Published  27/04/2009

Designs On at the University of Dundee

Designs On

University of Dundee.
March–April 2009


The exhibition Designs On at the University of Dundee was conceived as part of the conference V&A at Dundee, which explored the feasibility of building a V&A museum in the Scottish city of Dundee. Designs On showcases some of the best applied art, and design in the UK. It also presents graduate work and some of the most innovative research being carried out in the field at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, such as Past, Present and Future Craft Practice. PPFC is a major project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Professor Georgina Follett and Research Associate Dr Louise Valentine.

The project is exploring new directions, practices and perspectives in contemporary craft practice, helping to define a new relevance for craft in the twenty-first century. Louise Valentine, with Marlene Ivey has expanded the theoretical basis of this project in, “Sustaining Ambiguity and Fostering Openness in the (Design) Learning Environment”, their stated intention being,

To [view] design as an investigation which is an essentially problem finding activity in tandem with problem solving skill development…where the nature of problem(s) is the principle driver of design of design education and skills development, where issues such as aesthetics and sustainability are explored in the context of indeterminate or determinate problems. Issues such as form; function and cost are therefore understood to be subsidiary within the strategic nature of a designer’s thinking.1

Anybody expecting to find a regular range of pottery and textiles might feel somewhat perplexed and challenged. Practitioners represented in Designs On, Hazel White and Ewan Steel, in their paper “Agents of Change: From Connection to Collection”, put the new design thinking in to perspective:

Craft has been accused of ‘discontinuity’ (Greer 2006), by producing objects to be looked at rather than used. There is a role for craft practitioners and craft thinkers in the world of interactive technologies. By focussing on new roles for jewellery and through discussion surrounding issues related to this new role, the research proposes that a synthesis between interactive technologies and craft creates a new space for craft and a new method of research practice.2

In the 1990s research was undertaken in to wearable computing. Design labels such as Phillips, Nike and IBM envisioned clothing and jewellery that could enable communication and entertainment systems to be worn. There is clearly potential within the field of interaction design for craft makers, and particularly jewellers to use their craft knowledge to contribute to the aesthetics, meaning and purpose of interactive wearables. Given that the University of Dundee leads the country in fields of medicine and biochemistry and Abertay University leads in the field of computer gaming in the UK, it is fitting that such cutting edge technology should be married to the well-established tradition in the crafts in Scotland, that goes back to Charles Rennie MacIntosh. Hazel White, a jeweller, and Ewan Steel, a multimedia artist, seek to develop scenarios for experiencing new narratives at the ‘boundary of translation’. Their backgrounds are in no way traditional in terms of craft practice, which in traditional hierarchies was associated with skill but not intellectual rigour. The present work is challenging and extraordinary, drawing on a wide range of considerations.

Hazel White studied English, History and Politics at Edinburgh University, Jewellery and Metalwork at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee and Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork and Jewellery at the Royal College of Art. She is head of the Master of Design programme at Dundee. Her practice is firmly rooted within contemporary jewellery, using the placement of objects on the human body to create narratives around the body and the perception of self. Hazel White,

investigates jewellery as ‘an experience’ rather than a physical object, exploring jewellery as a way of interacting, engaging and subsequently understanding the activity of ‘life’. She views jewellery design as a metaphor for a way of being: a means of attending to ‘moments in time’ or fleeting experiences. This perspective, that is, the notion that jewellery is an experience rather than a product is not a traditional view. While ‘interaction design’ is an increasingly used methodology for understanding what it means to be human, the issue and approach being undertaken by Hazel remains unusual.
Operating within the field of interaction design she collaborates with multimedia artists, computers scientists, craft makers and designers exploring how engagement with jewellery can be translated into personable wearable interactive artifacts. She asks how the synthesis of hand processes and computer aided design and manufacture can be used to develop new aesthetics and how craft and design knowledge can be applied to areas outside the traditional domain of craft.
In her work Hazel wrestles with a variety of questions: Can jewellery be an intimate physical reminder to interact with other people, the self or life in general? In today’s world, we are always ‘switched-on’ to work and the act of ‘consuming’ information. Could jewellery act as a physical prompt to ‘switch off’ and concentrate on the personal, a more spiritual perspective of life?3

Ewan Steel is an experienced illustrator and graphic designer who has in recent years concentrated on developing multimedia and web content including educational games and interactive animation. In his research he has developed a series of simple drawing and animation applications that aim to extend the creative potential and cultural reference of computer games culture. In the course of his research he has become aware of the limitations to this kind of user experience, a lack of complimentary and enriching physical interactions to digital content.4

White and Steel propose a synthesis of their respective practices, which will create a new dialogue for creative practice, adding new meanings and narratives for interactive jewellery. In Designs On, their collaboration revealed an exciting piece Lens (2008) made from glass, resin, and rope in an interactive display cabinet. Lens is an interactive piece: it explores how jewellery can be developed as an interface to technology. A pendant, which looks and feels like a smooth piece of glass that has been washed up by the sea, is a memento of a family holiday on the Isle of Skye. When the viewer holds it up to the mirror, an image of skimming stones across the water appears, against the landscape of Skye. It also triggers the sound of waves breaking on the beach. The piece of jewellery thus enforces its role as a carrier of narrative. Normally relating to a relationship, the giver and recipient of a piece, for example as with a family heirloom, the context of the piece conjures memories and associations. White and Steel take the associative experience very much further.

Steel sees code driven multimedia creativity as exhibiting an essentially modular aesthetic that focuses on an appreciation of the distinctness of the properties and behaviours of individual objects, their interactions and their creative potential within a balanced composition/system. The code environment seems to have the quality of a physical material (Reas 2003) where interlocking strands create the push and pull effect of a complex woven cloth. This tendency to see digital content as a physical object and a desire to find an echo in the material world for the qualities of the digital environment has resulted in Steel's collaboration with artists and designers who create physical objects, such as Calum Colvin and White.5

At Designs On, the viewer could feel slightly intimidated, sensing that an experiment was being carried out. Beyond the novelty of the experience, there was an initial sense of not really understanding the potential of the methods being employed. But it was a user/visitor friendly experience, and one felt a sense of wanting to partake in Lens, a slightly mysterious experience. The textiles of Frances Stevenson were irresistible, and it was quite refreshing to be encouraged to touch them, rather than being glared at by a museum attendant. The policy of inclusion in the process is a positive one for the viewer, containing a sense of involvement in the process of making. The viewer is, if you like, invited back. With the most cutting-edge of techniques, there is a sense of being on a learning experience that will inform and enrich one’s perception, collaborative not exclusive.

Following her training in Dundee and Winchester, Frances Stevenson worked as a commercial textile designer for David Lee Studios where her work was exhibited and sold internationally for fashion prints. In 1999 she received a Scottish Arts Council start up grant enabling her to establish her own studio practice in Scotland. She has since exhibited and sold her fashion and furnishing textile products at Premier Vision, Paris and the New York International Gift Fair, New York, and exhibits regularly. As a crafts practitioner, Stevenson is looking to the value, to both the user and the maker, of articulating the sensory impact of textiles.

Georgina Follett has 40 years of jewellery practice behind her, and brings to the Past, Present and Future Craft Practice and the V&A at Dundee projects a determination to achieve excellence, and with it, the dissemination of ideas. With Louise Valentine the projects in Dundee are taking on a broad and exciting status. Both the theoretical basis and the practical vision of the integration in all aspects of life make these projects extremely valuable. Georgina Follett specialises in plique-à-jour enamelled jewellery in precious metals: a system of using enamel within jewellery to give a stained-glass effect. She is the only practitioner of this method in the UK and one of only a handful in Europe. She developed this technique whilst at the Royal College of Art after seeing an exhibition of the work of Rene Laliqué; in particular his stained glass effect, developed through the application of enamel without a base. “It was only later, when I returned to his work and those of others using plique-à-jour, that I understood they had applied the ground glass onto a mica base, removed once the ground glass was fired in the kiln”.6

Violets (2007) and Meadow (2008) and Tiara (2000) are on show in Designs On. Her contribution to Higher Education in design is significant, yet she has always managed to keep her studio practice. She regards the two as her great passions:

Working in Higher Education provides me with the continuous intellectual stimulus of working in an environment where there is an ongoing debate about the rationale for work. Theories, underpinning the process of art and design, are continuously evolving and Higher Education is at the forefront of these developments. I work with colleagues who are all striving to develop their own practice to greater depth. It is within this community that I have understood the value of working collaboratively. Dialogue, on all aspects of design practice, gives rise to the same discrimination when applied to the detail of working.7

Georgina Follett’s work draws on natural forms. “I am seeking to understand many aspects, achieving in some small measure different visual elements in each piece. It may be concerned with colour, shape, form, structure, technique or more elusive ephemeral qualities. I am a grower and collector of plants. I need to be able to see them within my surroundings. Their variety, colour, structure, fragility and life cycles fascinate me … The joy of being a designer/maker is that I am able to pursue the design process right through to the completion of the piece. One vision, no other view or interpretation, controls the whole process, thus giving unique access to the audience, through a single voice”.8

Past, Present, and Future Craft Practice: exploration of the interrelations between skill, intent, and culture, is a vital project that is redefining craft process fundamentally. Their objectives include: interrogating the craft process, and evaluating the relationship between skill, intellect and culture. Acknowledging that craft is often misunderstood as little more than skilful making, the project aims to address, “the maker’s capacity to retain the interrogative nature of thought. The project will challenge the perceptions of the craftsperson to keep the journey silent and authorless… the journey will explore the intellectual rigour required to ensure integrity of output, through interrogation of the self, and total emersion in the process of making”.9

1. Louise Valentine and Marlene Ivey, “Sustaining Ambiguity and Fostering Openness in the (Design) Learning Environment”, Journal of Art and Design and Communication in Higher Education, Vol. 7, Issue 3, 2009.
2. Hazel White and Ewan Steel, “Agents of Change: from Connection to Collection”, Design Journal, London, December 2007.
3. Louise Valentine, Past, Present and Future Craft Practice, University of Dundee, March 2009.
4. Hazel White and Ewan Steel, “Written on the Body: Jewellery as a Tangible Interface to a Code Based Art”, Conference Paper, Proceedings of Wearable Futures, Smart Clothes: Wearable Technology, Research Group, University of Wales, 2005.
5. Ibid.
6. Georgina Follett: Designer Maker, Exhibition catalogue, School of Art and Design, Duncan of Jordanstone, University of Dundee, 2000.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.9. Interview with Dr Louise Valentine, Dundee, March 2009.

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