As a museum curator, Gareth Williams isan interesting choice for a design post atthe Royal College of Art. As he oversees anew exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum,Liz Farrelly talks to the self-styled generalist
Major changes are occurring at London’s Royal College of Art/ a new rector, Paul Thompson, and very soon, a new head of Design Products, as Ron Arad departs. But it’s another appointment, that of Gareth Williams as senior tutor in Design Products, back in January, which points to an interesting evolution at the world’s only postgraduate design university – because Williams is teaching design, but he isn’t a designer.
For the past 18 years, as a curator in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s furniture department, Williams’ role was ‘to interpret the collections in our care’. That entailed staging exhibitions, writing catalogues, contributing research to books and journals, acquiring new objects for the collection, and keeping ahead of the game in contemporary furniture and product design.
After an academic education that mixed English, drama and Russian studies, the latter inspired by a love of Constructivist architecture, Williams joined the V&A as a curatorial assistant. ‘I was interested in the design of everyday life,’ he explains, ‘not the art world’s gallery system.’ Working alongside Christopher Wilk, who he describes as ‘a supreme teacher’, Williams carved out ‘a nice corner of my own making’.
Williams’ highlights at the museum included the exhibition Milan in a Van (2002), which entailed a team of curators raiding the Milan furniture fair, sticking the best bits in a truck and unpacking their finds back at the ranch. Even if you’d been in Milan, this insider’s view was a rare treat. More recently, he was involved in the year-long refit of the West Room, a spectacular space previously housing dusty National Art Library offices. The new installation features post-war design, arranged thematically, exploring craft, technology, consumerism, media and more, with rediscovered highlights and newly acquired pieces from Fornasetti, Memphis and Droog.
So, what tempted Williams to the RCA? ‘I answered an ad in Design Week,’ he replies with a smile. While his role at the V&A had afforded some teaching experience (at Christie’s, the University of Sussex and Ecal in Switzerland), he says, ‘I felt very connected to the Design Products course. Since joining the museum I’ve collected work from the RCA, so it was inevitable that I would be interested.’
When asked about the selection process, Williams reveals a mix of unassuming self-confidence and clever determination. ‘The “person specification” mentioned a “designer in practice”, but I argued that the college had plenty of designers and needed someone with a different perspective. As a curator, writer and observer, I offer an overview of issues and history, without a personal agenda to push,’ he says. Williams’ role is described as ‘tutorial, pastoral and administrative’, and operates outside the platform system borrowed from architectural education. This entails a team of students working alongside a tutor for an entire academic year. Applying that system to Design Products at the RCA was Arad’s innovation.
‘I think the platforms generally work well, though perhaps there is scope for more of a variety of approaches,’ suggests Williams. ‘I’m a generalist compared to the practising designers, who inevitably see the student’s work in relation to their own.’
So, what do the students make of Williams? ‘They’re responding well and seek my opinion. I help them look at their work in different ways, or point them to material elsewhere,’ he says.
When quizzed about the future, the diplomatic skills gained from his time at the V&A kick in. ‘I’m not going to second-guess who may replace Arad,’ he says. He admits that design stars ‘can be useful for attracting attention’, but asserts that clear leadership doesn’t have to come from someone well known.
While that drama plays out, Williams is busy overseeing his new exhibition back at the V&A. Addressing the issue of narrative in design and showcasing some of the most spectacular objects to come out of the design-art scene since the 1990s, Telling Tales is an ambitious undertaking, not least for its curatorial stance, which employs a range of theoretical methodologies. Whether you buy into the analysis or simply overdose on the aesthetics, it’s set to be the design exhibition of the year. A close second could be this year’s RCA graduation show, which, not surprisingly, Williams also has a hand in.
Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, from 14 July to 18 October. Gareth Williams’ book of the same title will be available in July from V&A Publishing, priced £19.95