Set for life

Theatre designer Timothy O’Brien is the new Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about his varied career and his plans to recruit a wider range of creatives into the RDI

By his own admission, Timothy O’Brien’s career has been blessed by the good fairy. A pioneer of early TV design, he gave up a top executive job with the long-defunct ABC Television to design classical stage productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, then made a small fortune as designer of the musical Evita in the 1970s.

For many years he designed operas at home and abroad, and in more recent times he has returned to straight theatre, working with top directors such as Peter Hall and Terry Hands.

Though mild-mannered and softly spoken, O’Brien is clearly a man who has seized opportunities and made daring choices in his working life. He could easily have remained in TV as a high-earning head of design, or progressed into feature films, but he chose instead the more modest, but, for him, rewarding path of live theatre.

“The theatre was always my first choice,” he explains, “but in the early 1950s when I came on to the job market, the West End was a closed world and provincial theatre was a horrifying treadmill. Television, on the other hand, was expanding at a colossal rate, with the introduction of the independent sector. In the first week [working for] independent television I designed 25 programmes.

“It was an exciting time because everyone working in television was young and dedicated. A lot of it went out live and when anything brilliant happened, we all used to stand up in the control room, like spectators at a sporting event. I became head of design at ABC Television when I was 26. I started out with a staff of three and finished up with some 50 people under me,” he says.

After ten years, O’Brien decided it was time to move on. Films were one possible option – he designed the sets for the 1964 film Night Must Fall, directed by Karel Reisz – but he felt film was a medium in which designers were marginalised. O’Brien came to a simple conclusion: “Basically, the person who has all the fun is the director.” He was never in any real doubt as to his own professional destiny.

“I wanted to work for the RSC, which had been set up by Peter Hall in 1960. I had to work quite hard to persuade Peter to give me a chance, but in the end he took me on and I became an associate of the RSC in 1966.

“Again, it was an exciting time because the work was challenging – each play I designed presented me with a fresh set of ideas – it was a young team, and it was the heyday of state subsidy, so we felt wanted and socially significant,” he says.

In terms of prestige and remuneration, O’Brien’s most significant job was undoubtedly the Tim Rice/ Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Evita, in 1978, which he took on with his then partner, Tazeena Firth.

Having survived a musical flop many years prior to Evita, O’Brien’s first instinct was to turn it down. “Musicals are trouble,” he says. “What you get are a lot of people drinking whisky in a hotel room at four in the morning, tearing their hair out. Then they sent me the album and told me that the director would be Hal Prince. It started to sound more and more interesting. Everyone involved in its conception was being set up for success.

“For the most part, designers in the theatre work contentedly for very little money – it’s not unusual to give five months of your life for £3000. With Evita I insisted on a percentage of the profits, and, of course, it went on to become a worldwide success. I’ve never really had any serious worries about my financial future since that time,” he says.

However, O’Brien is not a man to rest on his laurels. After Evita he had a long working relationship with the director Elijah Mojinsky, designing operatic productions at home and abroad, including many at Covent Garden Opera House. In more recent years he has teamed up with the Peter Hall Company, as well as working with former RSC boss Terry Hands at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in North Wales.

O’Brien clearly has a keen intellect and evident interest in the broader picture. Hasn’t he ever been tempted to try his hand at directing as well as designing?

“People often ask me why I don’t direct. But I don’t think it’s something you should take up lightly. I have enormous respect for good directors. Everyone working on a show looks to them, and they must keep the whole thing in perfect pitch. Your heart goes out to the directors who know what they’re doing,” he says.

Instead, O’Brien is directing his intellectual rigour towards the design industry by accepting the grand-sounding title of Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry.

Designers elected to the faculty – operating under the auspices of the Royal Society of Arts – either accept the honour and carry on ploughing their own solitary furrow, or they become more involved in the RDI’s manifesto for the greater good, which is to promote excellent design and civilised values. The master’s role is to provide a focus for the feelings, concerns and needs of his fellow RDIs.

O’Brien believes in reining in what he describes as the “indiscriminate extravagance” that threatens resources in the manufacturing and commercial sector. One practical step towards this seemingly unrealistic goal is to establish a summer school where the more outgoing RDIs will at least make contact with the younger generation of student artists, engineers and designers they are hoping to influence.

“The theatre has taught me that every time people meet, it should be an inspiration. Together we’ll consider what’s important and look to the future,” says O’Brien.

Whether or not this proves to be a valuable exercise in mutual exploration of ideas or a last-ditch attempt to justify a bunch of self-important grandees, mindful of their sell-by dates, remains to be seen.

Royal designers for industry

The faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry was established in 1936 as an offshoot of the Royal Society of Arts (www.rsa.org.uk.), which was originally founded in 1754.

Eligibility requires now, as it did then, ‘high eminence and efficiency in creative design’. There were ten elected members originally, now there are 93. In the early days it was probably enough for that elite band to enjoy a good dinner, bemoan the younger generation of designers, and pat each other on the back.

But in more recent years the role of the RDIs has come under closer scrutiny. What is it for? Shouldn’t it serve some purpose other than an official recognition of merit?

Ten years ago, David Gentleman, the then Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry, wondered in his inaugural address whether the idea of lumping together a bunch of distinguished bods from multifarious disciplines wasn’t merely an anachronism left over from more romantic times.

In his inaugural address to fellow RDIs last November, theatre designer Tim O’Brien also questioned the RDI’s role in the modern world and suggested, somewhat tentatively, that it might be time to ‘redesign’ the faculty.

However, having only just begun his two-year tenure as master, O’Brien feels it is early days to start throwing his weight around. There are few signs as yet that he plans to challenge the status quo, maybe just tweak it here and there.

For instance, he finds the exclusion of architects from the ranks of RDIs ‘indefensible’ and clearly intends to argue for their inclusion. He is also anxious to embrace the world of IT in the form of Web designers, at least those whose work the RDIs find ‘socially responsible and aesthetically satisfying’.

On a practical note, O’Brien proposes an RDI summer school, sponsorship permitting, in which ten or so members of the faculty would give up four consecutive days to work with a group of 50 students of all disciplines.

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