Research point: Designers and Designer/Makers

This post follows on from those about Craft (18-Aug-2012 and 20-Aug-2012), textiles in Art as distinct from Textile Art (27-Aug-2012) and a side-excursion on Art / Textile Art / Documentary (22-Oct-2012). I don’t have any particular photographs of textile designs or designers, so the images in this post are of sketchbook work I did while reading two of the texts in the course reading list – Textile designers at the cutting edge (1) and Textiles Now (2) (also in my sketchbook starting 29-Sept-2012).

After searching for quite a time, I haven’t found a single, concise, comprehensive definition of “design”. To design is to create a plan or specification for an outcome or product. There’s generally a functional aspect and there may be aesthetic considerations. Often a design will be produced in multiples or mass production, in different colour-ways and design variations. The production work could be by hand, machine, or a combination. Sometimes good design will go unnoticed, the item performing its function as expected. We’ve all experienced negatives from poor design. For example I once had an electric kettle, a simple and plain shape except for some decorative grooves along the length of the handle – which channeled the steam into your hand while pouring the boiling water.

A designer may work in multiple disciplines. Their skills and interests lead them to collaborate and develop relationships with makers and industry to produce their designs. Alison Page is an Australian indigenous designer who has won a place in the British Council’s Accelerate program. Experienced in design for interiors and jewellery, Page is interested in working with manufacturers of textiles, carpets, lighting, or many other kinds of product. Her vision is about qualities of the design – beautiful, sustainable, and a spiritual layer telling a story about her indigenous culture.(3) Lucy Simpson is another Australian indigenous designer, telling the stories of her Yuwaalaraay family and homeland through textiles. Previously a graphic designer she now designs printed textiles for her campany Gaawaa Miyay working with Publisher Textiles to produce her designs. The tactile nature of textiles, the connection to memory that touch can give, is important to Simpson, as are beauty and sustainability (4). There are some interesting videos of Simpson talking about her work in the article cited (here) and on the Gaawaa Miyay site (here).

Designers may or may not have specific knowledge of and skills in the particular media and techniques used to carry out their designs. A designer/maker will implement the designs they have created. They can develop a deep understanding of their materials and processes, leading to designs that take advantage of all their best properties. That doesn’t negate the possibility for pushing further, introducing new ideas and challenging accepted norms.

In Weaving textiles that shape themselves Ann Richards devotes the final chapter to “Designing as a conversation” (6). In this design is presented as a reflexive practice in which the designer responds and adapts to the material, ready to learn from setbacks, to seek fresh ideas and challenges and to see the design emerge and improve through the process. Richards presents a general process for beginning and developing a design, but her specific focus is the considerations and specifics of weaving. The depth of knowledge, the thought, care and respect shown for materials, product and process is inspiring. The many beautiful photographs of examples help too!

I’ve already presented my end position – that today individuals regularly cross boundaries and combine and interleave different roles as designers, artists, craftspeople and more, working alone, with assistants, or in collaboration (blog post 22-Oct-2012). This week I got a new book in the post (well, a few new books, but one that is relevant just now). In her Foreword to One work: Sheila Hicks at The Mint Kathleen Jameson writes “…this one work is an outstanding example of the cross-pollination in the fields of art, craft, and design that is so pervasive in 21st-century artistic practice. In choosing thread and textiles as her medium, since the late 1950s Hicks has worked both as an artist and a designer, moving nimbly between the two worlds, decades before they overlapped more eloquently.” (5) I believe that boundaries in work descriptions and practices are much more fluid than in the past. Artists/designers/craftspeople in particular need to be flexible, creating and taking opportunities to make work, to find audiences and to make a living. We are, I hope, near the end of a period of adjustment when institutions and individuals in the field were coming to grips with this change and the implications. I’m not suggesting the old categories are meaningless or useless. They remain one component helping us work in and make sense of a complex environment – descriptive, but not proscriptive.

I wrote the above a few days ago but it didn’t seem finished. On re-reading I can see some flaws in my argument.

First, it might seem that I’m expecting everyone to balance multiple hats and to move between modes and types of work freely. Not at all. The answers and choices that are right for me will be different to another’s choices. I’m arguing against artificial boundaries, or the arbitrary rules of some Authority.

Second, how does my concern for the preservation of craft fit in this? Certainly I feel concern about possible loss of knowledge and skills, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of designers-for-hire, who will turn their hand to any type of product in any type of materials. There’s more in my post of 16-Sept-2011 on Preserving Crafts. More thinking required.

Finally, perhaps I am over-enthusiastic and just wrong. There may be some who have been able to cross boundaries, but that doesn’t mean that boundaries aren’t still current and enforced elsewhere or for other people. I have no answer to that. There will be lots of different experiences, and change doesn’t happen all at once. Time may tell.

(1) Quinn, B. (2004) Textile Designers at the cutting edge London:Laurence King Publications
(2) Cole, D. (2008) Textiles Now London: Laurence King Publishing
(3) Frew, W. (2012). The rise of the allegorist in Australian design. The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October, p. 13.
(4) Safe, G., 2012. Indigenous flair with feeling. The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September. Link http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/indigenous-flair-with-feeling-20120914-25w1a.html Accessed 27 October 2012
(5) Jameson, K., 2012. Foreword. In: One work: Sheila Hicks at The Mint. Charlotte: Mint Museum of Art, Inc, p. 9.
(6) Richards, A. (2012) Weaving textiles that shape themselves Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd

Other resources
British Council Accelerate
http://www.gaawaamiyay.com/
http://www.publishertextiles.com.au/

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In Basketry NSW Transformation exhibition Sunday 2 July. More info fibresofbeing.wordpress.com

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