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The exhibition continues at the RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7 until 20 March.

The Royal College of Art’s centenary exhibition celebrates the work of its graduates, and is also a tribute to good design education. José Manser reports

Starting out as the Government School of Design in 1837, the Royal College of Art was given its present name in 1896. So 1996 marks an important centenary milestone in the life of what some call the Oxbridge of post-graduate design education.

There are institutions with similar aspirations and achievements. But none evoke such expectation of excellence, the aura of confidence, as the RCA. It’s a special place, a fact of which its students are aware, and Pro-Rector Christopher Frayling had the idea of marking its centenary with an exhibition called Design of the times to explain the vital role that design and designers from the RCA have played in shaping the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This demonstrates the profusion of fine designs which originated there, the well-known designers of various nationalities who sprang to prominence in the RCA’s stimulating atmosphere, and it also brings into focus less charismatic characters who have taken their quieter talents into every corner of visual life: designing textiles, books, films, exhibitions, clothes, cars – and practically anything else you can think of.

As the college is in constant need of funding and sponsorship, this exhibition – sponsored by Korean firm LG Electronics at a cost of 180 000 – aims to raise public awareness of its importance. Fine art does not feature largely, as the show’s organisers want to put the record straight about the RCA’s status as a school of design.

Curator Claire Catterall has painted the RCA’s history from its inception in 1837, when teaching was politically directed, narrow and governed by rules which would cause a student riot today. Enduring prolonged birth pangs, it was the object of political argy bargy about its purpose and constitution. It was years before it overcame damage wrought by men who misunderstood the school’s real purpose. Catterall has dealt kindly with these early days, showing examples of the classical casts and drawings from which students were required to become copyists, the paintings they were encouraged to make and the “good taste” articles they were shown, without laying excessive emphasis on the negative aspects of this early order.

Things improved in the 1850s with Henry Cole, who, despite widespread resistance, determined it should be a place where designers for industry were both educated and trained, albeit in a rigidly predetermined way. Students were now “designing” things, the most ambitious being the Duke of Wellington’s funeral car (not an unequivocal success) and a pillar box for the Post Office – on which they worked with teacher Richard Redgrave. As well as these, there are drawings and designs by Christopher Dresser, who studied and taught at the school, and examples of his teaching diagrams.

The school was now in its stride – one which wavered periodically over the years ahead – and there is a fascinating section showing the work of famous Victorians: Edward Lutyens’ inimitable architectural drawings, Kate Greenaway illustrations, a Gertrude Jekyll student sketchbook from the 1860s and garden drawings published in her maturity. As the school broadened in scope, fine artists took their place alongside teacher-training and the practical skills. Sculpture by teachers Jules Dalou and Edouard Lanteri is shown, as is work by Alfred Dury, who sculpted figures on the main entrance to the

Victoria and Albert Museum. Following the short-lived appointment of Arts and Crafts exponent Walter Crane as head in 1898, there was a swing towards the tenets of this movement which is well represented: WR Lethaby’s master’s chair, Beresford Pite’s design for a Brixton church, stained glass by Christopher Whall and a water-colour by Crane himself. There are examples of calligraphy by Edward Johnson, who taught at the college until 1939.

In 1896 the National Art Training School was granted permission by Queen Victoria to become the RCA with its own diploma. By now the college was divided into four departments – mural and decorative painting, sculpture and modelling, architecture and design – under the influential Professor WR Lethaby.

The exhibition doesn’t specifically address the role of women in art education, which was of a pretty lowly nature during the early years. But Sylvia Pankhurst was a student in 1904/5 before being irrevocably claimed by the Suffragette movement, and some of her work – of a suitably activist nature – is exhibited. So are trenchant criticisms of the college (in which she joined) which surfaced a few years later in a recurrence of the attacks which have marked its history. One department to escape the general abuse was Sculpture and Modelling, and the exhibition features work by CS Jagger, who after service in the First World War made many war sculptures, the most prominent being his monument at Hyde Park Corner.

The history of the RCA between the wars, under principal William Rothenstein with his successful policy of “training for a specific purpose, combined with the best possible general education through the arts”, began illustriously. His son John later wrote: “A generation rich in talent was gathering in the classroom.” This became a golden period for both fine artists and designers. The students whose work Catterall exhibits include Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Enid Marx. Of great interest is design work by those who became renowned fine artists: textiles by Moore and Hepworth, silk scarves by Moore and John Piper, posters by Nash. The London Underground posters by Nash, Barnett Freedman, Bawden, Ravilious and Marx evoke a treasured and historic era.

One body of work comes as a surprise: Yardley packaging, textiles, lacquer work, and graphics are part of the huge output of Reco Capey RDI, who headed the design school in the 1920s and 1930s. By the late 1930s the golden years were over, with the college again the butt of criticism for its inadequate approach to industrial design. But the Second World War intervened, resulting in evacuation to Ambleside, a period recorded chiefly by a Gilbert Spencer oil painting and Picture Post-type illustrations of students working in converted pigeon lofts.

When the war ended, the RCA as we know it began to take shape. The new principal, Robin Darwin, brought winds of change – bearing ideals of excellence, autonomy (it became an educational charitable foundation) and proper training for industrial designers. His commitment, coupled with the influx of highly motivated ex-service people and the spur of such exhibitions as Britain Can Make It and the Festival of Britain, led to subjects for study becoming more specialised.

Handsome exhibits appeared in the years of Darwin’s reign: a silver kettle by Robert Gooden, book jackets by John Minton, Shell posters by Richard Guyatt. But it was the post-war generation who initiated thoughtful, practical designs so characteristic of this period: silverware by David Mellor and Gerald Benney, furniture by Ron Carter and Robert Heritage, graphics by David Gentleman and Henri Henrion, Lucienne Days’ textiles.

Catterall has divided this major post-war period into decades. They represent work done by designers in the ten years after they left the college. Well-known names proliferate. Representing the 1960s are ceramics by David Queensberry and Martin Hunt, steelware by Robert Welch, Peter Murdoch’s famous cardboard chair, furniture by Geoffrey Harcourt, Jane Dillon and Peter Colwell, fashion by Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb. Henrion, Alan Fletcher, Brian Tattersfield, Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert, Peter Blake, David Hockney and Len Deighton – the list goes on.

Post-war euphoria evaporated by the 1970s, but there were still peaks of achievement. It was then that Fred Scott produced his Supporto chair for Hille, BIB its Durabeam torch, Martin Smith designs for the Audi Quattro. Fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Anthony Price were fêted by the media, Roger Dean made marvellous record album covers. Illustrators such as Dan Fern, Quentin Blake and Nicola Bayley demonstrated the college’s quality, and there was furniture by Jane Dillon, Fred Baier and Floris van den Broecke. Almost all these distinguished people are still at work.

In the 1980s, interior designers sprang to the fore. The dynamism of work by Ben Kelly, Julian Powell Tuck and David Connor suited the prevailing mood of bravado. Paul Priestman’s Cactus radiators, Daniel Weil’s degree show radio, lighting for Memphis by Gerry Taylor and the new computer aesthetics of Geoff Hollington, Nick Oakley and Winfried Sheuer demonstrate the use of new materials, exploration of new forms and breaking down of old barriers.

In the wider world, the 1990s have not been the best of times. But looking at the work of RCA graduates during the past five years this seems hard to believe, and the exhibition closes on a high note. Catterall says: “This has been a time of ideas, of pared-down design, of design used to enhance everyday tasks and change our approach to living.” The quieter, cerebral mood is manifest in work on show: David Constantine’s wheelchair, a wind-up radio by Andy Davey, Paul Priestman’s soft fan, furniture by James Irvine, Michael Marriot’s Kit chair and hat stand, brooches by Christoph Zellweger, fold-out furniture by Tomoko Azumi – who was a star at last year’s degree show- and a quietly clever idea for recasting rice by Ishiguro Takeshi. The wealth of material Catterall has been able to call upon is overwhelming. Clearly, whatever travails it has endured en route, the RCA is currently riding high. Visitors to the centenary exhibition will be impressed.

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