The Beautifully Useless

The following article first featured in November 2003’s issue 4 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the increasing return to an Arts & Crafts type collaboration of the industrial and applied arts and explores the virtues of ‘ornamental knick-knacks’ and the otherwise ‘beautifully useless’.

The Beautifully Useless – Beauty for Beauty’s Sake? A request for more connected architect-artist collaborations

In 1851 writing in the Stones of Venice, an allusion to peacocks and lilies was made in direct reference to the applied arts, John Ruskin asked his readers to remember that some the most beautiful things in the world were also the most useless. Over a hundred and fifty years later it seems our fondness for such beauty in the industrial arts is now perhaps more restricted to our growing obsession with fad-led gadgets and gizmos. To add to these consumerist collections of cutting-edge mobile phones, MP3 players and palm-pilots there is also the recently reported £3.2 billion worth of useless gadgets presently cluttering up our British households.

In the pursuit of this new leisure state, increased material comfort and disposable wealth means that other luxuries such as contemporary arts and crafts for the home are also being sought out and purchased with great relish. Similarly, one would also then expect to see an increase in the demand for direct commissioning of artists to create work for the wider built environment. Whilst this may now be true in the broad church of public art as a whole, it is certainly not always the case within the related yet much more specialised discipline of the applied arts and crafts in architecture.

Admittedly, there are the many noble (yet often misguided and badly crafted) examples of percent-for-art ‘planning gains’ to leave us a huge legacy of laser-cut steel screens and community mosaics of historical interpretation. However, applied like the so-called ‘lipstick on the gorilla’ of our commercial developments, public housing and PFI schemes they represent a shallow tokenism of our past high regard for the arts in architecture. So where are the contemporary examples of true collaborations where highly innovative applied arts and architecture can mutually compliment and enhance each other’s craft?

Not an easy task, even Eric Gill, designer of typeface Gill Sans and the artworks integrated in 1933 into Oliver Hill’s Midland Hotel in Morecambe (featured in Octobers edition of Prospect NW) once said that artists were often the “lap-dogs who supply the ornamental knick-knacks and idols for which there will always be a demand”. However Gill had the passion and singlemindedness, admittedly fired on by the originality of thinking of the likes of Ruskin and William Morris, to continue to pursue his beliefs, avoid superficial decoration and to collaborate on equal terms with liberal minded architects like Hill.

The fact that Urban Splash, working with architects Union North, are now looking to rekindle this passion for the integration of arts in their remodelling of the Midland Hotel (both in terms of conservation led restoration and in contemporary commissioning) is to be welcomed. Indeed, the artistry and craftsmanship on show nearby in Morecambe’s innovative Tern public art project, certainly demonstrates that there is no shortage of artistic talent and applied skills out there – just a need to facilitate the connectivity.

Restoration of art-deco masterpieces is one thing, but what is the role for contemporary applied arts in modern architecture? Where do the opportunities lie that will fit a future of ever more contemporary design set within a world of short-lived fads and makeover mentality? The answer is that the arts in architecture will have to respond and adapt to these fashions and technology shifts, just as architecture has had to learn to do.

The £9.5 million Gallery Oldham by Pringle Sharratt Freeman’s contains many pieces of exceptional artworks by artists The Art Department, Tom Wilkinson and Peter Freeman. A particular favourite of mine is the piece by Freeman called Deep Blue – which on the surface just appears to consist of five innocuous looking industrial-type blue lights, staggered along a high level balcony. However, literally tapping into to the youth culture of SMS and gadget obsession, if you actually text the lights with the word “Deepblue”, they will instantly flash on the building in Morse Code that “the light loves you”, whilst also texting you back with the same message to your mobile phone.

I am not sure what Ruskin might make of it, but I believe it is another sublime example in the genre of the beautifully useless. Fantastic stuff!



Categories: Writing

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