Virtual reality

Usually Hugh Pearman would rather watch TV than see something in person – except when it comes to good design, which has to be experienced for real

There I was, perched high in the north stand of Arsenal Football Club, staring down at the perfect, iridescent rectangle of the pitch, suspecting that Arsenal’s groundsman may be God. I have never seen such perfect grass. Even viewed from the touchline in broad daylight, it looked hyperreal. From a way off, under floodlights for an evening fixture, it looked computer-generated.

This was the problem I had with the whole game – the only Premiership match I have ever been to. Players ran on, and ran about, and scored the occasional goal. The crowd cheered and groaned and booed at intervals. People around me were getting quite excited about the whole thing. Just as well, because – apart from the goals – I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on without them. All I could see were the ant-like figures of the players – too far away to distinguish easily – scampering around what might as well have been a snooker table. True, they replayed key moments on a big screen, but that, too, was at some distance, so it became a very small screen. I didn’t feel engaged at all – I wanted it to be more like TV.

I remember feeling much the same at a Hayward Gallery exhibition, years back, on Romanesque art and sculpture. There were some precious objects there, as well as an audio-visual room. Many of the same objects were, thus, also to be found brilliantly photographed and projected. The visuals made it more like a TV documentary, with ace rostrum camerawork. This was much better – in fact, for me, they may as well not have bothered with the real stuff at all. Think of the money the Hayward Gallery could have saved by not bothering to ship in all those irreplaceable gewgaws from around Europe.

Twenty years ago some people extrapolated that broadcast and recording technology would make live entertainment obsolete. Nobody would go to sports events, nobody would go to the cinema or theatre – they didn’t mention art exhibitions, but they might as well. But it didn’t turn out like that, and I’m wondering why.

I suppose I know the answer really. I know that living death, in any gathering of people, is a PowerPoint presentation. Why do people talk from the same script that they show on the screen? What are you meant to look at – it, or them? Why not just send the presentation by e-mail, and answer questions the same way? Well, plenty do, but plenty don’t – presumably because of a residual feeling that physical presence engages more of our senses. Thus, you see two people lunching together, while talking on their phones to other people. It seems insane, but perhaps there is some point to it – like silent companionship.

It’s the old Platonic conundrum – how many filters are there between you and reality? I dispute the idea that TV is not real. For me, sport, history, some art and virtuoso cookery are all natural TV subjects. And I defy anybody not to be disappointed the first time they see Stonehenge for real. Some buildings and structures benefit from the drama the camera can give them, though most do not.

It’s one of those rules of thumb that design, in all its forms, seldom comes across well on the flat screen. You really do have to experience it for real. As for the Premiership, well, TV created it, and that is its rightful home. The stadium is scenery – the crowd are just extras.

I have many design heroes – Paul Rand, Charles Le Corbusier, Robin Day, AM Cassandre, Raymond Loewy, William Morris, Christian Dior, Gerrit Rietveld, Charles and Ray Eames, and, of course, the living legend Alan Fletcher – but one abiding influence that has informed my whole career is the Bauhaus movement and all that it represents.

Bauhaus brought together designers, artists and craftsmen to create something that changed the world they lived in. Walter Gropius created a school of real collaboration and a method of allowing designers to interact. Creatives such as Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe and Josef Albers inspired each other to work better, as only scientists had done in the past. Indirectly, I became a beneficiary at Yale and was taught by Albers. I found him to be a truly inspirational teacher as well as a design giant.

Like the Bauhaus collaborators, I have always worked with designers from many other design disciplines – to create something that is more than we could achieve individually. The Wembley Stadium identity and wayfinding project we undertook is a classic example of this kind of collaboration. When I set up the Michael Peters Group, and more recently Identica, Bauhaus was the inspiration for its vision. It is still the template for the modern, multidisciplinary design consultancy.

Learning from and collaborating with other talented, creative people is an unbelievable inspiration. It has allowed me to lead design groups underpinned by a unified, collaborative creativity.

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