Inside the magic circle

The annual bash at the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry collected together the design world elite. Hugh Pearman sees virtue in the existence of this dining club

It was one of those curiously surreal occasions when nearly everyone you bump into has designed something you own, use, or would like to. Hello Rodney Kinsman. Is that Paul Smith over there? Goodness, there’s Kenneth Grange and there – sharing a joke with Vico Magistretti – is Alan Fletcher. Oh, is Eva Jiricna leaving already? And can that be Robin and Lucienne Day, game as ever in their eighties, in the midst of a throng of admirers? You get the picture. There was the odd nugget of talent in there somewhere.

The occasion was the annual shindig of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry. One of those affairs where, if a bomb landed on top of the host body, the Royal Society of Arts, the cream of Britain’s designers – and quite a few, like Magistretti, from elsewhere in the world – would be wiped out. There’s a tradition here: new RDIs are elected. A new master of the faculty assumes control and gives an address. Then everyone troops off for drinks – and quite a few go on to dinner, at which more speeches are made, but not too many, since the main point is for this particular peer group and its friends to gossip among itself. And in a spirit of generosity, they present a medal to some good egg or other who is not a designer but whose heart is in the right place – this year the property developer Stuart Lipton.

Running beneath all the bonhomie is an icy stream of guilt: what, exactly, is the Faculty of RDIs for Industry for? True, it represents an astonishing reservoir of skill and experience, not least because its members are no spring chickens. And it is good to find an organisation that can include both names in the public eye, like Paul Smith, and brilliant people in disciplines nobody takes much account of – such as the outgoing master, the estimable and witty naval architect Marshall Meek. Smith may know all about conservative dandyism, but Meek knows more than anybody alive about how a container ship goes together. Truly, design is a broad church and the faculty is its high priesthood.

The new master, stage designer Timothy (“Evita”) O’Brien, dared to rock the boat a little. He recalled a predecessor, David Gentleman, suggesting in his inaugural address a decade ago that the faculty was pretty bloody useless and needed to get its act together (I paraphrase, but that was the thrust of it). And what had happened since, O’Brien diplomatically suggested, was not much. He put forward some ideas – getting the RDIs to run a summer school for young designers, allowing architects in, generally getting out more. Such initiatives, to go by the title of his address, amounted to a “sea change”.

This puzzled me. I had always assumed architects were allowed in, given that Eva Jiricna and Lord Foster are both RDIs. It turns out they are there because of things they’ve designed that aren’t buildings. And it was astonishing that O’Brien made no mention of the single most effective master of the faculty in recent years, the late Jean Muir. She, who tellingly admired engineers above all designers, did more to raise the profile of the faculty than anyone before or since, despite fighting what was to be a fatal illness.

Christopher Frayling was there, concealing his barbs beneath a well-honed wit as he replied to O’Brien’s address. But as he spoke, I couldn’t help remembering an unguarded comment he once made about all the organisations in design being little more than dining clubs, with none of the clout of real professional bodies. And it occurred to me that, here alone perhaps, this is no bad thing.

The Faculty of RDIs is like something out of GK Chesterton – an elite club of astonishing individuals, almost a secret society. Muir’s genius was to acknowledge its nature, but to lift the curtain a little and reveal the talent behind. Not so much as to shatter the mystique, but enough to create a murmur of appreciation from those outside the charmed circle. And when she wished to bend the rules a little – as she did to get Jiricna elected – she just went ahead and did it.

I don’t think the faculty should attempt anything else. It is a closed order of not more than 100 individuals. All disseminate their knowledge in various other ways, not least through their work. Many are practically retired, while the younger ones are guaranteed to be busy elsewhere. O’Brien’s frustration is understandable – why does nothing ever seem to happen? – but misplaced. The whole point, I suggest, is precisely that nothing should ever happen. This is the most glorious of all design’s dining clubs, and should triumphantly, anachronistically, remain so.

Oh, and they should reinstate the black tie rule. Good designers will always find ways to subvert a dress code. Paul Smith RDI knows all about that.

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