Archive for category Subject: Design

Johnston & Gill – very British types || Mark Ovenden

I do like a nice bit of type and Edward Johnston and Eric Gill (the old goat!) are hard to beat. Both were proponents of an uncluttered style that was a departure from the fussy fonts that went before and it’s no accident that not only did they pave the way for the proliferation of architectural fonts around today, but that their own creations are still widely in use. London Underground uses a font designed for it by Johnston and the BBC’s logo is instantly recognisable not least because of the purity of Gill Sans. The index has lengthy entries for London Underground, London Transport and Frank Pick (“the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use”), as it should.

Contemporaries, the two were friends and sometime collaborators and this entertaining and informative book recounts their personal stories as well as those behind the development of their letterforms.

Typography is not a static thing and refinements are a constant work in progress. To account for every detail would be incredibly dull, but Mark Ovenden manages to skip as little as possible while keeping the interest piqued. I don’t think you have to be a typomaniac to enjoy the book and there is plenty of personality as well as history here. Better still, there is a generous amount of illustrative material that is a veritable feast, as well as making immediate visual sense of the text.

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A Visual Language – elements of design || David Cohen & Scott Anderson

This is a revised and expanded edition of a book which I reviewed here in 2007. The large number of new images make it a worthwhile update and purchase.

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How To Read Pattern: a crash course in textile design || Clive Edwards

OK, this is what it says on the back of the book: “How to Read Pattern is a practical introduction to looking at and appreciating the decorative art of pattern in textile design. It is a lavishly illustrated guide to the use of pattern, exploring themes and motifs across a range of cultural aesthetics. Small enough to carry in your pocket and serious enough to offer real answers.”

I have a number of issues with this. Firstly, I think the word “lavishly” doesn’t sit well with something that’s six and a half inches square. Extensive, maybe, but this feels like something that’s been shoehorned into a format just for the sake of it. What you get is a lot (3 or 4 per page) of small reproductions of well-known and/or typical fabric patterns from oriental carpets to William Morris’s Strawberry Thief as well as modernist and psychedelic designs. Each of these comes with a short caption telling you what it is and the whole thing is arranged into groups of subjects and pattern types.

Why the pocket format? This is never something you’re going to cart round the shops or galleries and consult so that you can say, “Oh yes, that’s a landscape and those are stripes”. You’ll know that. If you want a history of textile design, you’ll buy something else, something that has room for decent-sized illustrations and text that has some meaning, not something that states what Basil Fawlty would refer to as “the bleedin’ obvious”.

As you’d expect from Black’s the quality of the illustrations is excellent, but save your tenner for a cup of tea and a Bath bun in the cafeteria.

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Design & Colour in Watercolour || Michelle Scragg

I have to admit that I’m struggling to work out quite how the Design bit comes into this. Michelle Scragg paints in a style that’s just a step away from representation and she uses blocks of bold and often solid colour that would certainly lend themselves to fabric design, which appears in fact to be her main interest. However, in spite of the hint at this in the subtitle, this is a painting book and has to be judged as such.

There is also a problem because, for a book on colour, it lacks brilliance. I’ve gone through it in some detail and, although it’s consistent throughout, I can’t help feeling that it’s badly let down by the quality of the reproduction. One of two of the illustrations aren’t sharp and a lot of the others are of suspiciously high contrast, which doesn’t seem to go with the chosen medium. Others seem muddy and there is a suspicion that areas which should be white are coming out as grey. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that Michelle has adopted a novel way of mixing and applying paint, and I’m not sure that it would be possible to obtain the end result in this way anyway. I have a horrible feeling that she’s supplied the publisher with less than perfect transparencies, or possibly colour prints rather than originals or good quality digital images. This is a major let-down because it simply distracts from anything she might be trying to say. There are some good ideas here and, while they are probably of limited appeal to the general watercolourist, they do offer a novel approach and a welcome bridge between the strictly representational and the purely abstract.

I’m stuck. If this is how it’s meant to appear, then I’ve simply missed the point and I apologise, but I have a horrible feeling it isn’t. There’s no doubt that there are some good ideas here and, if you can see through to them, then this is a book which should and will excite you.

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The Grammar Of Ornament || Owen Jones

This reprint of an 1856 work puts back into availability what has long been regarded as the definitive sourcebook on ornamental motifs.

One’s thoughts turn immediately to the sort of things that were produced by A W Pugin and this is not far off the mark, for the book influenced designers as far separated as William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Written at a time when pattern books of all kinds were popular, the original purpose was to bring together styles of ornament from Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Renaissance and Elizabethan. The Gothic revival caused designers and craftsmen to look perhaps more backwards than forwards and there was a hunger for any information that would guide their eyes and hands. Although interest is now perhaps largely historical, it nevertheless remains a wonderful sourcebook of inspiration for the contemporary worker, even if they will probably not feel that they need the same level of instruction.

If there is to be a reservation, it is that that small page size and paperback format make for a thick spine which is difficult to open without damaging the book. This is a pity, because it is the sort of thing that needs to be left open on the work table and this is not really possible.

Herbert Press 2008

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The Complete Book Of Art Nouveau Designs

This book consists of a huge variety of outline patterns you can copy or trace and include in a any craft project. Aimed at those who want to make rather than draw, it means that you can concentrate on what you do best rather then being let down by skills you don’t have and, frankly, don’t need.

The first dozen or so pages are taken up with photographs of various project ideas, with a brief description of each but no detailed process instructions. To be fair, this is not a how-to book and anything further would only take up space that’s best devoted to the matter in hand, the designs.

So, if you want to make a card, fabric, pottery or glass project based on art nouveau but don’t have the skill or the resources to do the basic drawing, this book is for you. It’s not really something you can review in the traditional sense. It does what it says and, if this is what you want, then it’s for you.

Search Press 2008

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Design Sourcebooks

The clever thing about these little books is their simplicity. In a project meeting, it would be all too easy to take the basic idea and augment the hell out of it until it became far too big to support its own weight and collapsed under the strain. I mean, there are just so many things you can add to them: techniques, materials, practices and working methods, projects, methods and materials, works in progress, what other people have done… Heck, there’s a ten or twenty quid book in every subject.

But no. Oh bliss, oh rapture, they sat on their hands and just stuck with what you get here: 48 pages of outline designs you can copy onto any material and do what you like with. All those things I said above? You can still do them. All for yourself and for only a fiver, which is about as cheap as it gets these days.

There are loads of titles and they’re adding to them all the time. You can’t review them individually because it’s the concept, not the content, that matters. If you paint, sew, do miniatures or murals, the idea adapts perfectly.

Search Press various dates
£4.99 each

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A Visual Language – Elements Of Design || David Cohen & Scott Anderson

On the face of it, this is a book you might think could be easily plundered for Pseud’s Corner, being a quite earnest approach to the process of design and its place in a wider society. This is almost inevitable because, as soon as you start to analyse what is, for the practitioner, often an instinctive process, you start to ask the question: what’s my motivation?, which, in terms, the authors do. However, apart from their more analytical approach, much of what’s here is no more than you might get in any basic book of art instruction; it’s just that we’re coming at it from a slightly different angle.

The blurb refers to this as “a practical approach to the theory of visual language” – you can almost sense the funny haircuts and the mannerisms already, can’t you? But stick with it, because this isn’t written by a sociologist but by a potter and an art and design teacher. The use of the word potter is important. If he’d described himself as a ceramicist, we’d know that David Cohen was putting himself right up there with the immortals, but pottery is a more humble, workmanlike calling, so I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt. Scott Anderson turns out to be his son.

What the book gives us is an analysis of form, shape and line which takes into account not only the maker but also the critic and the consumer (there’s even a diagram on page 11 which shows the inter-relationship between these), a complex process in which all the elements both feed on and inform each other in a sort of unholy triangle, the balance of which is what ultimately decides the success of any specific piece. Coming at it from the point of view of the practitioner and without being unduly prolix, the authors spark off a debate which will, in the end, go far beyond the covers of their book and which can be taken at almost any level the debaters choose.

In the second half of the book, eight craftspeople explain their individual approach to design and how they have developed and used their own visual language. Working in diverse fields including glass engraving, jewellery, metal and pottery, their comments illustrate how a common source can develop in an almost infinite number of ways as well as allowing a fascinating insight into the thought processes some serious artists.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking book which opens, rather than lectures, the mind.

First published 2006

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