Friday, 25 April 2014

Design advice from 1893: "caprice is not always art"

What does it mean to be a designer?  These days ‘designers’ are often seen as those who design high status, desirable objects, in contrast to the more everyday stuff purchased by the majority of consumers. 

But when you stop to think about it, even the most apparently ordinary objects have had to be designed by someone, even if that person is not a well known ‘designer’ name.  This was the focus of a book published in 1893, and edited by Joseph Gleeson White.  Practical Designing: a handbook on the preparation of working drawings, was aimed at designers who were producing their designs for large scale production.  Arthur Silver, founder of the Silver Studio, contributed chapters on design for woven fabrics, printed fabrics and floorcloths; other contributors included Alexander Millar on carpets, Selwyn Image on stained glass and George C Haite on wallpapers. 

Practical Designing ed Gleeson White,
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Badda969

The book was clearly seen as a useful reference by designers themselves, being reprinted in six further editions between 1893 and 1919.  But it is not generally discussed by historians of design, perhaps because of its emphasis on designing for mass production, rather than design as an expression of individual creative talent.  As the introductory paragraph states; “the aim [of the book] has been to qualify a student to produce workable and therefore commercially valuable designs”.  Its intention was to explain to the novice designer something of the technical limitations of the loom or the textile printing machine, or the kiln, in order that they would create designs which were workable, and which would therefore be profitable for the manufacturer.

In the chapter on printed fabrics, for example, Arthur Silver outlined the complex marriage of technical and aesthetic considerations at play within the context of textile design.  Firstly, the width of the pattern repeat, which is dictated by the width of the fabric itself:

“Cretonne [ie printed cotton] cloths are usually 30” in width, therefore the repeat must be a divisor of 30”; thus 5”, 6”, 7 ½”, 10” or 15” should be selected”.

Then the length of the pattern repeat, which is limited by the fact that the print is applied by means of wooden blocks, by hand:

“As regards the length, it is not advisable to exceed 21” or at most 24”, as the weight of the blocks would exhaust the strength of the workman…”

In other words, in order to make designs that were workable, a designer should, according to Arthur Silver, pay attention to the technical limitations imposed by the medium, in order to avoid “producing schemes that are too costly in their reproduction for the ordinary market”.  He had strong words for what he implied was the vanity of designers whose schemes were ridiculously costly to put into production:

"Where art is concerned, economy must not warp or cramp its expression; but caprice is not always art, and to employ recklessly all the resources of modern commerce for merely ephemeral work, is neither proof of genius, nor is it a habit likely to find favour with manufacturers.” 

Strong words, and the same must presumably hold true for today’s designers. Are similar considerations around the balance of cost and aesthetics still made today, and how are they expressed differently?

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