Sir Christopher Frayling talks about his RCA tenure

Christopher Frayling has left a worthy legacy for his successor at the RCA, Paul Thompson. Lynda Relph-Knight talks to him about his tenure

Paul Thompson faces a hard challenge when he becomes rector of the Royal College of Art next month. His experience at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum and London’s Design Museum will have prepared him to keep funding bodies sweet and attract sponsorship from business, but donning the mantle left by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling is quite another thing.

Frayling has achieved much in his 13 years as RCA rector, serving some 37 years at the college. And he has put his heart and soul into the place in an inimitable way.

He has his critics, not least for his rather hands-off chairmanship of the Design Council earlier this century and, more recently, his chairmanship of the Arts Council at a particularly steamy time for that organisation, but few can fault him at the RCA.

Top of the ‘big things’ cited by cultural historian Frayling as happening ‘on his watch’ – a favourite phrase of his – is his view on how to run an art school. ‘You choose the best academics and make a department that plays to their strengths,’ he says. It’s a principle he’s applied to the 18 professors he has appointed, including Nigel Coates, Ron Arad, Jeremy Myerson and Tord Boontje.

‘One model for a professor is someone who has had enormous success early on and is at the “hyphen” phase of their career, set to relaunch themselves,’ he says, citing Arad and Boontje. ‘Part of the rector’s job is to make it attractive for these people.’

He is proud, too, of his handling of the finances, rocky at the best of times because, as a specialist postgraduate college, the RCA is seen by the ‘bean counters’ as costing too much. The key with funding bodies, he says, is to constantly ‘refresh their knowledge’ as to the good value they’re getting. ‘Part of the job is to stay on their radar all the time,’ he says.

His efforts have included ‘measuring student destinations’, which, in 1998, showed 92 per cent of RCA alumni working in their chosen field. Last year, he commissioned Interbrand to undertake the first brand valuation of the RCA – the verdict was £57m.

Cash is tight now, with the Government seeking cuts in 2010-11, the third year of a three-year funding plan. Frayling has ‘tried to have a mixed economy’, with non-Government backers on board, but has nonetheless made a 10 per cent cut across all departments, leading to £1.6m in savings since February.

Frayling says that, like most colleges, the RCA is good at raising money for prizes and shows – the Conran Foundation, for example, has backed the degree shows in consecutive years – but it’s not so good at getting ‘money for the current account’. He sees sponsored professorial chairs as ‘the shape of things to come’ – Myerson’s role as Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design is an example.

With the RCA estate, Frayling has had mixed fortunes. Student numbers have grown from 550 to 850 since 1972, and he sought to address space issues by erecting a new Ellipse building by architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw on the Kensington site. Planning permission was obtained following a competition in 2000, but neighbours’ objections would have led to a costly public inquiry and the idea was dropped in 2004.

That was a no-brainer for Frayling, who couldn’t condone spending more than £1.5m on legal fees while students lived on a pittance. The ‘big decision’ for him was to take on a site in Battersea, 15 minutes from SW7. This will house applied and fine art students, as well as ‘incubators’ for 20-25 ‘bright RCA graduates in the hyphen period’, when they are finding their feet. The first phase of the development is set to complete in 2011, and the second phase in 2013.

With the first two phases under his belt, Frayling has bequeathed the third phase – applied arts – to Thompson. In his familiar film-speak, he sees the end result as ‘not an A-movie and a B-movie, but a double feature’.

Inclusive design has been a key theme at the RCA under Frayling. What started with Design Age under Professor Roger Coleman is now the Helen Hamlyn Centre, under Myerson, fulfilling charter requirements for ‘social development’ to be on the agenda. The HHC works alongside Innovation RCA – a gateway for business partners – which is also headed by Myerson. Meanwhile, Design London enables the RCA to collaborate with neighbouring Imperial College London and its business arm, Imperial Business.

‘I’m a great SW7 person,’ says Frayling, of that and other local collaborations. ‘We have the best resource of museums [including the Victoria & Albert Museum] and colleges, down one street.’

These plans also fulfill the requirement for the RCA to take on research as a postgraduate institution. Research has been embedded into the college through the now-defunct Centre for Research for the Domestic Interior, culminating in an exhibition at the V&A, and the Centre for Jewellery Research.

‘We should have more [of these centres],’ says Frayling, looking to the future. But the future is Thompson’s, and Frayling counsels him to keep in touch with the students as well as with the grandees outside the RCA.

‘The thing I’ll miss most is the students,’ he says. ‘They keep you in touch. My advice to Paul is, “Don’t be the man behind the desk. Get out there”.’

Frayling’s Legacy to Thompson:

  • Phase three of Battersea to house applied arts students
  • The need for more research centres within the college
  • Plans for the college to create departments for interiors; criticism and design writing; and systems and service design
  • Ongoing funding issues with the Government, despite a ‘mixed economy’ system

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