A Retrospective View of ‘Façade and Fact: Design Cultures of Bath & Bristol, 1700 to the Present’

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This past September, Bath Spa University and Bristol and Bath by Design held a collaborative symposium on the history and heritage of design at the Holburne Museum in Bath. As the project’s historian, I wanted to show that the historical and contemporary design reputations of the Bristol and Bath region are a combination of a perceived and an actual identity, of a façade and the facts behind it. Bristol and Bath have historically developed in all directions in terms of what has been designed and made here and alongside that development is a seemingly unending series of perceptions, reputations, attitudes and assumptions.

In focusing the discussion on people, place, process and objects, shining a light on the truth behind literal and figurative façades became the overarching theme of the day. Façade and Fact: Design Cultures of Bath & Bristol, 1700 to the Present revolved around the desire of all those involved to gain a deeper understanding of design’s role and value in shaping this region.

Presentations were spread across a wide range of disciplines, subject matter and themes, all of which came together to form a picture of how and why Bath and Bristol have remained places of design, ideas and industry over the last three centuries. They raised countless questions for discussion, opening a dialogue about the future of design and creativity that is a long way from ending.

The morning opened with a welcome address by Professor Anita Taylor, Dean of the Bath School of Art and Design (Bath Spa University). Anita discussed the issues surrounding defining design and the extensive and pervasive nature it holds in all aspects of daily life. She talked about design as an often hidden process that needs to be pulled to the forefront in future dialogues about the region.

With those ideas in mind, the morning’s session began with Chris McMahon, Professor of Engineering Design (University of Bristol), speaking about ‘Engineering in Bristol and Bath: Trade, Knowledge, Work, Genius and Serendipity’. His talk explored the factors that influenced the development of industrial design from a historical perspective, highlighting four key points essential to its growth: the South West of England as the ‘crucible of the Industrial Revolution’; Bristol’s west-facing port and trade with the Americas; the importance of locally-sourced natural resources, such as coal; and finally, the effects of serendipity, chance and reinvention across industries. Using Roy Fedden, Clarks, G.B. Britton & Sons and Airbus as discussion points, Chris raised questions about how design in the region continues to be driven by people and geography. What lies ahead for Bristol and Bath in the twenty-first century? There has always been diversity in what is designed and made here and Chris expressed the hope that the significant impacts of the region over the last two hundred years would continue into the future.

Questions on the impact that future design could have in Bristol continued with Lynn Barlow, Director of Creative Media at the Bristol School of Art and Design (UWE). In her talk ‘Never Mind the Size: Feel the Force’, Lynn spoke about broadcasting as a ‘creative cousin’ of design and highlighted the importance of her professional practice to understanding the history and importance of TV, film, media and broadcasting in Bristol. Collaboration, generosity and openness in sharing thoughts, ideas and resources continue to characterize designing and making here. There is a collision of old and new that exists across this region and Lynn explored the challenges of engaging with both, saying that, in the end, it all comes down to story telling and to people.

The relationship between old and new and past and present were at the forefront with Dr. Amy Frost, Architectural Curator and Collections Manager at the Museum of Bath Architecture (Bath Preservation Trust). In ‘Classical Inheritance in Bath: Albatross or Opportunity’, Amy spoke about Bath’s classical heritage as an opportunity to develop and explore the idea of Bath’s architectural identity for a contemporary city and emphasized using the existing material palette of the city to create a classicism relevant to Bath today. She highlighted key moments in Bath’s history when its classical identity was altered or adapted to suit the changing needs of the city and issued a call for Bath’s present and future architects and designers to do the same. Innovations from the past have the potential to build an innovative future, but the city needs to embrace change.

In his afternoon talk ‘Bound in Bath’, Edward Bayntun-Coward said: ‘If Bath doesn’t change it will soon be twinned with Pompeii’. As Chair of the Bath Preservation Trust and Owner/Manager of his family’s bookbinding firm, George Bayntun, Edward spoke about his belief that change is absolutely vital to Bath’s future, for one must think about the future while preserving the past. Speaking about the history of George Bayntun and how the firm has survived for over a century, Edward emphasized the importance of maintaining both a high standard of craftsmanship and a strong customer base.

A high standard of design and craftsmanship defined the impact of the Bauhaus on the West Country, which was explored by Dr. Oliver Kent (Bristol School of Art and the Ken Stradling Collection) in ‘P.E. Gane and Co. and Marcel Breuer: Modernism in Bristol in the 1930s’. The championing of contemporary furniture and interior design in Bristol by Crofton Gane before the Second World War highlighted the open-minded approach to design that has characterized Bristol and Bath in the recent past. This was supported further by Dr. Isabella Streffen (Bath Spa University) in ‘Clifford and Rosemary Ellis: Light Makes the Object Visible’, which emphasized the unique style of art and design education developed by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis for the Bath Academy of Art as evidence of the development of a post-war design identity.

With ideas surrounding the future development of design firmly in mind, Kate Langham, a PhD student at the Bath School of Art and Design, spoke about the role of the designer within the community in her talk ‘Play as a Design Tool: Challenges, Opportunities and Discoveries for a Designer Working between Communities’. Kate discussed the power that play has in creating a universal language for design, one which present and future designers can use to understand the needs and wants of the community and place they are working in. Her talk and the discussions that followed it highlighted the importance of the human element of design and the living heritage of a place.

The day concluded with some closing remarks by Dr. Graham McLaren, Head of the Department of Design and Critical Studies in the Bath School of Art and Design (Bath Spa University). An open discussion followed which raised the issue of measuring the value and impact of design across this region from both a historical and a contemporary standpoint. Perceptions of value add another layer to the context of design and the group questioned whether we are actually fighting for something in attempting to convey true value over price and cost.

In summary, the key themes and questions that emerged over the course of the day revolved around the following:

  • Making of place
  • Ability of a place to meet expectations and perceptions
  • Differences between the specific design cultures of Bath and Bristol
  • Successes of Bath and Bristol as a place for design and creativity attributed to an influx of talent
  • Diversity in relation to people, skills, resources and industry
  • Story-telling through people, place, process and objects
  • Collision between old and new
  • Thinking about the future while preserving the past
  • High level of craftsmanship as a status symbol
  • Importance of dynamic collaboration and openness in sharing ideas and resources
  • Power of local voices standing up for design and creativity
  • Methods of measuring the value of a hidden process
From both a historical and a contemporary perspective, these themes provide a basis for future discussion and research, both within this region and on a national and international level.

In closing, an immense amount of gratitude is due to the speakers, chairs and participants of Façade and Fact: Design Cultures of Bath & Bristol, 1700 to the Present, as well as to the Holburne Museum. The level of passion expressed in fostering such a rich discussion by such a diverse group of people is invaluable to this project and will allow the conversation to continue in the coming months.

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