Colin Wilson, "Trademen's Wedges"
- a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function
- a thing used to help perform a job
- a person used or exploited by another
During this year's ICFF show here in New York, we were pleased to come across the work of Northumbria University's Designers in Residence program. Over the last decade, the institution has been supporting graduates of its 3D Design program with access to workspace, equipment and mentoring as a stepping stone to grow their professional practice. At this year's show, designers were issued a brief centered on prototyping "Tools for Daily Life." What resulted was a small collection of hand tools, pencils, wedges, card stands and glass displays. We sat down with designer and Northumbria's BA (hons) 3D Design program leader, Rickard Whittingham, to learn more about some of the beautiful objects and ideas we saw at the fair.
Whilst the definition of a tool can just as easily refer to an object of complexity/ simplicity/ new or old technology, there is elegance to certain functional tools that connect users with a task. This connection might achieve further reverence by requiring the skill acquired by many hours of craft practice. Or the bond between operative and result is made 'sweet' because the tool takes all the pain out of a task. Either way tools that transcend being a means to an end and are an end in themselves are one of life's joys.
Made from materials and shaped by processes that acknowledge the physical and physiological contexts of use a 'good' tool reminds the user that there is sometimes nothing wrong with liking 'stuff'. -Excerpt from the 'Tools for Daily Life' design brief
Core77: What is the Designers in Residence program at Northumbria and how did it come about?
Rickard Whittingham: The Designers in Residence scheme is a post-graduate platform that provides access to workspace, equipment and on-site mentoring for selected graduates of BA 3D Design at Northumbria University. Residents use the scheme to develop and grow their professional practice.
The scheme was started and developed by the 3D Design staff team at Northumbria and for 10 years has been supported by both the Design School and 'Enterprise Campus' at Northumbria University.
It came about because of an identified need to support graduates, not with a prescribed academic curriculum of business start-up but with a system of support that responds to their individual ideas for commercial enterprise. The model is 'learning by doing'. It means the scheme can support furniture and product designers working across all sorts of contexts. For example at the ICFF this year there was Neil Conley (limited edition pieces with political narratives) alongside David Irwin (displaying prototype dining chairs). The benefit to the resident in basic terms is access to facilities and advice to start their professional practice. The benefit to the 3D undergraduate program is having exciting professional work happening alongside their study. The benefit to the North East region (Northumbria University is based in Newcastle upon Tyne) is retaining the very best of its graduates many of whom stay in the city to continue their work.
This is the first time designers have tackled the "Tools for Daily Life" brief. How is the "Tools for Daily Life" project incorporated into the curriculum? What worked, and what, if anything, will you change in the future?
The "Tools for Daily Life" brief was set to the network/community of practice that now surrounds the Residency as a way of illustrating the fact that residents after they have 'flown the nest' of the scheme stay connected to it. The intention of the brief was to show how staff and residents continue to support each other. The idea of investigating "tools" was seen as a way of exploring a common thread amongst this community of designers. That thread is an attention to detail, and craftsmanship, careful choosing of materials and processes for both functional and expressive goals. We hope the brief got people thinking about the potential beauty in functional tools.
In terms of how well the brief and the resultant products work, I think it succeeded in being an enjoyable process for the designers involved and a welcome pursuit that nourished their day jobs as designers and educators. The results showed at the ICFF showed a deftness of touch, strokes of humor and a deep appreciation of materials. I think there were a couple of extraordinary products that were truly beautiful and desirable in a utilitarian way. With all such things more time would have benefited the project and preparing more carefully for the many visitors that 'wanted' the tools would have allowed us to explore the commercial potential of the displaying the tools at the ICFF. The intention now is to follow up this interest. I think it also acted as an interesting backdrop to the launching the products that made up the focus of the stand.
Trevor Duncan, "Pencil Works"
Tools are obviously made to be used, and some would say that much of their beauty comes from signs of such: dings, dents, patina, etc. all constitute the 'character' of the object. Do the designers consider this notion of history during the design process?
The 'character' of tools was at the forefront of all our minds and indeed exploring the connection between the operator and the tool was the thrust of the brief. 'Use' in all cases was the defining issue. References to traditional hand-tools and utilitarian objects were clear not in a postmodern ironic way but with a genuine appreciation of the benefits an object gains from the scars of use. Material choices were without exception were informed by a concern for longevity.
I think all the designers that were represented in the Northumbria stand consider the notion of history in their work. None of us explore novelty for novelty's sake and are very aware of that which has gone before. The intention is never one of retro styling but one of acknowledging details and forms that communicate longevity and careful deliberation.
Do the 'Tools' provide clues as to a given designer's aesthetic, practical interests or future needs?
On an individual level it is clear how what the designers came up with reflects their broader practice. For example, the 'set' of wedges by Colin Wilson illustrates his deep interest in the properties of materials and a boundless enthusiasm for searching out and working with experts on the projects he tackles. "Pencil works" by Trevor Duncan reflect clearly both his skill as a craftsman and as a product designer.
About Rickard Whittingham
Rickard has a background in furniture design for both production and limited edition. He teaches in a variety of contexts from graduate education through to community-based projects. Living and working in Newcastle upon Tyne he leads the 3D Design programme at Northumbria University and co-ordinates the graduate Designer in Residence scheme there.
His part Scandinavian and part Yorkshire mill town upbringing have led to an appreciation of bike maintenance and good workmanship of all kinds.