Style and design

By Michael Skywood Clifford.

I was very young, three, when I came across my first design icon. I lived in Europe after the Second World War and I remember studying the Coke bottle. It was highly desirable: a black, glistening, ribbed, wonderful shape, and when I was a bit older I appreciated the white 'Coke' on one side and the wavy 'Coca-cola' on the other. And the contents tasted great to a three year old too.

My dad used to point out another icon when we sat in cafe bars in Hamburg:  the Porche. And we used to travel in another one: our own Volkswagen Beetle, and I used to especially love the Volkswagen 'Traveller'. I loved the VW company logo.

And when I was in Austria walking with my dad, I came across a line of Crucifixes, much like a Caspar Freiderich painting of Christs set against the snow.  Each hanging sculpture of Christ towering over us from the crucifix's hooded tops. What an image! And another powerful icon – also here in Austria – the leftovers of Nazi persecution that had taken over Austria, Black Eagles on lances with the amazing carved black and white lettering under them. I was really impressed with those. Nazi carving, yes, but the whole image owed a great deal to the Roman military.

Having moved back to the UK, I lost all sense of style and design. I lived in a large rambling house, where all furniture was placed around you higgledy piggledy. We had all sorts of furniture coming from different sources so none of it matched, or had the same 'colour scheme'. It was 1959, I was nine, and we had hot water, a black and white television and a party line telephone. Dad, a previous RAF man, was now a technical author and even though he would rave on about syntax and dictionary definitions, he had little interest in a self-conscious visual style of his living environs and neither did anyone else. His idea of style was to paint every room white and to fill it with mirrors, to get in as much light as possible. I felt pretty much the same, and am still painting interiors white and putting up mirrors. It was a world of whatever was placed there – however much it didn't fit with what was adjacent – it had a right to do so.

Yet I went on to study Art and Design, which consisted at first of a Foundation Course, which was a combination of Fine Art – the skills of drawing and painting and perception – and design – which was about commercial art and about fitting a design solution to a design problem. I gradually learned over my full course that there was a vast conceptual and philosphical divide between them.

Commercial art included designers of  illustrators, furniture, architecture, ceramics, interior, garden, 3D, 2D, Jewellery, graphic design, visual communication and many others, and its job was to fulfill a brief and make a pleasing impact on the user. Fine Art was not at all concerned with pleasing the recipient, or satisfying a brief, but only in pleasing oneself as an artist, about communicating expression or a specific visual idea. No designer would ever be a Picasso nor would any Fine Artist illustrate Noddy. These were the walls of 70s Art Colleges (and of course they were made to be broken) but these were the aspirations and the taboos of the time. If a man did Textile Design he was a wimp but if he did Fine Art he was a real man. Ha ha.

I went on to do three more years in Fine Art, studying mainly painting and drawing, but with some print making and photography, art history and music in the form of liberal studies.

The basic thing about fashion and design in the Fine Art world was that it was 'slick' and anyone could be slick. The Fine Art trick was to shock, to fascinate, to stun, to recreate perception with one's paintings. 'Perception' is why there is so much conceptual art around these days. I had a lot of trouble understanding what on earth the lecturer's did expect from a Fine Art course, these expectations being extremely arcane. I would have been better doing an illustration course from the word go, but I was badly advised. I did get my own way when I did a post grad MA in illustration though.

But I did accept that 'commerical art (a term that was rarely used in 70s Art speak) was very 'slick' and designed for marketing produce. It was essentially about prettying up a product for sale. In some ways style is an imposition, not a revelation of what is actually there.

In the 80s, school children became embarrassed to go to school if they didn't have the appropriate brand name on their sports clothes or on their trainers. And that tendency has almost become a virus now. The human race has many natural levels of snobbery and looking down one's nose at others; style and fashion is a perfect method of doing this. Style and fashion is erected by manufacturers to sell products, services, units, widgets.

None the less I can't disagree that design has produced some nice and beautifully 'slick' products. There are millions of so-called classics: the Aston Martin, the Fender Stratocaster, the Polypropylene Chair, the E type Jag, The Apple Mac, the Concorde, the Mini Skirt, the Anglepoise Lamp, the K2 Telephone Kiosk, Levis, the London Underground map, the Mini, the Aga Stove, the Rubic Cube, etc.  And as we all know, Apple has become synonymous with style and created a world famous brand over four decades. Yet I am somewhat concerned at the over importance of design now. The tendency of style and marketing can become a form of artistic fetishism or artistic fascism or – as I imply above – artistic exclusivity to a club.

I am much more interested in the natural quality of an object than an object prettified by response stats being number crunched in billion-calculations-a-second computers over years to find the perfect design.

With 'Fashion and Design' one has to see the vast failure. Look at the landfill sites and the rubbish tips of  junk which is no longer considered fashionable. Or look at car boot sales and see the tiredness of old styles. Fashion and design means more and more choice of the same functional object. Despite it having been fun for the past century and a half, it is vastly wasteful of resources and should now be seen as another unacceptable aspect of how capitalism works.

Culture, style and the arts

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