Three design periods at RCA

Christopher Frayling – Design at the Royal College of Art – Head, Hand, Heart,

From “Design of the times : One hundred years at the RCA”

Normative tradition 1837 – 1900, A matter of the head

Beginning of design

It was to form the basis of much of the “design methods”. Design is a language, you learn it by heart. Draw basic geometrical shapes. Copy architectural details from books. Copy objects in glass cases, famous sculptures, ceramics,…

Copying things that stayed still. Drawing things from life or things that move expressly forbidden because this activity might encourage the students to become artists;

Striking points :

« A theorisation of manufacture and design »

« A think tank for industry and government »

« Role of art and design schools was to theorise the language of manufacture and then, if time, to conjugate it »

Basic assumptions were :

1 – That the education system was reactive – reactive to perceive needs within the industrial system.

2 – That design was something you did to things – things which were provided by the great Victorian machine;

3 – That aesthetics could be separated from manufacture;

4 – That the role of design schools was to do the thinking.


Actors :

Christopher Dresser (first industrial designer), Owen Jones (grammar and ornament), T.H Huxley botany and its relationship to the evolution of design


Critical tradition 1900 – 1950, a matter of hand

Consequences of the normative tradition and evolution :

Reaction to the normative (South Kensington) system : too many research points, not enough action. Re-direct the system from a training of the head towards a training of the hand. To understand design you also have to understand how it was produced. Improving the quality of environment not by working within the general shoddiness (mauvaise qualité) of mass-production industry but by producing obviously, tangibly, high quality on-off pieces with attention to details and great care.  Basic courses for first year students and then choice among four specialised studios/workshops. Students spend three years thinking about tradition and mastering a craft, and then maybe would find their own voice

Striking points

« It was time to end the sham science of design” ( simulacre de science) »

« The delayed influence of the British Arts and Crafts movement »

« New emphasis on studio and workshops practice »

« An implied judgement of the world of industrial design and industrial organisation”

Originality and self expression still absent


Basic assumptions were

1 – That the education system was still reactive – but reactive in a very different way: reactive to and disengaged from, a world where – to quote John Ruskin again – “Shoddy is king” (effiloché, de mauvaise qualité)

2 -That doing was designing – less a question of grammar than a question of usage

3 – That aesthetics were a challenge to the world of manufacturers

4 – That the role of the design schools was to provide a practical alternative, a criticism embodied in artefacts.



W.R. Lethaby, Walter Crane, Beresford Pete, Edward Johnston


Expressive tradition 1950 – 1996 / a matter of heart

Consequences of the critical tradition and evolution

The radicalism of the early art and craft movement was to make way for a system as uniform and rigid as the one it was replacing. Making and doing within the craft tradition was not giving students enough opportunities to express their own ideas and concepts. The “critical” tradition could never hope to touch the industrial issues such as quality and quantity. Fine art viewed as nourishing the designer’s work. New emphasis on the importance of education balancing training (the history of art,…). Promotion of professionalism, direct connection with industry.

Design specialism: graphic design, industrial design, communication design and fashion design.


Striking points:

“Designers should mix more with artists”

“Art and design education should become a the personal exploration of a territory”

“Design had become increasingly concerned with imagery, with the way things look, with the presentation of products within a culture and a market.”

“The heart in two senses: one in the sense of personal creativity; and two, in the sense of being in touch with today’s cultural and visual world”

Design Opportunities oriented: “lets be philosophical about this, don’t give it a second thought”


Basic assumptions were:

1 – That the education system should aim to be proactive – nurturing the generation of next season or perhaps tomorrow.

2 – That the design was something you did in a social and cultural world – a world of images – rather than just to things.

3 – That if industrialists didn’t take advantage of the products of the green house, then so much the worse for them.

4 – That the role of design schools was to provide an environment within which talents could flourish.



Robin Darwin as principal in 1948, Adoption of the new corporate symbol of the Phoenix replacing the dodo. Profession of consultant designer and the consumer boom.


1996 proposed agenda

New conditions: From divergence to convergence

The three eras, marked by modernism, were divergent:

– Victorians time: thinking versus doing

– Arts and Crafts period: doing versus thinking

– 1960s: specialisation, modernism and diversification


Design has become a more convergent activity.

Between the present and the past:

  • history reworked to provide a culture of quotations

  • post modernism as a part of history itself

Between fine art and design:

  • industrial design and sculpture edge closer together

Between technology and design:

  • engineers and designers begin to work together inside and outside education

  • technology brings industry into the studios and transforms design thinking

Between industrial design and graphics or packaging:

  • in the post-black box era (computers ?)

Between the crafts and design:

  • at the level of batch production

  • architectural detailing


Response of design schools to these conditions : bringing the three traditions together

The tradition of the head:

– a more thoughtful attitude towards design (ecology, social concern and so on)

– a more systematic approach driven by the systems of the new technology

– research in the sense of ”a systematic enquiry whose goal is communicable knowledge”


The tradition of the hand:

– the modern crafts with artists-craftspeople, designer-craftspeople, designer-makers, applied artists…

– the possibility of small scale batch production

– new technologies enabled customization

– the making of prototypes


The tradition of the heart:

– “having one’s finger on the pulse of what is going on in the wider visual culture

– the mega visual explosion

– what magazines call style



From 1837 to 1937 the government school of design then the RCA didn’t pretend to be in the vanguard but were underpinned by very sophisticated philosophy and design research.

Since then the RCA has striven to be in the vanguard, yet it has not always developed the philosophies to match.

Maybe the current push to research will result in some answer to this question.

Maybe the present day convergence will result in a new paradigm, a paradigm for the whole person, as J. Ruskin puts it, including the head, the hand and the art.


Ce contenu a été publié dans Non classé. Vous pouvez le mettre en favoris avec ce permalien.

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *