Of all the shifts at design’s top table this summer, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s departure as rector of the Royal College of Art is likely to have the biggest impact on the future of the industry.
Frayling has done a superb job in his 13 years as rector to ensure that the world’s only postgraduate art and design college has retained dominance in the subjects it teaches.
On his watch – a phrase he enjoys – we have seen the formation of the Helen Hamlyn Centre, emphasising inclusive design, the Design London alliance between the RCA, Imperial College London and Tanaka Business School, professors of the calibre of Nigel Coates, Ron Arad, Jeremy Myerson and fashion head Wendy Dagworthy come into the RCA fold, as well as generations of graduates making a difference in the world beyond Kensington Gore. And that’s just for starters.
The ground was set by forebears such as the much-cited Robin Darwin and the fiery Jocelyn Stevens. But cultural historian and broadcaster Frayling has put his indelible mark on the RCA, making it more accessible and connected with the outside world – even inviting the TV cameras in for a fly-on-the-wall series in the 1990s. His reward was becoming the first RCA ‘sheriff’ last week.
He will be a hard act to follow for Paul Thompson, who returns to the UK in September following his sojourn as director of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum. But Thompson has his own style – witness his stint at the Design Museum in London Docklands. His US experience can only help at a time when funding generally is tight and education is questioning itself.
The RCA isn’t the only college to uphold the UK’s creative reputation at home and abroad. Collective shows like New Designers, which opens tonight at London’s Business Design Centre, reveal the breadth of talent emanating from UK institutions. But when you look at the influence RCA alumni have in shaping the future, you can’t deny its prowess. That is surely embedded in its DNA, and while Frayling will be missed, the innovative spirit of the RCA will live on.