A design of our times

March 15, 1996

This year the Royal College of Art celebrates its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion it has mounted its largest ever showcalled "Design of the times" with more than 500 exhibits by students.

Christopher Frayling, pro-rector of the college, says that the exhibition is not just an historical account, it is also a chance to get a message across about the central role that design and the college play in people's lives.

"It's propaganda for a certain kind of education which is under enormous pressure," Professor Frayling said.

Until three years ago the college was funded directly by the Department for Education and Science, then everything was brought under the aegis of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "We're lumped together with universities with 20,000 or 30,000 students. With 800 students, rather than being the jewel in the crown we've become a tiny island in a bloody great system.

"The pressure is to academicise. You get enormous Brownie points for writing a learned article, but pratical education is under threat."

Underlying the exhibition is how the RCA designed our day. "When we eat breakfast the cutlery we use is probably designed by David Mellor, the newspapers we read are probably designed by Ray Hawkey, and the InterCity 125 train that we commute on is by Kenneth Grange, an honorarydoctor at the college," said Professor Frayling.

He described the exhibition as a journey, starting in the Victorian period, where design was something you applied to things.

"A crate full of ceramics would arrive from somewhere and the students would paint flowers on them. But out of it came some incredibly distinguished people."

In the early 20th century the RCA adopted William Morris's philosophy that design is doing and producing. The college became a huge craft workshop which Professor Frayling descibes as the "Royal Cottage of Art".

In the interwar period "art and industry" became the catch- phrase, while simultaneously the college witnessed the birth of modern British art.

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were sculpture students as was Enid Marx, who created furniture covers which soon appeared in every British home.

After the war the college became more specialised and broke up into disciplines - fashion, textiles, graphic design, industrial design.

"In the interwar period design was a generalised thing, in the postwar period it became aspecialised training," said Professor Frayling.

In this exhibition the future is digital and has a Brave New World feel to it. Professor Frayling believes that the tendency of design is to converge.

"In the outside world you have partnerships, you get a graphics person, an industrial designer, an applied arts person and an architect together.

"That's also the tendency within the college. The more we can produce multi-skilled people the more we're matching developments in the outside world."

Professor Frayling describes the current culture among RCA students as "more thoughtful and reflective".

The central themes nowadays are environmental concerns, animal welfare and people. "If design for profit was the watchword for the 1980s, then the 1990s is designing for people".

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