TS Eliot said 'culture may ... be described simply as that which makes life worth living'.
How much do we really draw on our culture, taking inspiration from it as a means of informing and referencing work today to form a closer dialogue between producers and users of design?
Designers consciously using cultural context to develop an informed dialogue with their customers from start-up, drawing on aspects of our wider Midlands culture, include producers such as Emma Bridgewater with production out of Stoke-on-Trent and Jan Constantine based in Cheshire.
Emma Bridgewater, speaking recently on 'The Bottom Line', Radio 4 said, "I am moved by the idea whenever you see things within a tradition; I like to work within a recognisable tradition. William Morris had it right, design has got to be practical and beautiful. There's got to be passion..." She added, "there is a mass blindness about making things in England... It's not necessary, we can do it. We have so much infrastructure - museums, art schools, all with the intention of making things, but somehow it doesn't happen at the moment..."
There are, of course, other businesses in the Midlands drawing on their heritage as a source of continuity and dialogue with their customers, whilst continuing to innovate to meet their changing needs and demands including Brintons Carpets which I recently visited, meeting with Managing Director, Harry Reilly.
Brintons likes to remind its customers that their carpet business is only 6 years younger than the USA. Clearly, quite a lot can happen in 227 years. During that time Brintons Carpets has built up a global business employing 1700 people, turning over £80m with an 80 person strong design team around the world.
When asked about their design archives Harry was clear about the unique asset this represents. "Our design archive collections represent a resource which is about authenticity and tradition - something that cannot be replicated and whilst designs can be 'knocked off' no one has the provenance that our collections represent.
"The company has a great design heritage and it's still as vibrant and cherished as it's ever been.
"We rely on design, referring back to our archives for design inspiration, re-interpreting this in light of today's trends and our clients' aims and aspirations, as well as encompassing other design elements such as detailed project management, planning and estimating which, if done properly, can save thousands of pounds on a project. It's this approach, coupled with constant innovations to processes and technologies in our production, that's helping to keep us ahead in such a fiercely competitive global market."
Brintons Unique Design Archive
Brintons Design Archive Collections from around the world have been brought together over the past 15 years and the company is still discovering works that they never knew they possessed.
The company archivist, Yvonne Smith, tells me how only recently she discovered an extensive collection of 800 Japanese stencils dating to 1890 that they never knew they had, which turned out to be one of the largest collections outside the V&A. "However", she says, "a lot of work has never been archived as it was designed with the thought that it would never be used again and discarded."
The company has 3 rooms full of their archives. Whilst they've managed to digitise about half of their archives, this is very much an ongoing project and one which occupies Yvonne's mind as she juggles the archive management with the day-to-day demands for design inspiration coming from their global design team.
A Unique Global Design Resource
Brintons has a dozen offices in the USA, a London Design Centre in Clerkenwell, offices in Singapore and Australia with an international team of Field Designers based around these offices and elsewhere worldwide. Their Field Designers send in ideas discussed with their clients representing the types of look, feel and specifications that they want to achieve in their carpeting approach.
Yvonne searches the archive materials for designs matching these approaches, sending out design materials amounting to a collection to inspire further designs, discussion and ultimately a contract for a carpet design.
She sends out about 500-600 designs a week from their archive materials and no other carpet manufacturer has such an extensive design resource.
Alongside this approach Brintons produces brochures with new commercial and residential collections and have enjoyed very successful design collaborations with designers including Timorous Beasties, "two wonderfully colourful and eccentric (and brilliant) Glaswegian designers, Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons", says Harry, together with Laura Ashley and the flamboyant, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. The company has also enjoyed high profile creative collaborations with designers, Vivienne Westwood and Manolo Blahnik, resulting in some stunning advertising campaigns.
Earlier design relationships include with Edouard Benedictus and E A Seguy producing work for the company from 1890's-1910. Other notable designers for the firm include - Christopher Dresser and even Henri Matisse.
Anna Maria Garthwaite was a silk designer at Spitalfields who died c1760 but who was considered such a craftswoman that her name was used on the finest designs for sometime after this period and can still be seen on original designs in their collection.
They hold a selection of original artwork from Morris & Co as Brintons supplied the esteemed William Morris business with carpets over an extended period. They have 3-4 works by architect and designer, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey; "We had more," sighs Yvonne, "but these have since disappeared."
During the restoration of Kew Palace carpet designs were inspired by those woven for Osborne House on the Isle of Wight drawing on the original hand-painted artworks in the Brintons archive, where Prince Albert's signature can be still be seen, clearly written - an elaborate hand executed with some flourish, able to impress over 100 years later.
Their earliest dated pattern is from 1798. Paper was very expensive as it was taxed with all the patterns represented in the smallest feasible scale. Carpets at this time were handwoven and Seymour Reginald Brinton subsidised little factories all over England and Ireland, including Kildare carpets, later responsible for the carpets on the ill-fated Titanic. When 'Titanic' was being filmed the production company came to Brintons who were able to supply them with designs from the Kildare carpet company archive. More recently Brintons collaborated with Milwaukee Museum on Biedermeier designs.
Yvonne doesn't know off the top of her head how many hand-painted papers are in their archive, but reckons a conservative estimate must put it at over 30,000 - all needing to be filed, referenced, digitised and ready to draw on as the company re-invents itself to satisfy our insatiable appetite for design.
Birmingham Post blog visit http://blogs.birminghampost.net/business/2010/10/past-and-present-are-tied-tigh.html