Southern Lines and Northern Lights

 

Text of article for Culture Colony Quarterly Magazine, January 2015

 

New talent, go and find it, tease it out, celebrate it. And so I did, enjoying some inquisitive minds and some lateral thinking along the way. The exhibition Southern Lines and Northern Lights comprises work by a selection of designers currently practicing in Wales. Meticulous prototypes exemplify refined craftsmanship and production pieces echo the marks of the maker. The exhibition explores bright ideas and the insightful understanding of materials needed to illuminate them.

Curating the exhibition gave pause to reconsider the process of design. Design is working out the combination of mechanics and aesthetics that is going to make something function effectively, within a social and cultural context. Between concept and realisation there is a journey of workings out, of development to map. The route varies of course between different products, projects and systems, but each design journey is mapped by series of exploration, exchange, and resolution. The final destinations can be infused with dynamism.

Design is inherent in our daily lives, from our toothbrushes to our bus stops to our modus operandi. It exists as an ongoing dialogue between us, be it one of compromise or of challenge. ‘Design is a way to understand the world and how you can change it’. So turning the spotlight on selected product designers and how they work is an opportunity to consider the influence of design more broadly.

Surprisingly, and frustratingly, creative talent in Wales sometimes needs to be winkled out. Several of the design practices in the show engage internationally and have established professional profiles and yet, at home, operate under the radar. This may be personal or professional choice, or it maybe because ambition and achievement in this particular creative industry is not widely understood or celebrated in our common cultural index. There is the omnipresent economy of scale to contend with when considering globally relevant attributes of a small nation, but with design being a process that can tangibly be explored and resolved in a global forum, this contention can dissolve.

The Design Commission for Wales has internationalism embedded through its core like a stick of rock and affords opportunities for the wider sector to benefit from international markets through its inclusive dialogues and networks. ‘The greatest threat to creative innovation is a failure to exchange ideas, learning and experience,’affirms Chief Executive Carole-Anne Davies. The Design Commission for Wales perhaps regards designers as instinctively operating with a global perspective. Such would be a terrific status quo. I feel, though, that it highlights an aspiration rather than a reality for many.

We have platforms for exchanging experience, for researching and exploration. Design Wales is open and active in facilitating such, including its recent initiative Makers Using Technology, a supported service that enables designers to investigate the potential, and the limitations, of current technology to their work. Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) Cardiff builds on the experience of the global Fab Lab network, as well as the research and technical expertise of Cardiff School of Art & Design, offering access to facilities and technologies without designers having to commit to overbearing investment. The rural development initiative Menter Môn enables micro businesses to develop product via supported prototyping, identity development and business partnering. Based at Coleg Sir Gâr in Carmarthen, the Textiles Technologies Project encourages the uptake of knowledge, new technologies and technical expertise. It aims to transfer experience and skills between academia, businesses and designers.

Hiut Denim Company, the latest initiative of David and Claire Hieatt, worked with the Textiles Technology Project to refine jeans patterns. Established in 2010 to reinvigorate the former denim production town of Cardigan and to draw upon local skills from the industry, the Hiut Denim Company exemplifies shrewd design through its parallel engagement of the local and the global, tied by significant integrity of purpose, ‘Do one thing well.’

It’s perhaps too readily accepted that new talent leaches out of the country in search of experience and opportunity. Happily, some returns and other arrives. There is an appetite and ongoing need for good design the world over, which innovative designers from the Welsh locale feed into. Can we partake of such global opportunity more widely however? Herein is an equation, one that weighs capacity of population + reticence + uncertainty of global benchmarks against industrious tenacity + integrity of concept + advocacy of indigenous talent.

Design can be effective because of designers’ insightful appreciation of the micro and macro environments we inhabit. These environments are perpetually shifting but the essence of good design is a reliable constant.