The Art of Looking British

As part of an ongoing quest to discover whether it is possible to talk about a specifically British visual culture, or visual language, my first foray into the London Design Festival was structured around home-grown work. The below is series of notes and observations rather than a well-constructed argument. Feel free to disagree.

My itinerary went like this:

This Way Up from the British Council. Fifteen years of architecture, design and fashion leftovers from exhibitions that have toured the world. Featuring ‘The 21st Century Dandy’, a collection referencing the 19th century style-maker Beau Brummel, mannequins papered by scraps of the FT, a bookstore, a team of upcyclers, and Tom Dixon’s black lights. In an enterprising little twist, and as part of a ruse to clear out some of the British Council’s cupboards, many of the pieces are up for silent auction.

Imagined Cities at the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I used to live round the corner from Leather Lane, and had this café been there at the time I would have spent a lot of pennies on coffee. The interior is beautifully stripped back to bare brick walls, and for LDF they are hung with fantastical architectural drawings collected by Dainow & Dainow. All produced by British architectural students, the designs – motivated by real challenges – present imaginary ways of making urban living work.

Alan Fletcher at the Aram Store. Fletcher, a highly influential graphic designer and ‘a visual jackdaw’, amassed an archive of incidental curiousities and meaningful coincidences over his lifetime, which are brought together in his compendium, The Art of Looking Sideways. One could spend an entire day lost in this book, with page after page of visual double entendres, riddles, pearls of wisdom and literary excerpts. His polymath mind seemed to see connections everywhere, and delighted in pointing them out to others.

British-Ish at the V&A. One of the best things about the LDF being based at the V&A is the opportunity to discover different parts of the museum. For this installation, contemporary student work from University of the Arts London – fashion, ceramics, graphics, film, jewellery – is spliced into the British Galleries on the top floor. Furniture knitted out of wire thread sits alongside originals from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Pieces reference our colonial past – the  set of metal and paper lanterns that blend the structures of ship’s lantern and Chinese paper lantern; the beginnings of rampant consumerism – a printable paper suit; and concern for the natural world – a new beehive design.

– The Brutal Simplicity of Thought in the Sackler Centre.  A series of visual puns by M&C Saatchi (an oil drum stencilled with the words ‘Why do all roads lead to Baghdad?’), and musings on the difficulty of communicating simply.

Few and Far on the Brompton Road. Priscilla Carluccio’s emporium of exquisitely crafted products presents an exhibition of timber furniture from Pinch Design. Precisely detailed, quirky, and reassuringly expensive.

Flock on North Terrace. Successfully inhabiting a bit of in-between space behind the Brompton Road, this collection by female designers is edgy and thoughtful, a series of symbolic and performative pieces, commenting on domestic life, dual nationalities, and fetishes.

These are some of the themes I noticed.

– I have a suspicion that British visual culture is not primarily visual at all, in the sense of being particularly concerned about formal qualities or the golden ratio, and the design work I saw reflected this trait. Nothing is blue for the sake of being blue. Everything is referential. Most work is primarily driven by some kind of intellectual idea, or historical reference point, or cultural ambiguity.

– Multi-culturalism is totally embedded, synthesising and regurgitating multiple influences and reference points. But not in an overt way, almost unselfconscious, as a given.

– Subversion is prevalent. In a very British, understated way, there is rarely out-and-out protest, but there is a challenge in everything, often done with humour.

– Related to this, words and language underpin everything. The history of artistic achievement in this country is dominated by forms based on language and literature. It is no coincidence that the English vocabulary is the largest of the European languages. We may not have the architectural richness of Rome, but we have great texture in our sentences. Design work often refers back to the world of words and ideas, narratives and puns, histories and biographies. The cover of Alan Fletcher’s book is decorated with text.

– There is an obsession with advanced craft. British designers are increasingly experimenting with, and mastering, highly articulated processes that require a fusing of technical and digital expertise with creative direction. Precise results, pointed uses.

– Meaning is everywhere. Beauty is not necessarily a relevant word. Some of the pieces are visually pleasing – calming to the eye. But mostly they are not. Mostly they are provoking rather than soothing.

– In an interesting parallel, I think many of these phenomena are visible across the city. London’s development has rarely been driven by formal aesthetic considerations. Beauty has never been mission critical. The remnants of different communities are superimposed on each other. We have a skyscraper named after a burger garnish. Architectural precocity sits alongside disregarded space. Financial gain trumps beauty time and again.

So there you are: difficult, subversive, literary, funny, intellectual, experimental, and occasionally, when it is relevant, pretty.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Looking British”

  1. So while I’m definitely far from an art historian – or really even much of an art appreciator – I really enjoyed your thoughts from the festival. It is interesting how you were able to elucidate the idea that a people’s art reflects their culture. I agree with you that British are extremely linguistic and it is interesting that you picked this up in the pieces. Also, the subversive and understated qualities I can definitely identify with.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I think the keyword is “Wit”, as in the famous “Smile in the Mind” graphic design ethos.

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