18 April 2017

OAKLANDS, ST ALBANS


I’ve complained about unimaginative and backward-looking domestic architecture in St Albans. Now, in the interest of balance, I show some pictures of an admirable contemporary housing development. It’s Oaklands, built on the site of the old St Albans college of further education and incorporating nearly all of the previous buildings. In a way it's retro - mid-century modern - because it modifies buildings designed in the late 1950s, but it's not sentimental or historicist.

The site slopes and has many mature trees, both taken account of in the college development, which won a Civic Society award in 1961. These features are exploited in the new housing development. It has changing viewpoints, which you discover as you walk through the estate and varied materials and textures in vertical and horizontal surfaces. A lot has been done with simple resources. Landscaping and bold planting exploit the site well and so far it’s been well maintained.













7 April 2017

THE BEST HOMES AND FURNITURE, FOR THE MOST PEOPLE AT THE LEAST COST


I went to the Cotswolds yesterday to find out more about the Cotswold slipware potteries that I wrote about earlier. Before calling on Dinah Kunzemann, who used to run the Evenlode Pottery with her husband Dieter, I visited the Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway.

Russell was a first-rate furniture designer, a successful businessman, a humane influence on industry and an influential figure in 20th century design politics. The Museum traces his life through his work, from the early part of the century to the 1980s. A phrase that recurs is his wish to “teach the machine manners”. He came from an Arts and Crafts background but he wanted to make practical, modern furniture and he combined hand and power tools in his factory. The pieces on display are wonderful examples of the cabinet maker's art.

Gordon Russell "Double Helix" sideboard, 1950s
He was said to have made an English compromise with modernism, producing modern furniture that everyone could be comfortable with. He believed that an age that didn’t make its own contribution to design wasn’t worth much. He pointed out all the innovations in 18th century furniture, and wondered how poor we’d be if furniture makers had stuck to 17th century models. He led the production of Utility furniture during the Second World War, designing things that didn’t require a lot of labour and that didn’t use imported timber. He was the first director of  the Design Council.

I suppose my first connection with Russell was in my 1950s childhood through our Utility furniture. Because of Utility's use of native timbers, there was a lot of oak in our cupboards and chests of drawers. I cut them down and made shelves from them when my parents disposed of them - they're still in use.

Russell’s approach was like that of Charles and Ray Eames, who tried to make the best things for the least cost for the most people. My visit to Broadway made me think about my recent post on British housing, much of which is imitative, expensive and bland, housing that is not making a 21st century contribution to design and planning. These failings seem to me to be connected with the way the housing market is rigged.

Housing Minister Aneurin Bevan opens the 500th house built after the war.

I’m not a housing economist and my ideas about this are probably naïve, but I think the root of our design problem is the fact that we treat houses as investments. There's no other necessity of life that we want to get more expensive. A fall in house prices is regarded as a disaster by every owner, estate agent and developer. Scarcity is in their interest and cheap, plentiful housing is not. Risky design is to be avoided. In the 1950s, when there were millions of publicly-owned houses built, design was of the time and of a high standard - something like the comfortable modernism of Gordon Russell's furniture.

5 April 2017

ALCHEMY IN THE CERAMICS STUDIO


I'm testing new glazes. I make small samples, using just 30 gm of dry matter, to which I add about 5% of stains. In these quantities, the measurement of stains has to be accurate to a hundredth of a gram. I have these great little scales, the little oblong thing in the middle of the picture, probably more widely used for weighing heroin than glaze stain, but perfect for the job.

I put the glaze samples on t-shaped tiles, suitably labelled, like the one on the left of the picture. After the tiles come out of the kiln, the bases are snapped off and they're mounted on an A4 board. The best of the tests is made into a large batch of glaze.

I'm looking for a good yellow glaze to go inside tableware. The outside will be a matt grey, which is being tested at the same time.

This is the scientific side of ceramics, which I enjoy as much as the artistic side - but not more so. A colleague makes pottery only so that he can write reports about his glaze experiments. For me the experiment is only a means to an end.

Some potters can't be bothered with this approach. I talked to Gordon Baldwin about his student days under Dora Billington, who was good on ceramic chemistry and who developed a range of glazes for her class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Gordon admitted he wasn’t a good student. “I didn’t have the right personality for that diligent testing," he told me. "My idea was more like that of an alchemist, stir it together see what you’ve got and put a pinch more in it.” That approach worked well for him. Different potters, different personalities, different approaches.