It’s show time again at the Royal College of Art, the moment of the year when eyes turn expectantly to the graduates, scrutinising their ideas, talent and verve. In particular, this year’s Design Products batch will be the first generation to have emerged from the revised course in 1999, when industrial design and furniture was amalgamated and placed under the leadership of course director and professor Ron Arad.
“There were two main reasons for this merger,” explains course deputy director Hilary French. “Industrial design needed a professor, a leader that could show the way. Since Daniel Weil left to join Pentagram, the course was lacking that kind of personality.” Who better then than Arad, who joined as furniture course director in 1997 and quickly proved that his multiple talents in architecture and design could be applied to a wider educational syllabus. “I think there is an uncertainty in the way you define the [two] disciplines,” says French. “For example, there have been a lot of people on the furniture or industrial course designing light fittings. Is this furniture or is it industrial design? Putting them together means broadening the various techniques, materials and ways of thinking.”
The multi-skilled approach means that most students who, for example, applied for the furniture course have on the way picked up an experience and knowledge once exclusively owned by their industrial design peers and vice versa. However, the course’s structure still maintains areas of specialism: there are six platforms, each headed by two tutors and teaching a particular approach to design. But it’s the crossover among specialisms and the fluid interaction between students – within both the Design Products course and other RCA departments – that is constantly mentioned as one of the course’s strengths. Visit the bustling workshops and the overflowing desks of the studio and you can’t help but notice an inevitable proximity, bringing with it a constant exchange of ideas between students studying different disciplines. One consequence of this creative intimacy is healthy competition. It also creates a breeding ground for collaboration, either for the show or ultimately in setting up studios.
The presence of illustrious names is another bonus. Former RCA graduates such as Jasper Morrison, Michael Marriott, Konstantin Grcic and Peter Russell-Clark are among those who keep alive the “old boy network” and, as tutors, renew it proactively. “Some people like Edoardo Paolozzi will turn up for a lecture because Ron asks him to,” explains French. “But overall most people are ex-RCA and effectively, the best of the best.” The course’s visiting tutor is Italian luminaire Vico Magistretti, who “pops in when he comes to London for some work he is doing at [Heathrow Airport’s] Terminal Five,” laughs French. And, of course, the great thing about having a relationship with these established designers is that students can exploit the connection and “spend time at Morrison’s studio to see how that works”. Arad himself has been known to conduct tutorials from his London premises. “His studio is an open house,” says French. “It’s quite nice for the students to go up there. It’s good for them to see all the work that goes on. I think that Arad’s current show at the Victoria & Albert Museum has been a real inspiration for them. It proves that [even Arad] has a show to put up and has to work hard and stay up all night.”
This year’s RCA product graduates will take different paths, some down the entrepreneur route, while others as in-house designers for big players such as Ideo or Philips. Favoured by the RCA connection and for its excellent track record of employment, they stand a good chance of success. After all, as French underlines, they were chosen not only for their obvious talents but for “their maturity, confidence, communication skills and passion.
In every creative field you have to have the passion. You have to want to wake up in the morning and do it. No one else is going to take responsibility for it.”