Multi-discipline does not lead to multi-skills

I have been feeling uneasy about your espousal of cross-disciplinary activities and have reservations about the advisability of commending them so strongly (Comment, DW 13 January).

When the design profession really started moving in this country, with the acceptance by the Government of the importance of design to industry and the creation of the Council of Industrial Design, there were almost only polymath designers – Misha Black, Hugh Casson, James Gardner and so on – all still familiar names. In those days there were few specific design courses in art schools; illustration, commercial art and printing were taught along with textile design and not much else. At the time, the “jack of all trades” designer was much admired, but it was specialists such as FHK Henrion who became immortal, and it was the specialists industry really needed.

In the early Sixties, specific design courses were initiated in art schools (often renamed schools of art and design) and specialist disciplines emerged, the most powerful and numerous of which was the graphic designer. During all this time architecture degree courses had existed, as they still do, producing unequivocally specialist designers.

To revert to the jack of all trades seems to me to be a seriously retrograde step. I am a museum designer. I have strong views on many other fields of design but I would not dream of dabbling professionally in them. If I seriously attempted graphic design for my own exhibitions I would be ridiculed. If I attempted to design a museum building I would not, quite rightly, be allowed to build it. I have sat, or attempted to sit, in many an architect-designed chair and the only one that did not seriously injure my back was the Eames chair. Philippe Stark may not have completed his architecture course but, judging by the chair I was given to sit in at a dinner party in Paris, he did not finish his furniture design course either. Most architect-designed exhibitions I have seen have been heavy on structure and style, very light on content and interpretation.

I think it’s important that all designers should take a close interest in the work of other disciplines and, indeed, feed off each other for inspiration while maintaining our own specialist integrity. Any activities of yours that encourage such cross-fertilisation I heartily endorse, but anything that encourages us to attempt each other’s jobs is to be deplored. Would you get a gastric surgeon to remove your brain tumour?

Speaking personally, the pleasure of working with curators, graphic designers, architects, film-makers and other specialists could never be equalled by attempting to do it all myself, and I know that if I did, the end result would be very bad.

The Design Council has dwindled and its renaissance is yet to prove itself, and now here we are again advocating cross-disciplinary activity, the failure of which is what brought about the CoID in the first place. It is no good Terry William quoting the Conrans and Seymours of this world (Letters, DW 27 January) – they are, like the Blacks and Cassons, the exceptions. The rest of us have to cope with being quite simply as good at our trade as possible. I would rather try and master one.

Giles Velarde

Giles Velarde Associates

Pett Level

East Sussex

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