Thursday, November 29, 2012


Of late I've been writing elsewhere about education policies here in Australia in relation to both the Federal and state governments. Conservative state governments in NSW,  QLD and VIC are cutting support services, course funding, teacher numbers in all sectors but in particular the VET (vocational education and training) sector and most harshly around visual arts. To the point where NSW will defund all visual arts VET courses as of January 1, 2013. Fees have skyrocketed, and students already enrolled in programs will be expected to deal with such changes with no financial offset or promise to completion.

If you're reading this blog, I can assume you have an interest in design and art, and therefore some knowledge about training and education in this area. And you will fully understand how disastrous these sort of changes to access to visual art education are.

I'll give the pollies responsible for these decisions the benefit of the doubt that they're not just ignorant philistines, but are instead playing with the processes of funding in order to meet their self-imposed budgetary  targets of surplus regardless of the impact of that upon their civic society. Let's be gracious and assume that they're assuming that the VET arts students will move into the tertiary sector which is funded by the Federal government, thus saving them money.

Problem is of course that things are never that simple. For a start the tertiary sector simply cannot accommodate the student numbers involved. In 2011, 490 834 students were enrolled in a broad category described as creative arts. This covers graphic design, photography, visual arts, specialist courses such as millinery from statement of attainment through to Certificate IV. Tertiary courses already accept only 1 in 3 students who apply. So where do they think the additional students fit? One of the problems in our system of split responsibility for education provision between differing tiers of government is that the state ninnies don't have to think - its now someone else's problem.

The other problem is that tertiary visual arts education is more often than not completely inappropriate as a place of learning for most people. VET courses are very skill-attainment orientated and for many areas of visual art training are by far and away the best choice. Ask anyone looking to hire a graphic artist. A work-ready TAFE graduate can walk into $100 an hour digital graphic work role as the level of training they have received is recognised as thorough and up to date with current technologies.

The other point I'd make and this is partly based on personal experience as well as observing outcomes in visual arts education for now over 15 years, is that overwhelmingly any artist, practitioner or worker is much better provisioned by having had some VET training before moving into the tertiary sector. TAFE courses produce students with high skill accomplishment, technical proficiency and good management skills in relation to workloads. The acquisition of which is by no means a given if starting off in the tertiary sector. I suspect we have all seen a lot of university-produced work where the idea failed to deliver its promise for a want of skill in its making.

For visual arts areas working in 3D, VET and TAFE in particular are in many parts of the country the only venue for study. There's also a class element to this. TAFE colleges are present in regional locations and non-middle class suburbs, providing the 70% of Australians who do not have nor will have any engagement with the tertiary sector some access to educational opportunities. This is not just about the cuts to visual arts. Access to HSC via TAFE has been severely cut in NSW, so for those students, be they straight out of school or 24 who want to do the HSC again, the opportunity has in most part been removed, particularly if you're in regional localities.

We have the ridiculous situation where the Federal government is talking about its education revolution which is in the tradition of the Whitlam and Dawkins reforms - widening access to quality education, assuming it is a right not a privilege. And yet the state governments are returning to some paternalistic past where access is reduced, denied, where the value of education as a transformative process is denied by a market economy world view that sees no value in the citizen who cannot meet some notional middle class cost benefit analysis.

What prompted this was a tweet about RCA's 175th birthday show, The Perfect Place to Grow.  We have nothing equivalent in Australia, and given the attitude of VCs at places such as ANU, what little we have looks very likely to disappear. RCA draws equal measures of opprobrium and praise as venerable institutions do; recall Tracey Emin's remark that the best thing about RCA was getting the letter of acceptance. RCA supports my proposition that previous arts training before entry to tertiary courses is hugely important. RCA is for grads only - you have to have undergrad qualifications or equivalents but the point is that higher ed should be exactly that. Otherwise we risk churning out more smart monkeys who can conceptualise anything and everything into a four page artist's statement but can't make a mark on paper.

Anyway what I really intended to do was have a light cheerful post about this image:

Labeled 'End of Term Frolic, c. 1894', it's from the RCA archive. First thing I noticed was the presence of women in the group - five of them, meaning about a quarter of the students shown are women. QV was still on the throne, New Zealand had just granted women the right to vote the year before, the first nation to do so, and the great suffrage campaigns were only just commencing. Certainly the Arts and Crafts movement had seen large numbers of women engage with the arts, and there is a forgotten parallel history of women workers in Britain's factories decorating china, french polishing furniture, screen printing wall paper; the unseen decorative work of industry. I would love to know who they were and what they went on to do with the rest of their lives.

But then I noticed something a little odd. Which partly explains the title End of Term Frolic. What is the chap in the seated row doing? And what about those around him?

Methinks the arm resting on his neighbour's knee is not quite what it seems, and the plate behind his head is rather halo like. Someone better educated in the religious paintings of Europe could probably name the painting I think they're hamming up. 118 years later they've appeared in a catalog for their alma mater. Time and sepia having made their youth and japes seem stiff, fixed and unknowable. Who will be looking at our art graduates of today in 118 years?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Juhl, Wegner and Jacobsen - well-made, the thoughtful, and the daring.

One of the most interesting processes when designing is how the ordinary, the usual, the everyday suddenly becomes as mysterious as something discovered at 1800 metres under the ocean or hanging in the upper canopy of a Sulawesian forest.

When a problem claims your attention, the how it may have been solved in the past is integral to establishing an answer. An answer that is of course an answer for the here and now, bound by materials, skills, time and your current ability to imagine that answer.

Chairs are endlessly fascinating things. Stupendously ugly and uncomfortable to breathtakingly realised. Static from one view, nubile from the next. But its not just looks - they have to function. They don't have to be comfortable as the armchair I'm currently inhabiting is proving, but it is preferable that they don't collapse; fail in an engineering sense. Or pitch you to the floor from an artistically sloped seating platform. Or pinch, bruise or jab you.

They should also be mobile in that someone of average strength should be able to lift or shove them. Unless your chair is a throne and then mass means gravitas and liftablility is definitely not to be encouraged. Chairs are not just for sitting, making unstable but useful ladders or work platforms.

They are also often in first world cultures neat demarcators of personal space. One rarely shares a chair, particularly in public with someone you do not know, without either discomfort or martial encouragement. The manner in which you occupy the chair still has echoes of moral stricture - to lounge in the mid American century was to personify ease and success, to sit straight and stiffly spoke of good christian values in the nineteenth century.

I'm currently focused on chair design of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, in particular the Danish designers and architects Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl. Among the many compelling reasons for looking forensically at their work is how they combined engineering with design.

Wegner had a making background - he was himself a fine fine cabinetmaker and rarely asked the cabinetmaking firms he worked with to do something he could not nut out himself. Hence the technical difficulty of many of his pieces. And as often been the case (Eames, Gray and Mies van der Rohe come to mind), some of his pieces would have to wait til commercial making processes could be developed to allow for economically viable production to occur.

Jacobsen trained as an architect after a short stint as a trainee mason, working in firms who designed interiors as much as the buildings themselves. In his own practice, he moved between the task sets, culminating in his creation of SAS House, designing the building down to the forks on the tables. Literally.

Juhl also trained as an architect, working as part of Vilhelm Lauritzen's firm, but quite early on partnered with cabinetmaker Niels Vodder who was able to make the pieces that Juhl designed. And this (I think) is a key part of why this batch of designers produced such a rich and wide range of objects. They were exceptionally well trained, they had some knowledge of how to manipulate materials, and they had access to highly skilled makers and tradespeople who could make manifest the forms and processes that would most likely have been on the outer edge of those tradespeoples' own comfort zones.

The last point is critical to so many of our design histories. To imagine a new form is one thing. To make the thing is quite another, and to make it again and again in such a way so that it may become from the nineteenth century onward a consumer item, is a very different thing again. In a commercial design sense all of these aspects play out, but the last - being able to commercially produce it and make money from doing so - is the most significant. It will impose its requirements more rigorously than the designer's aesthetics or a cabinetmaker's ability to make. Pye's craftmanship of certainty trumping the craftmanship of risk.

And I suspect that Juhl, Wegner and Jacobsen were immensely lucky to have access to an innovative manufacturing sector still able to survive with small outputs, selling into economies that valued the well-made, the thoughtful, and the daring.

There's also the engineered outcome and the differences between the three that I find fascinating as well. Wegner perhaps because of his making background pushed his chairs technically but they always present as supremely well-engineered. They understand and express how stress will play through the structure.

This piece is CH24 from 1949 and was made by the firm Carl Hansen who with Mobler made (and continue to make) so much of Wegner's output. Look at it, look at the way that stress plays through the structure, how it acts as a lock, or is employed as a counter-force. The only vulnerability I can see is if you pushed downward on the tips of the back rail and could manage to prevent the chair from tipping forward, it may snap. But otherwise this as beautifully engineered as a chair can be.

Juhl however often confounds me. Vodder was a brilliant maker able to realise Juhl's pieces and I think you can argue that some of the pieces that Juhl designed came about because he didn't know that he shouldn't, but I look at some pieces and wonder at how they work structurally.

The Chieftain chair also from 1949 was a Vodder-made piece. The intersection of rounded rectilinear cross forms with the tapering rounded leg is so well-known it's easy to ignore how difficult it would have been to cut the mortise and tenons and their respective shoulders without modern tooling. And it's not just that had they been poorly cut you'd see gaps; a poorly fitting shoulder significantly reduces the structural integrity of the joint. And a chair joint with too much movement very quickly loosens further and further toward spectacular failure.

But it's the use of the angled cross members between the back legs and front rail as well as that elegant falling piece from the top of the backrest that puzzles me. The lower angled rails works when the structure is weighted toward the front of the lower seat but when its happy occupant has wriggled all the way to the back, where is the compressive stress focused? There seems an awful lot of weight potentially on two small tenons in the rear lower leg. And the bow-shaped piece? Presumably it provides structural mass to the termination of the back upright but there's a lot of stress potential in a large male human leaning back fully in that chair which I don't quite see how the bow of that size can counteract. If it were a piece that ran right through that lower intersecting rail, it would effectively lock under load, then acting in tension, but as far as I can tell, it simply sits into a mortise.

This is Juhl's Pelikan of 1941. The image below of Poet gives a clearer indication of what the legs are doing, And what they're doing is heading off at a pretty wild angle, as well having rounded ends which would result in the load being very focused accentuating the leverage on the leg to under-frame juncture. Now upholstered furniture can hide a multitude of sins, so there may be huge plates of steel and bolts hidden on the base, but I doubt that's the case because this wee chair simply isn't heavy enough. So what is going on with these two?

Imagine the legs in their usual position. Straight down, neat and sensible. It wouldn't work visually. These pieces weren't made by Vodder so perhaps a different notion of failure was in play and yes fabric will hold a structure together but these legs? No, so what structurally is going on and what risk was Juhl prepared to play with here?

Jacobsen seems to sit somewhere between the two. His pieces are the most widely produced of this group; his Ant chair of 1952 or his #3107 have sold in their millions. Unlike Wegner they are not about overall structural constructive skill, but rely on the materials to provide the required structural integrity. But they rarely defy gravity as Juhl seems to do.

But how bloody clever is this chair? How well does Jacobsen understand what he can ask of ply, then slyly removes the seating plane just where you might be tempted to sit too far forward and so tip off your tripod. Some pieces are prone to failure - the glorious #3316 Egg can fall from its eggcup if the foolish persist in sitting on the front edge. But to be a Arne humpty-dumpty is a fitting price to pay for disregarding the call of gravity.

Three very different approaches to similar problems. Many many different answers. And there also seems to be a different measure of risk. Rough teenage boys, children jumping or large persons dumping themselves into Juhl's chair would most likely end in tears, whereas Wegner would stand up better to such maltreatment. And that is a very modern problem. We as seasoned mass consumers no longer show due regard for things we encounter. If a chair fails because our rambunctious five year old jumped in it, it is the chair's fault. We would do better to pick up the child, explain the basic laws of gravity and notions of causation, and quietly pay for the undoubtedly costly repair of the chair.

All images are from the just re-published and most excellent Sourcebook of Scandinavian Furniture by Judith Gura.  ISBN 9780393733877.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On innovation

Design, innovation and the making of things have been hot topics of late. Whether it is from the perspective of the manufacturing industry, the designers or commentators, many words have been split. Take for example a session on RN's By Design this morning.

It began by addressing some of the structural problems design and innovation face in Australia, but very quickly the two 'industry experts' began talking about what Nike do, what IBM do, what Apple do - what it is that drives their success.

I have two significant problems with this sort of response.

Firstly Apple, Nike, are transnational corporations. They buy skill, materials and assembly processes irrespective of where their board may happen to meet. They are by dint of the sheer size of their customer bases, able to disrupt supply chains, manipulate markets, pressure the prices for raw materials. They also intervene in the process of governance in sovereign states when their economic interests may be perceived to be under threat. Are they successful? So successful that design experts breathlessly inform us continually that they are models we should follow. But they are not ethical businesses, they often act in such a manner as to have negative impacts on other sectors of the economy, and they do not overall benefit either design or innovation outside of their own perceived narrow fields of operation.

Secondly, the scale of such operations is completely ridiculous to offer up as a model for start-ups, or even for governments looking at how to promote innovation. Indeed it is more than likely that behemoths such as Nike in fact stifle innovation as they dominate potential markets, spending more on marketing in a month than most start-ups could raise as investment capital over their entire lifetime.

Innovation is not about privileging business practices and governmental planning which insists on the right to make profit, regardless of the damage or medium and long term problems such decisions will cause. The market is not right, nor rational. Business will demand conditions that best suit them - whether it benefits anyone else is of no interest.

Innovation does not derive from copying someone else. If you want to find out what might drive innovation, I'd suggest start by reading Jane Jacobs, and then move onto Stephen Hogbin or Pat Kirkham on the Eames  design practice. Or perhaps answer the question of why does Lend Lease have to import the laminated timber products it is using in the Forte Apartments project in Melbourne. We ship our forests offshore as wood chips and buy in return tertiary processed building materials.

If we do want to foster innovation, it will come by supporting makers, designers and skilled tradespeople with tax arrangements that support R+D, establishing  innovation hubs, substantially improving design education (instead of allowing universities such as ANU to slowly kill off once vibrant learning environments), utilising opportunities proffered by shifting to a low carbon economy to come up with new ideas, new processes - a future where filling containers bound for Australia with poorly designed and made products will no longer be profitable.