Grande Diffusion or Grande Illusion?
Bummer that the RSA Bicentenary Medal presentation to Cameron Sinclair meant I had to miss the French Institute’s special screening of Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece La Grande Illusion, introduced by Julian Jackson and Martin O’Shaughnessy on Monday night. But Sinclair’s story here was powerful, persuasive and peppered with clever insights about how to diffuse “millions of ideas that billions of people can use”. When Matthew Taylor asked him: does design make people more resourceful? Sinclair reminded us in a smart conceit how resourceful most people already are: “More people think of themselves as architects than architects think of themselves as people”.
At London College of Communication on Wednesday night Lucy Kimbell organised a debate called The Limits of Design, asking us to be alert to the risk of illusion: “Can designers really design anything they turn their hands to? Are there limits to design thinking and if so, what are they?” Panellists from the worlds of policy and social services and – verily – of all strange bedfellows, the UN Insitutue for Disarmament Research, greatly outnumbered the design professor among them; yet managed, I understand, to have a useful converstion about design, which they think very important whatever its limits.
From non-designers talking about design to non-architects building buildings, which (although Cameron Sinclair reminds us it happens the world over, to 98% of structures on the planet) is now quite unconventional in evolved design economies like London. In th Evening Standard on Monday, Rowan Moore showed a surprising (for an architecture critic) degree of deference to Burberry’s top designer (of clothes) Christopher Bailey, whose talents have been deployed in the architectural design of the new global headquarters, and several stores. Moore concedes and callibrates: “You probably wouldn’t want a fashion designer designing a museum or a school, but they can do very nice stores and offices”.
It really was a week for it. On the same day, in the same paper, Jenny Wilhide declared that interest in fashionable typographic fonts in booming. The London Underground advertisements for the electronics merchant Dixon’s (bearing the strapline “The last place you want to go”) are evidence that the public is considered typography literate. Each parodies the type-style of a major retailer (Selfridges, Harrods and John Lewis) and the public, even though most of them are not graphic designers, are expected to get the joke.
Prince Philip said at the 50th anniversary event for his design prize how few people knew about design when he started it. The same was true of our own Faculty of Designers for Industry at the RSA – in the 1930s, designers themselves, plus a very few enlightened commissioners, like Frank Pick, were the best available arbiters of worth. Now all this interest in design from non-designers, policy-makers and punters; all this straying out of territory. Is it fashion or is it change? Grande illusion or grande diffusion?