Pursuing an Emotional Equilibrium through Design within Utilitarian Objects
Potter Bernard Leach and Designer Jonathan Chapman
Potter Bernard Leach and Designer Jonathan Chapman
'Today, an edgy sense of instability surrounds contemporary material culture, nurtured by continual change to render its offspring fleeting, transient and replaceable orphans of circumstance. Tonight, a flat-screen Trinitron TV lies face down, discarded like a spent cigarette, in the wet space between pavement and road.'
A daughter, whilst observing her father preparing a chicken for roasting, noticed how he tucked the legs and wings under the bird, lowered it on to the roasting tray and slid it carefully into the oven. Asking why he had folded the chicken’s wings and legs underneath the chicken’s body, her father replied that he had always done it that way, because his mother had done it like that. On a visit to her grandmother’s house a few Sundays later, she observed that yes; granny did fold the wings and legs underneath the bird, prior to placing it in onto a roasting tray and sliding it into the oven.
Intrigued, the girl asked her grandmother the reason for preparing the chicken in this way; her grandmother replied that her mother had always done it like that and so she did the same. Determined to find a reason for this method, she went to see her incredibly frail great-grandmother at the residential accommodation where she was being cared for. The girl asked her great-grandmother why she had prepared a roast chicken in the way that had been described. Her great-grandmother smiled and replied that it was simply because her mother had done it that way.
The girl asked if she knew why her great, great-grandmother had done it that way? The elderly lady sat up and leaned forward a little, she said: “When I was a little girl, my mother used to prepare the chicken just as you have described. When I visited my grandmother for dinner, I noticed that her oven was so small, that the only way to roast a whole chicken was to tuck the legs and wings underneath the bird, squeeze it onto a little tray and put it into the oven”
We can accrue and then apply knowledge without necessarily knowing the reasons for doing so. Intuitive and idiosyncratic techniques applied by designers and makers, are often informed by an emotive sense of doing the ‘right thing at the right time’. There is however, a danger of simply and habitually following what has creatively gone before. A fluidity and willingness to embrace accident and happen chance can allow designers and makers to develop objects that effervesce with emotive content, possessing a deep relevance to the people that use and experience them. Conversely, the dogmatic adherence to irrelevant methods and techniques can lead to stagnant, soulless entities.
'…in spite of the emphasis on technical precision necessitated by mechanically made products, the way in which craftsmen rightly make use of ‘accidentals’ and ‘incidentals’ has inevitably been lost sight of. Technique has become so complex and so hidden away from common sight that we no longer know good clay, good throwing, turning or brushwork, or good firing when we see them.
An emotionally methodological approach towards designing and making would produce objects with heightened levels of human relevance, enabling interaction and personal relatedness for whoever comes into contact with them. A strong human relationship towards utilitarian objects does not only enhance life experience, but it can also facilitate extended ownership, thus decreasing the propensity to dispose of still functioning domestic goods.'
In an age of depleting natural resources and with an increasing urgency to consume less, objects that maintain and indeed foster strong bonds with their owners is clearly a desirable objective. The idea of a manufactured object that can act as a talismanic baton, proffering a synergy between itself and its maker, whilst forging long term relationships with its subsequent owner, is an issue that the Ceramicist Bernard Leach and the Industrial Designer Jonathan Chapman discuss at length in their written work.
Both Leach and Chapman are concerned with how the creative development of objects can allow meaningful experiences to occur between the object and its end-user. For Chapman, there is a deep interest in design methods that can create opportunities to bridge the void between forced obsolescent technology and the end-users of technology. Technology that:
….casts us within an abstract version of reality in which empathy and meaning are sought from toasters, mobile phones and other fabricated experiences. Today empathy is consumed not so much from each other, but through fleeting embraces with designed objects.
Chapman identifies alternative approaches such as ‘experience design’, which as a creative discipline exploits multi and inter-disciplinary ways of working and seeing in our everyday use of manufactured goods. He draws on the environmental and sociological communities concerns for sustainability and product engagement whilst recognising the fundamental financial and commercial nature of consumer manufacturing. Seeing how potentially:
The offerings of experience design may leave the factory floor in the tens of thousands; however, the experiences the users glean from them are both unique and, quite notably, idiosyncratic. Experience design puts forward a more empathic approach than that of conventional design by proposing emergent consumer futures that facilitate the satisfaction of commercial, societal and individual needs. It is a qualitative process, which encompasses the planning, research, conceptualisation, design and development of a vast range of user-centric objects and experiences.
Where Jonathan Chapman focuses on the design of mass-production in which users graft their emotive identities on fundamentally similar utilitarian products, Bernard Leach discusses the unique relationship makers have with their practice and therefore to the products that they are creating. He addresses the individual craftsperson on their own creative journey, exploring the resolutely concrete act of making along side the fluid ebb and flow of discovery and self-expression which is evident in each piece produced:
…beauty will emerge from a fusion of the individual character and culture of the potter with the nature of his materials – clay, pigment, glaze – and his management of the fire, and that consequently we may hope to find in good pots those innate qualities which we most admire in people.
Leach is primarily concerned with how the hand of the maker is ever present in lower volumes of hand-made wares, and distinguishes the personality of these artefacts as being acutely different from the uniformity present in mass utilitarian production. Leach understands the practicality and place of both methods, but he also draws out a distinction and a character inherent to them as well:
...........the industrial practice of rigidly separating designer on paper from maker in clay is responsible for much of the deadness of commercial pottery,….(for) to make moulded pots as like thrown pots as possible. The beauty of each method lies in using that method honestly, for what it is worth, not in imitating other quite different processes.
He therefore does not discount industrial process, and actually acknowledges that the appropriateness of production methods is an essential constituent within any canon of creative expression. In ultimately understanding the current issues surrounding general utilitarian production, I feel that the following question is pivotal and in a way is Leach’s ‘call to arms’ to a generation of potters and perhaps to society as a whole:
The important question is how in our disintegrating times individual potters are to discover their particular kind of truth, in other words, their highest standard, and further, by what means it can be passed on to other artist-potters to the end that humanistic works of true merit, especially for domestic use, may be produced?
From the immediacy and directness of the individual maker to the industrial ‘pass the parcel’ production line of contemporary industrial design, Chapman and Leach both seem to view the importance of process as analogous to the ‘spiritual’ and social health of a population. An understanding of and an affinity with materials, skill sets, methods of making etc that, once removed from the physical act of manufacture, by either machine or by hand become philosophical propositions that can allow a symbiosis between creators, consumers and objects:
Most products within the current model of design are static, possessing non-evolutionary souls; we as users, on the other hand, are anything but static and exist within a restless state of continual adaptation and growth.
Could we, through the study, re-representation and reframing of creative manufacturing principles, begin to theoretically steer the idea of an emotional equilibrium in objects away from the objects themselves, and instead, begin to look at reinforcing an ideology and an understanding of process to end-users?
....Shoji Hamada recounted to me once how when he was a boy in a Japanese village he took part as a matter of course in making half the things used by the villagers with the consequence that he grew up knowing out of his body the nature of wood, of cotton and silk, of metal and clay and foodstuffs. Local tradition was still pure enough to provide a standard of form, pattern and colour, which embodied that deeper wisdom of beauty in articles of daily use, which we have almost lost.
Above, is a description of the elements that a creative discipline can encompass over and above the physical manifestations of that discipline. Within ceramics there is for example, the exploration of chemical compositions of glazes, of recipes for clay, for understanding shrinkages, porosity, kiln sizes, temperatures, how to stack work for optimum firing, kiln technology, knowing when something is ready and able to yield to further working. Ceramicists understand the emotive motivation behind the manufacture of objects and also how to apply this knowledge because they have a holistic overview of an entire cycle of being and of involvement:
…..it should be made clear that the work of the individual potter or potter- artist, who performs all or nearly all of the processes of production with his own hands, belongs to one aesthetic category, and the finished result of the operations of industrialised manufacture, or mass-production, to another and quite different category.
It seems as though the ‘ghettoization’ of ‘craft’ production and the perception of an activity that is seemingly incapable of fulfilling the global desire for mass production, means that we have lost sight of the skill sets that the craft contains. Objects and methodology that Jonathan Chapman describes to the designing fraternity already exist within the processes and mind sets at work within the ceramicist’s studio. These characteristics appear to have slowly disintegrated and sub-divided within many other artistic disciplines. This functioning amalgam of roles such as chemist, artist, researcher, artisan and teller of stories offers immense opportunities way beyond the physical act of making.
The designers’ role could simply be to provide material artefacts that provoke some kind of emotional response from the user- whatever that may be- as users will ultimately project their own personality onto the object just as long as it continues to stimulate a response.
The vast mix of meta-skills present within Ceramics as a discipline such as discovery, perseverance, planning, collaboration, noticing, absorption and capitalising represent the philosophical ‘material artefacts’ that would enable users of utilitarian objects to empathise with their immediate environment. Through the study, re-representation and reframing of ceramic production theory and
the steering of theoretically specific narratives, broader potentials that exist within the discipline could be expanded, explored, evidenced and applied. Understanding the multi-faceted drives and skill groups present in the ceramicist’s studio, and then applying this knowledge not only within the arts and industrial design, but also in areas such as education planning and implementation would inform a broader consuming public.
So, what do we want from the manufactured objects that surround us? Is it enough for them to look good, to function correctly, to aesthetically woo us into adoration? Should they comfort and support us, enhance and practically benefit our health and social well-being? Everyday objects inform our individuality and also confirm our affinity with and our belonging to a social group. Would objects with ‘emotionally soft edges’ begin to allow deeper levels of interaction with the people who come into contact with them, and offer more than the sum of their parts? Or is it necessary to relearn our relationship with our immediate environment and begin to observe with fresh eyes. Is it even important to personally own an object or can we absorb ideas and emotions remotely through museum display, art gallery narrative, through the windows of shops or even on the pages of the Internet? What is the true driving dynamic between things, the maker of things, and the users of things?
The sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself. Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognised function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say……
Pg 63. Chapman, J, (2006). Emotionally Durable Design: London, England.: Earthscan.
Pg 25. Leach, B, (1976). A Potters Book: Suffolk, England.: Richard Clay Ltd.
Pg 101. Chapman, J, (2006). Emotionally Durable Design: London, England.: Earthscan.
Pg 18. Leach, B, (1976). A Potters Book: Suffolk, England.: Richard Clay Ltd
Pg 21. Leach, B, (1976). A Potters Book: Suffolk, England.: Richard Clay Ltd.
Pg 15. Ibid
Pg 67. Chapman, J, (2006). Emotionally Durable Design: London, England.: Earthscan.
Pg 27. Ibid
Pg 1. Leach, B, (1976). A Potters Book: Suffolk, England.: Richard Clay Ltd.
Pg 85. Chapman, J, (2006). Emotionally Durable Design: London, England.: Earthscan.
Pg 259. Leach, B, (1976). A Potters Book: Suffolk, England.: Richard Clay Ltd.
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