There seems to be a proliferation of women curators in the design world. Or maybe curation attracts a certain kind of lateral thinking – qualities arguably associated with the female gender. You could easily prove the contrary, but it’s nice to be able to roll off the tongue a series of female names in such a predominantly male industry. Think Louise Taylor, director of exhibitions at the Crafts Council, or the recently appointed Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn, who, as a design and architecture critic and journalist, is approaching her new job with curatorial entrepreneurship. On an independent level, there are writers such as Liz Farrelly, who has made her name scouring young design culture, or Scarlet Projects, run by Claire Catterall and Sarah Gaventa, which offers an all-round service of curating design and architectural events, exhibitions and writing books.
In many ways, Restructure, a company set up less than 18 months ago by Helen Jones and Libby Sellers, follows the tradition. Located in media-friendly ‘Noho’ and sandwiched in an open-plan office between graphic design consultancy Unlimited and digital media group NMI, it prizes itself in working for corporate clients as well as institutions, museums and foundations. Yet Restructure also aims to differ, in approach and clients, to other existing curators.
‘Oddly enough, curation and curatorial are not even recognised as words by a spellchecker – which says something of the general understanding of the profession,’ Sellers explains.
‘Restructure is different in that it was set up to deal with designand architecture-related content provision at all levels. It gathers information or sources ideas, objects, solutions, designers, architects – whatever – and then restructures that information in the format required by the client. This way the focus is always on the audience. But it also breaks open the museum-based approach to “curating”. It is an opportunity to “curate” everything that goes on around us.’ She adds that a lot of the discussion in design today is driven by press releases instead of research. Content is king and curation is part and parcel of the whole process, the method.
Jones and Sellers met at London’s Royal College of Art in 1996, while studying for a masters degree in History of Design. After this, they went their separate ways, although their paths crossed in the incestuous world of design. Jones’ background is a degree in history of decorative arts at Camberwell College of Arts and then a job as a photolibrary researcher for architect Fosters and Partners. A thesis on petrol station design at the RCA has left her with an enduring interest in vehicle design. Sellers also has a fashion journalism masters degree, and worked on design research for Habitat. Both worked on Glasgow 1999 City of Architecture and Design, Sellers with Rowan Moore for the Vertigo exhibition, Jones with Deyan Sudjic on the Architecture of Democracy exhibition.
Sensibly, the two decided to join forces and channel their multiple interests into a single company. Judging by their current engagements, it was a wise move – and one that proves that start-ups like Restructure are currently satisfying the organisational needs of the UK design industry. ‘Many of our clients, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Architecture Foundation, Somerset House and Deyan Sudjic keep returning to us with new projects,’ says Jones. Other work is obtained through word of mouth, although now Restructure is receiving calls from people – photographers, designers and other curators – offering their skills. ‘We think of ourselves as an umbrella, a structure to facilitate events or exhibitions,’ says Sellers. ‘Unlike many creative consultancies that only offer the initial idea, it gives us the opportunity to offer the complete package – bringing together other experts, designers and photographers to give as little or as much [input] as the client would like, or the job requires.’
Among their various clients, the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre is particularly dear to them. ‘We wanted to keep a relationship with the college. We missed contact with such a prestigious centre of design,’ says Sellers. More recently, Jones has been involved as a research associate in an ongoing Helen Hamlyn project on the future of urban transport. Other clients include brand management consultancy Brainchild, which asked them to compile research for a drinks company’s ad campaign, and legal company Rowe & Maw, which has employed Restructure as an expert witness for copyright court cases. And it’s not all just research; the girls believe in ‘placing different things within different contexts’, and they aren’t shy about cross-pollination – they even have a column on art in Top Gear magazine.
Restructure’s greatest coup so far has been organising the Design Council’s autumn exhibition in New York, Great Expectations: New British Design Stories. For the Design Council, this is its biggest ever event abroad.
The title comes from a Charles Dickens quote written in 1851 for the Great Exhibition: ‘England communicates with the world and prospers. Its prosperity depends on ‘interchange’, a steady flow of goods and information both within and beyond its borders’. The Dickens connection refers to a time when Britain prospered through trade and export, a period of optimism for innovation and experimentation. The obvious parallel drawn here is between the excitement of the Great Exhibition and the industrial and creative renaissance that has taken place in the UK over the past two decades.
The exhibition, held from 16-27 October, is part of the UK in NY festival, a two-week celebration of modern Britain. For the Design Council, this is very much a business-to-business operation, aimed to boost ties with the US market and promote UK design overseas. For the exhibitors and the curators, this is a chance to show off some of the most innovative designs of the past years. ‘The list is about designers who have challenged conventions. It covers ten disciplines, from architecture to product and interactive design – and it’s all about the link between tradition and innovation,’ says Sellers.
Restructure got the job through design group Casson Mann, which initially approached it to pitch for the exhibition design job at the Design Council. The original pitch team, which also includes Kerr Noble for graphics and Richard Greenwood as manager for the show, is the one that is in charge today. The list of exhibitors, which was pared down from an initial wish-list of 250 to 100, and compiled with the approval and advice of the Design Council, owes much to Restructure’s knowledge and research. A fact that perhaps hints at its power within the industry. Many names included are award-winners, but others don’t belong to the design industry’s promotional circuits. Alongside commercial crowd-pleasers such as the Dyson DC06 vacuum cleaner and Seymour Powell’s Bioform Bra, it also features medical product design work such as prosthetic feet by Chas A Blatchford & Sons and Neville Brody’s typographic manifesto, Fuse 18.
So what is there to expect from the exhibition? Judging from the Casson Mann plans, it will certainly be a theatrical experience for the American audience. Based in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, it will feature a 24m banquet-like table glowing in white light. The products and interactive exhibits will be either displayed on, or inserted in, the table. Around the table, a series of chairs with an audio system fitted inside will allow visitors to follow the rationale behind the exhibition, as well as listen to snippets of pre-recorded dialogues between the designers and the clients for each project.
‘The exhibition categories are less important than the dialogue between the exhibitors,’ explains Sellers. ‘It’s about having many voices rather than just the single voice of the curator.’ It seems like the dialogue has just begun.
Examples of dialogues that will be voiced during Great Expectations
On the Eden Project in Cornwall:
Eden brings together two British traditions – a fascination with plants and a fascination with structures. This project has held the office in thrall from the moment we were appointed.’Nicholas Grimshaw, chairman, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners
‘We are proud to have provided the canvas on which the architect, landscape designers, horticulturists and a cast of thousands now really create.’
Tim Smit, chief executive, Eden Project
On Virgin Trains:
‘The challenge was to turn Britain’s dilapidated rail network into the world’s best. We needed to find a design team to create wonderful new trains that not only ran smoothly but were [also] a joy to travel on. So we turned to Paul [Priestman] and his team to have a go at that and it has fulfilled every expectation that we could wish for.
‘Richard Branson, chairman, Virgin Group
‘You can’t get a much bigger product than a train. This was a fantastic opportunity to look at the train as a moving environment, rather than a series of individual components, creating a 3D manifestation of the Virgin brand.
‘Paul Priestman, director, Priestman Goode