and modern.

As a student edited magazine, ARK was subject to the shifting tastes and desires of the student body, and as the 1950s progressed, the bright optimism of American popular culture, and the modernist aesthetics of Britain’s European neighbours exercised an appeal increasingly apparent in the design of its covers. In this sense, discourses surrounding graphic design, the visual arts, and contemporary culture occurred as much upon as in-between the covers of ARK, especially during the first two decades of the magazine’s existence. The shifting nature of these discourses is signalled, for example, in the harmonious geometry of ARK 22’s neo-Bauhaus composition by David Varley (1958) and much earlier in 1955, Alan Fletcher’s floating coloured squares for ARK 13 (the first ARK cover to feature sans-serif type) speaking of a shift toward modernist, abstract, geometric image-making in the mid-1950s and into the early 1960s. The level of abstraction, and the uncluttered minimal type of these covers – while of course influenced by earlier modernisms – was highly unusual for magazines of the period, the nearest comparator in terms of design might be the Italian domus (arte e stile nella casa arte e stile nell’industria) which, despite it somewhat divergent content – focusing on architecture, interior and industrial design – like ARK became known for its bold abstract covers, and innovative use of colour and photography.Fletcher’s vivid design for ARK 13 foretold his bright, energetic and contemporary approach pioneered as a founder of the Fletcher/Forbes/Gillpractice in the 1960s and Pentagram in the 1970s (proving highly influential to the tenor of graphic design of both decades).

By the late 1950s, with a shift to new larger magazine format, ARK had moved radically in its appearance: In ARK 20 of Autumn 1957 the price, issue number, and title have been displaced to the very topmost edge so that the whole page is occupied by A. J. Bisley’s dramatic photograph depicting neon light, movement, and the city at night. While the covers of the early 1950s fluctuated between tradition and modernity, ARK 20’s cover is pure dynamism, energy, and bombast. The photograph’s partially obscured Coca-Cola sign, gestures to the excitement of American consumer culture, demonstrating the currency of the ideas and aesthetics informing the emergent pop art of the period, and anticipating to the look and feel of the 1960s.

In 1956 Richard Guyatt, realising the need for a more contemporary approach in the School of Graphic Design, had recruited Independent Group member Edward Wright, formerly part of the Central School’s experimental typography workshop in the early 1950s. Wright’s Dadaist inspired techniques freely combining type, image and mark, strongly influenced students including Denis Postle and Terry Green whose covers for ARKwere to prove amongst the most daring in its history.[4] For ARK 24 of 1959, which reproduced a number of works by Italian artist Lucio Fontana inside, Postle designed a vivid orange cover, artfully punctured and slashed to echo the qualities of Fontana’s canvases and incorporating, rather impressively, a signed work by the artist himself. It would be unusual today to find a magazine that would adopt such an audacious approach to design, and in 1959 a deliberately punctured ‘Dadaist’ (or indeed Arte Povera) cover was unheard of.

ARK 25 of 1960 designed by Terry Green and Mike Kidd was to prove if anything even more controversial, combining a close-up of Brigitte Bardot’s face captured in three-quarters and bare shoulder in a high-contrast black and white reproduction:[5] the title, price and issue number are written in a continuous line in a random – but in fact obviously highly designed – ‘jumble’ of capitalised and lowercase lettering. Senior staff were worried not only at Bardot’s ‘provocative’ presence but also by the potential that readers might mistake Green and Kidd’s typographic innovations as mistakes.[6]

 In a not unrelated vein, ARK 33 in Autumn 1962 gestures towards the increasing significance of youth culture. The cover photograph, in black and white by Keith Branscombe, captures a young woman at three-quarters to the camera, her head and torso framed diagonally across the page. As she glances downward strong directional lighting casts her face into shadow while her loose shoulder-length hair and fringe – connoting youth and freedom – radiate brightness. The low angle and dramatic light emphasise the figure’s breasts beneath the fabric of a sporty drop-sleeved jersey, an eroticising image but in a 1960s mode: dynamic and apparently un-posed: The photo-essay inside from which the cover image is taken, describes an eighteen hour ‘Non-Stop Twist’ from Gravesend to Calais – a new rite of passage for an emerging youth culture.

ARK 36 of 1964 is so startlingly contemporary in appearance that it would look perfectly comfortable on a news rack today; indeed, only its elegant uncluttered composition, a gesture of trust in the communicative power of type and image, would prove anomalous against current magazine design (whose covers tend to feature rather more text to hint at content inside). The title, Gill Sans capital letters in a magenta tint, sit above an image of Converse-clad feet whose crossed ankles peak from the machine-stitched hems of blue jeans. These trainers rest nonchalantly on the tread of an open-plan staircase, an indistinct background blurring out of focus. American basketball shoes (difficult to source in England in the 1960s) serve as a dual emblem, both of an appropriated American youth-culture, casual, cool and unaffected, and simultaneously of a British cosmopolitanism in which such items as Levi 501s and Converse ‘sneakers’ were sought after, and exotic items. The lens-flare in the centre of the image aids the composition by breaking up the diagonal of the crossed legs, while also adding a gauzy filmic quality. The reflected sunlight fading from white, to faded-yellow, to pink picks up on the bright typography above. The cover of ARK 36 points to a variety of British cultural concerns of the time. Most notably, the increasing centrality of youth culture in which anglicised borrowings from US and Continental Europe influenced areas as diverse as visual art, rock and roll, and fashion.

Nevertheless by the mid 1960s, ARK had to do more to be noticed. Influenced both by ARK’s own graphic approach and by the influential German magazine Twen, titles such as Man About TownQueen and the Sunday Times’ Colour Section (enlisting former ARK designer Brian Haynes) were now producing lively dynamic compositions with liberal use of photography that made ARK look suddenly much less original and exciting.

In the context of nuclear proliferation, the Vietnam War, South African Apartheid and enduring class divisions, student political consciousness increased, finally climaxing with the student protests of the late 1960s. The figurative illustration increasingly seen on the covers of A R K during this period, harnessed the power of the pictorial image as a mechanism for communicating political and social preoccupations. Thus ARK 43, Spring 1969, with a cover designed by John Henderson, uses innovative illustration techniques to draw attention to failures in urban design and the problems of contemporary architecture. A montaged colour photograph of a (somewhat twee) domestic interior features a window revealing a hand-drawn ‘view’. The drawn view depicts a bright and verdant vista, extensive lawns with strolling figures and in the background gleaming modernist façades. This has been printed onto thick card, in turn cut and scored, so that the two ‘panes’ of the window open to reveal the more humdrum reality, a black-and-white photograph depicting railings, vehicles and a motorway in front of featureless, modern, rectangular buildings. Although there are connections between these and earlier Pop Art inflected issues of the magazine (for example in the use of montage and elements of kitsch), by the end of the 1960s the shine seems to have come off modernity for RCA students, as images on and in ARK embrace a more ambivalent, pessimistic tone.

The rise of second-wave feminism both as manifested in figurative painting and drawing and in performance brought a more corporeal quality to the visual arts in the 1970s: the body as locus of identity, control, liberation and desire coming to the fore. Ark 47 with a cover illustration by John Holmes, originally produced for feminist lifestyle magazine Nova, reflects this more embodied sensibility. A squatting naked woman turns her face as a baby’s head emerges between her legs from a length of fabric that she knits with two wooden needles. The mournful impassive face of the child, gazing directly ahead in contrast to its ‘mother’ emphasises the weirdness of the image. Issue 47 takes pollution as its major theme with a poem by Ted Hughes entitled A Disaster[7] and articles focusing both on environmental and various forms of spiritual pollution[8] and genetic engineering.[9]A reflection at once of increasing concern for the environment, a continuing fear of nuclear proliferation and perhaps also, within the college, a growing air of unease that accompanied Robin Darwin’s final year at the RCA.

The college’s production of a magazine that transcended its status as a college journal to become a significant cultural artefact owed much not only to Darwin’s benevolence, savoire-faire, and connections, but also to his remarkable tolerance – not least in permitting slashed and scrawled, provocative, deliberately low-culture editions to be produced with the college’s blessing and resources. In this sense, ARK acted as a vehicle for talented young designers and illustrators to test their ideas in a context that guaranteed exposure, but which simultaneously insulated them from some of the commercial and editorial pressures that often prohibit innovation. The changing rostra of designers and editors who produced the magazine saw significant figures in British graphic design, including David Gentleman and Allen Fletcher, make their first forays into the public eye. Unmoored by a restrictive ‘corporate identity’ ARK was a publication in constant flux, a fact that enabled its designers to produce truly inventive covers which not only mapped the shifting concerns of the college (between 1950 and 1972) but also to effected real change on the landscape of design during this period. In the hands of ARK’s designers and illustrators the magazine’s cover became a statement of intent, which, while rarely alluding to the written content of the magazine through titles or text, nevertheless, eloquently articulated the mood and concerns of the college at the time. Like banners or standards, the covers of ARK acted to impress the power and influence of the RCA beyond the confines of the college. And even for those who only vaguely perused the contents of the magazine, the cover – whether featuring bold geometry, pitted and wounded paper, or surreal imagery – acted as a visual representation, a symbol and a statement, a series of icons of the Royal College of Art which continue to resonate to this day.


[1] Richard Guyatt later wrote of this choice of name: “It was only after an article appeared in The Times rapping the College over the knuckles for the vulgarity of such a concept as ‘Publicity Design’, that a serious quest for a name was made. With a sense of relief, but not much conviction, the name ‘Graphic design’ was chosen. No one was quite sure what it meant but it had a purposeful ring to it” (Guyatt qtd. in Frayling) Christopher, Frayling. Art and Design: 100 years at the Royal College of Art. London: Richard Denis Publications, 1999: pp. 253-254.

[2] Alex, Seago. Burning the box of beautiful thingsThe development of a postmodern sensibility. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 1995. pp. 49-67

[3] Jesse Collins’ department at the Central School of Arts and Crafts was the fulcrum of progressive, modernist graphic design teaching in the UK during the 1940s and 1950s with notable designer/teachers including Herbert Spencer, Anthony Froshaug and Edward Wright. Seago, Alex. “Seize the sans serif.” Eye Magazine, 16 (1995): Web.http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/seize-the-sans-serif.

[4] Alex Seago, Art and Design: 100 years at the Royal College of Art. Ed. Frayling, Christopher. London: Richard Denis Publications, 1999: p. 65.

[5] The image, a still from Et Dieu créa la femme of 1956 by Roger Vadim, a film which pushed the boundaries of acceptable representations of sexuality on screen and which (perhaps as a result) was a favourite at the college (Seago, Burning the Book of Beautiful Things: p. 40): The film represents a somewhat less liberated and modern image of desirable femininity than Keith Branscombe’s photo-essay of 1962 discussed in the next paragraph.

[6] Alex Seago, Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: p.40.

[7] Ted, Hughes. “A Disaster.” ARK, 47 (1970): p. 16.

[8] Christopher, Cornford. “baby, please rock my boat.” ARK, 47 (1970): pp. 16-17.

[9] David J., Cove. “Genetic Engineering – The Ultimate Pollution?.” ARK, 47 (1970): p. 18.

The Sea

Text: Jay McCauley Bowstead 2013

Sparkling, luminescent rhomboid reflections, systematised impressionism, deconstructed pointillism. Like atoms in crystalline formation melting into liquid they seem to swim – the lights of the city reflected on a skin of water – phthalo-green, oxide of chrome, raw sienna, then ochre, tints of scarlet and a litany of intense, transcendent blues: cobalt, cerulean, Prussian … bright and sombre hues, tertiary colours, tints and neutrals. The painting is Nataraja (1993) by Bridget Riley.

Bridget Riley’s paintings from the late 1960s onwards often seem to evoke the sea, most obviously in her frequent use of curvilinear motifs, but more importantly, in the effects of light and colour which she so meticulously constructs. In Coloured Greys 3 of 1972 one simultaneously has the impression of depth and of surface. The qualities of colour-tone are so exquisitely subtle in their transition from neutral-blue to grey-green to warm-grey, that the change is scarcely perceptible, giving one at first only the impression of shadowy movement.

ImageRiley’s works ostensibly possess a certain distance, a coolness, in their scrupulous precision. But there is an energy and dynamism to her painting which beneath its taut surface is endowed with a virile power. Unlike many of the artists she admires and with whom she shares an affinity – Klee, Cezanne, Matisse, and Monet – she rejects painterly technique, the evidence of the hand and brush that so obviously connect the viewer to the artist. Whereas these painters express an immediacy in their use of mark, stroke, and gesture, Riley’s works communicate their potency via tense composition, chromatic relationships that seem ready to explode or collapse and formal play creating undulating, swimming canvases. To describe Riley’s work as oceanic might at first glance seem counter-intuitive, diametrically opposed to the tricksy virtuosity of Turner’s more famously pelagic oeuvre. But while Turner’s immersive, elemental atmosphere is informed by an essentially Romantic sensibility, Riley evokes the natural world in a more 20th century mode: dynamic molecular structures and photons in flight. Accordingly, paintings such as Cateract (1967) and Entice (1974) compel not through immersion in a maritime scene, but instead, submerge us in the sea itself revealing the currents and forces that lie beneath its glittering surface.

The sea is a perfect object of contemplation for an abstract painter almost an abstract medium in itself, resistant to sign or motif. For this reason, the effort of representing the ocean is expended in capturing its movement, its opaque depth, reflective skin, and translucent glow. And while Riley’s work doesn’t represent nature, in the conventional pictorial sense, its presence is clearly felt in her treatment of colour, tone and plasticity of form. This sensitivity to landscape is evident in the vivid and thoughtful descriptions which characterise Riley’s own reflections on her life and work:

‘I spent most of my childhood in Cornwall … In many ways there wasn’t much to do, except walking on the cliffs and looking at the seas, the skies all around … although one may go the same way, it never looks the same. If you walk with the sun behind you all the colours are fully saturated the sky is solid blue’ (Riley 1999: 44)

The Sublime

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In Evoë (2003) animated waves of turquoise-green lap against tints of pink- violet, and ultramarine. Traveling rhythmically forward and back, a sinuous geometry of tessellating forms arranges itself in a dynamic play of light and colour. It is a work that transports me away from London’s sombre skies to a distant coast, the translucent sea reflecting a brilliant cerulean sky. More precisely, the painting replicates the feeling of freedom such a scene would create: analytical responses giving way to emotional and instinctive ones as if floating in buoyant water. Riley’s ability to stimulate intense sensory effects is integral to the power of her painting in which affective, aesthetic and formal elements are inextricably linked. As she describes herself:

‘My Paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotion. One of my aims is that these two responses shall be experienced as one and the same.’ (Riley 1999: 79)

Certain works of art as divergent as the jewel-like stained glass in Sainte Chapelle, Monet’s paintings of Giverny, and Riley’s pulsating canvases provoke in their intense chromatic effects an overwhelmingly emotional response. This feeling of transcendence through art is one I associate most strongly with Paris and its wonderful galleries of late 19th Century and early 20th Century painting. For me, the most precise artistic comparison for the experience of viewing Riley’s work is found in Monet whose paintings often possess a similarly aquatic quality. Walking through Riley’s 2003 retrospective at the Tate, I was reminded of the large paintings of Monet’s garden exhibited at the Orangerie, whose fog of brushstrokes; blue, viridian, violet and magenta capture an aqueous, amphibious world. As with his huge curved canvases, Riley’s paintings seemed capable of swallowing me whole and transporting me elsewhere.

This notion of being overwhelmed by a superior force is my ideal of artistic appreciation, but in my desire for transcendence and catharsis I am at odds with a more Brechtian conception of art which privileges emotional distance as a prerequisite for intellectual engagement. I would argue, however, that this compartmentalisation of experience is problematic, implying that we can somehow absent our subjective selves from the experience of viewing a work of art. Worse, it seems to involve a denial of what it is to be fully human and to experience the full gamut of emotions. Why, after all, should an emotional response preclude an intellectual one?

In fact, the dynamic effects of Riley’s paintings exist within the context of a precise, highly informed, and even academic approach, their transporting effects the result of assiduous formal experimentation. In this way, it is possible to appreciate Riley’s work both analytically and instinctively: Her work is at once a meditation upon qualities of light, sea and landscape and a response to the history of modernist painting as practiced by Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse and the American abstract expressionists. Indeed, so much of the history of painting, is an attempt to capture light and colour – refracted particles of air and water – and through this process to reflect something of the transcendence of the natural world.

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The watery nature of Riley’s work seems to have received little attention but it hides very much in plain sight, her titles including Reef, Sea Cloud, Reflection, and Lagoon. If Riley’s sensibility was coloured by her childhood by the sea, I wonder if my own aesthetic feelings have a similar basis. I have a vivid memory of standing on one of the top floors of Eastham College where my Father taught, an amazing pink and turquoise sunset glowing over East London refracted in the dense particulate-laden air.

Reading Kant’s Critique of Judgement as a preparation for writing this piece, it struck me that my sense of aesthetics is based almost exclusively on a physical and emotional response to the world around me. As he suggests:

Beauty has purport and significance only for human beings, i.e. for beings at once animal and rational (but not merely for them as rational beings—as spirits for example—but only for them as both animal and rational)’ (Kant trans. Meredith 2007: 41)

It’s a statement that rings true; we feel beauty when we see it, not merely as an intellectual or cultural response but as a visceral emotion. But unlike Kant I’m unable to delineate the sublime, the transcendent, or the beautiful with any empirical confidence. Nor am I able to describe where such phenomena would lie, whether in my cognition, or in a quality inherent to the object of beauty. Nevertheless, there is something particular to the quality of light and colour in certain spaces and works of art that provides such an intense sensory experience that it transports me. To stand before one of Bridget Riley’s paintings is to allow oneself to be swept away, submerged in the aqueous nature of her curvilinear forms, dancing liquid hues, and sparkling vibrating geometry.

References:

Bridget Riley, The Eye’s Mind: Collected Writings 1965-1999 (Edited Robert Kudielka), Thames and Hudson, 1999, London.

Immanuel Kant, Translated By James Creed Meredith, Oxford University Press, 2007, Oxford.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

20s Modernism across a range of media and disciplines.

The PDF linked below was an attempt to create a genealogy of modernist design which accounted for the interconnected nature of various “modernisms” expressed across medium and discipline. I find it intriguing that the machine aesthetic, formalism and abstraction inflected fields as (ostensibly) different as industrial design, fashion, typography, scenography and architecture. It is also interesting to consider how Arts and Crafts, in many ways an anti-modern movement, sowed the seeds of radical modernism in its insistence on truth to materials and in its linking of social and progressive ideals, which in turn located the applied arts as a set of uniquely transformative media. As well as links and continuity there is contradiction and rupture, not least between more progressive modernist design and the more conservative application of some forms of Art Deco. This presentation was originally produced to illustrate my lecture on “Modernism in Design” at the Working Men’s College in Camden.

Modernist Design