from The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century
Yale University Press 1999 ISBN 0 300 07780 7
Part 3 1970-1990
Sheer enjoyment - The 1970s
David Queensbury, Professor of Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art . . . blamed the foundation courses in art schools which, he found, were invariably taught by painters and sculptors who typically projected a career as a designer as pedestrian and unexciting. Thus students, particularly in textiles, ceramics, furniture, silversmithing and graphic design, moved towards what Queensbury called ‘para-art activity’ where ’the emphasis is only to try to hold together a certain innate creativity.’ These students, Queensbury explained, were working with a whim of iron. It is a fine art approach to subjects that have been, from an historical point of view, related to products. It may well be that this approach is an escape from the problems of our time. And because of those problems people bury themselves in a private world of fantasy.
Queensbury’s ‘Whim of iron’ was equally at work in the College’s Department of Silversmithing and Jewellery where tutorial visits from modernist designers like David Mellor and Robert Welch were greeted with little enthusiasm and where two students, Robert Marsden and Michael Rowe, were making objects that would not have looked out of place in a Renaissance princeling’s Kunst- or Wunderkammer. Rowe saw himself as a modernist but he was clearly working in a spirit very different from, say Welch. He was inspired by early modernism in the fine arts, music and literature rather than in the machine aesthetic. He believed in ‘the sovereignty of the artist’ and was not interested in design for production. Similarly in the Department of Furniture in the late 60s Richard La Trobe-Bateman had already begun to resent ‘a hidden curriculum which decreed that all design had to embrace new materials, new techniques and new arrangements of the parts. Fred Baier, in the same Department from 1973 to 1976, rebelled against this ‘hidden curriculum’ which he saw as a mixture of ‘Form follows Function’ modernism and Cotswold craftsmanship. In his degree show Baier paid ironic homage to Britain’s declining industrial base, offering a chest of drawers which simulated the wooden pattern made for the moulds used to cast a piece of industrial plant. Privately and rebelliously Baier had coined the term ‘Form Swallows Function’ . . .
Enterprise Culture: The 1980s
This survey of the 1980s is necessarily an extended sketch rather than a history. But from the perspective of the late 1990s one assertion can be made. The end of consensus politics in Britain and the sweeping changes introduced by Mrs Thatcher’s successive governments from 1979 until 1990 were to affect every area of British life. In the case of the crafts, the change was strikingly more to do with context and presentation than with content. The craft disciplines continue to explore formal problems first addressed in the 1970s, albeit with a grater anti-modernist emphasis on surface decoration, historicism and the figurative. The only entirely new visual development was linked to computer-aided design (CAD). The use of CAD created a family of forms which amounted to a computer-generated style, most marked in car design but also striking where employed speculatively by makers. Thus Fred Baier and Rebecca de Quin, in disciplines as diverse as furniture making and silversmithing, created work with an instantly recognisable, three-dimensional visual logic. But it was the ways in which craft was written about and consumed which altered most markedly. . .
In 1979 the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham put on the show Furniture Sculpture, demonstrating that there was more to furniture than the three piece suite, stripped pine kitchens and diet of cut-price good taste being effectively purveyed by Habitat. Some of the exhibitors involved – Floris van den Broecke, Erik de Graff and Fred Baier – were to be taken up by the Crafts Council. Others, like the sculptors Helen Chadwick and David Nash, became significant players in the fine art world. One exhibitor, the architect Nathan Silver, was the author, with Charles Jencks, of Adhocism; The Case for Improvisation (1972), an anti modern tract which made a case for ‘new methods of repersonalising the impersonal products of an industrial society’ and allowing ‘consumption based on individual desire’ . . .