Reflections on Design Culture Salon 2 — Is ‘making stuff’ back on the agenda?

With UK manufacturing have shrunk by two-thirds over the last 30 years, it seems almost anachronistic to be talking about resurgence of making. But the Tuesday 29 January Salon opened the concept up in a range of ways that underlined the the possibility that the politics of design works through heterogenuous forms as well.

Much of the discussion seemed to neatly follow on from Design Culture Salon 1, not least in this notion of a shift from centralized controls to open networks. Equally, in the recurrent issue of politically engaged approaches in design, it paved the way for February’s Salon on activism.

Glenn Adamson opened up the panel discussion by providing a subtle critique of the notions of ‘making’, ‘stuff’ and ‘agenda’ that were in the Salon’s theme. In particular, he asked, what kind of making are we talking about? He stated that there was an assumed permissiveness around making – that it was taken to be a good thing. As such, it could be something that was thrown at problems. Playing into a tradition that goes back to William Morris, John Ruskin or Thomas Carlyle, making could be uncritically understood to represent dignity in labour and craft might be revived as a social project. Equally, though, craft could be a tool of social repression as populations get divided between those who think and order, and those who make and follow. Thus, there may be an agenda to this revival of interest in making, he provocatively suggested. Beyond this, Glenn talked of the idea of ‘stuff’ as being primarily understood as non-commodities and, again, this needs challenging.

Speaking from her observations of parliamentary activities, Jocelyn Bailey opined that while MPs were eager to talk about a return to making as a way of re-balancing the UK economy, the evidence that there was a concerted and consistent approach to this in real policy terms was flimsy. There have been a couple of examples (Ed Vaizey and John Hayes) of politicians sounding quite enlightened about material culture and quality, and taking an interest in books like the Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and  Matthew Crawford’s text Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. However, government policy is currently so laden around purely economic and competitiveness concerns that there are contradictory things going on. In education terms, Design and Technology is fighting a rearguard action to remain on the schools’ curriculum. Meanwhile, there are few apprenticeships and specialist craft courses are closing. Further, it seems that the government is finding it difficult to talk legitimately about subjective things like ‘beauty’ and enshrine them in policy.

‘I want to talk about making as a right’, Daniel Charny stated. He aligned this with the recent rise of ‘making manifestos’ that added weight to the notion that making was intrinsically a political act. However, this shouldn’t be seen as a direct form of dissensus; rather, mass customization – making my stuff – was taking the detail of what it should be away from dominant productive systems. Later in the Salon, Daniel spoke powerfully of how ‘prosumers’ (Daniel didn’t use this term, but I’m borrowing it from Alvin Toffler’s 1981 book The Third Wave), were connected and connecting in novel ways by sharing ideas, techniques and tools. However, we shouldn’t necessarily be starry-eyed about this. The current interest in making may well signal either a requiem or a renaissance for it. In the UK, at least, the political, educational and economic cards are stacked up against it. On the other hand, there’s the force of human agency to consider.

Nick Gant sees himself as a material activist. His mission is to develop an idea as making as a way of constructing narratives. How you interact with materials, what you turn them into, the networks of others you engage in, the direction you take value in through objects all add up to an ideological process. Nick spoke passionately about the need to re-activate an enquiring approach to materiality. Of course, anyone who has read Bernard Leach’s writing may find a measure of similarity. However, arguably, Leach expressed his material politics in a semi-mystical way by talking of ‘returning to the clay’ as a return to the self. Nick’s drive is more progressive, I think. He is interested in making as a way of extending knowledge and understanding, of exploring the realms of the possible.

We run the risk of sounding like a group of effete southerners, here in the V&A, with all our clever-clever ideas about ethics, politics and craft. Someone had tweeted Daniel Charny during the day, having heard about the Salon, to drily suggest that at last, making must have finally reached London. So it was, as ever, refreshing to hear from Katie Hill who has years of experience in making in community settings in the North of England. It is a primary means of communication and a deep way of finding out, she suggested. However, Katie was quick to disavow us of it being any la-di-dah activity. Making comes of necessity and she drew attention to several examples where making was back on the agenda because – due to  local authority budget cuts or, indeed, poverty – it was necessary for survival and resilience.

Salon2.3

With a sigh (it was probably an intensely boring question) I asked the panellists where all this fitted with any creative industries policy agenda that might be still lying around. It seemed to me that the broader notion of creative industries and more specifically, the rise of ‘design thinking’ had become rather blunt and abstracted. Objects, expressivity and affect seem to have dropped out of the discussion. I was roundly told that the creative industries notion had run its course. Basically a New Labour invention, it was really used for economic planning and analysis. It had also worked as a ‘soft power’ tool – a way of selling Britain.

The nuance of our discussion seemed beyond this, though. Perhaps an outfall of all the rhetoric around design and innovation was a kind of ‘Dragon’s Den’ notion where entrepreneurs were taking a punt with suspect products and ideas, Daniel suggested.

Audience questions and statements were keenly aware of the fickleness of our times. It seems that we are poised within sets of tensions, one of which is between resilience (cf. localism, Transition Towns) and contigency. At the moment, reflecting on the words of our panellists and other participants, this ‘making’ thing is little insitutionalized (except with the possible exception on the V&A, at least in terms of its representation). Indeed, the educational movements or policy agenda seem to be pointing in a myriad of (sometimes conflicting) directions.

Making as a practice and an ideological position, in its pragmaticism and applied character, can exploit the fissures that are left behind. But this has a Janus-like quality. A renaissance of making requires an outward looking, connected mindset but also a focus on problems and solutions that are close to hand.

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3 Responses to Reflections on Design Culture Salon 2 — Is ‘making stuff’ back on the agenda?

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Design Culture Salon 3 — Design Activism: how does it change things? | Design Culture Salon

  2. Liz Farrelly says:

    For me, this Salon was the most rewarding, challenging and frustrating of all the events in the series because the word “making” is such a broad and slippery term. We could have spent all evening discussing government policy for the manufacturing industries; or the role of crafting in building communities; or the concept of agency in design and craft practice, and all these interesting topics were introduced by one or other speaker.

    It’s not a criticism, just an observation, but it highlighted a problem, with subsequent events too. Each speaker in effect presented on their specialism, and fielded questions aimed at them, but there was little interaction between the speakers, When speakers did interact, wires crossed as they didn’t seem to agree common ground, perhaps because the subject was just too broad.

    There is much to discuss, and a more extensive programme of Salons could tackle a wide range of themes. If the theme for each event was more closely defined, the audiences might be smaller (not necessarily a bad thing as it could prompt more participation), but in the long run, the cumulative audience would be more diverse, and substantial!

    • guyjulier says:

      Thanks for comment, Liz. We’re looking at different formats and, indeed, more defined foci for discussion for next year’s Design Culture Salon season. So, all feedback and suggestions are very welcome!

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