Putting on the Style

Written by David Savage

Originally published as Putting on the Style in Furniture and Cabinet Making / 1998

Part 1 of a series of 2

sketchbook drawing

“Remember ‘glasshopper'” said the venerable Sensi, “it is a poor and sad man who has no style, but a poorer and sadder man who has nothing but style.”

We don’t always feel the same way about the same objects, always. We get bored and style enables us to enjoy something fresh and new and lively.

“Todays grey is yesterday’s black”. This inane statement was made in all seriousness by a highly regarded style consultant to the fashion industry who quite simply advised everybody that had been wearing black that they should be wearing grey. This is the nature of style. It is entirely transient. Here today, grey tomorrow, yet despite its transient nature, style is an essential element of good design, for our response to objects is not constant. We don’t always feel the same way about the same objects, always. We get bored and style enables us to enjoy something fresh and new and lively. It is one of the features of late 20th century life that we have become used to change. Cultural change especially has been whipped along at a fantastic lick. I blame it on Picasso who set the tempo of cultural change at the start of this century by galloping through more stylistic periods in ten years than would normally occupy the entire lives of a dozen less prolifically talented artists. This century has been a century marked by change. Marked by speed of change – one minute we have barely invented the motor car, the next minute Thrust Two is whissing along at over 500mph and on a more mundane level Jeremy Clarkson is telling us how good the latest Ferrari is.

There was a time when we all moved at a more sedate and gentle pace. Thomas Chippendale would publish his Directory of furniture designs and within 10 or 15 years this would become the style – the way your country house had to be decorated and furnished if one was to be regarded in polite society as somebody worth speaking to.

Nowadays T Chippendale would have a web-side and his images would be blasted round the globe faster than they could fall off the end of a well sharpened quill.

But style and change no matter the pace, still serve the same function today as they did in Thomas’ day. They help to sell the goodies. Style is an essential marketing tool for it enables one to place last years old-fashioned Mondeo with this years brand spanking new Mondeo, never mind the fact that it’s the same car – it’s just got new bells and whistles and just look at these lovely new interior fabrics we’ve chosen. Doesn’t it make your old Mondeo look rather dowdy. And what will people think of you driving around in an old Mondeo like that.

So style is important, we have to keep pushing and looking for new shapes and new solutions to old problems.

Lets face it style sells things, style is a marketing tool that enables you to replace perfectly good but old-fashioned stuff with perfectly good new stuff. What in the world of trading would be called churning of the market. But then you think about it – without style we would all be driving around in Morris Travellers wearing bobble hats and sandals and wouldn’t that be boring. Yes, but then again that would be a style statement perhaps a ratter s ad one but a style statement nonetheless

Style is an essential part of the designers tool-kit, it encourages and enables people to overcome their boredom with existing shapes and forms and solutions. Style is a look that is distinctive probably arrived at in the design process as a consequence of other actions taken for other reasons other than stylistic . Great stylistic innovations are not always completely comfortable to comprehend at first sight and may require a little work from the onlooker. But then really isn’t that right and proper. Shouldn’t something that is worth having be only attainable with a little effort.

So style is important, we have to keep pushing and looking for new shapes and new solutions to old problems. When asked to design a chair we all know that by and large it’s going to have 4 legs and a seat and a back and we know by and large where those components need to be in order for the chair to serve its function as a chair. But the duty of the designer is to examine those pre-conceptions at every step and to attempt to come up with solutions to those problems which cast a new and original light on the problem. Remember that ancient quote from Gombrich

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ART…. THERE ARE ONLY ARTISTS WHO ARE FAVOURED WITH A GIFT OF BALANCING SHAPES AND COLOURS UNTIL THEY GET IT RIGHT. AND, RARER STILL, WHO POSSESS THE INTEGRITY OF CHARACTER WHICH NEVER RESTS CONTENT WITH HALF SOLUTIONS, BUT IS READY TO FORGO ALL EASY EFFECTS, ALL SUPERFICIAL SUCCESS FOR THE TOIL AND AGONY OF SINCERE WORK.”

ERNST H .GOMBRICH. 1950 THE STORY OF ART

Here he suggests that the search is not an easy one, that it involves struggle and pain and integrity and a searching nature that casts aside glib solutions on an hourly if not minute by minute basis . All this for me suggests something rather different from the view of style which is limited to yesterdays black being this months grey. So I would propose there are two views of style – one involved with froth, change and fizz like the cream on the head of a glass of Guinness all bright and bubbly, definitely on the surface. The other is something much more substantial, here change and invention arrived out of thought and consideration, the surface innovation or style, is the by product not the objective. The real body of the drink, here you have something rich and satisfying that appeals to our sense of taste and continues to have meaning for us long after the frothy head has disappeared.

Yet how do we get at this body and indeed is it necessary for up and down the country, students of Art and Design are being encouraged to look for nothing less than the Holy Grail of originality. To seek and pursue that which is innovative and new and, by its very nature fashionable. For newness and stylish appearance is surely the hallmark of a creative presence. For creative individuals don’t copy and regurgitate old forms, they innovate, think laterally, they draw new images and tease out new forms from old functions. So it seems so obvious for new students to also seek to emulate that newness and originality. Sadly I feel that although it is true that stylistic innovation is one of the by-products of a creative mind at work we will rather sadly always see many many students works that are the froth off the top of the Guinness with little or no evidence of the creamy brown drink under the surface. This is partly to do with the sloppy standard of teaching Design and Making in Furniture making and Furniture Design Colleges throughout the United Kingdom and partly to do with the simple fact that to design things properly requires talent and talent is something that is not doled out to every individual no matter how much they would like to have it.

David Savage
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