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A fluidity of thinking across disciplines

The RCA is where Sir James Dyson chanced upon engineering and discovered ‘the beauty in mechanics’.

Drawing for Dyson Air Multiplier (tm) Fan (2011)
Drawing for Dyson Air Multiplier (tm) Fan (2011)

While at Gresham’s school in Norfolk, I had considered becoming either a doctor or an artist, although my handlebar-moustached careers  adviser suggested I become an estate  agent. Following the careers officer’s  ‘advice’, I did go off to speak with an estate agent and even applied to be a doctor. I went for an interview at St Mary and St George’s hospitals. For some bizarre reason they offered me a place. But it didn’t take long for the medic at St George’s to recommend art. I knew he was right. And so I chose Byam Shaw in London, because under the principal Maurice de Sausmarez it had an excellent reputation.  I did one year at Byam Shaw with Bridget Riley teaching us.  We were taught very well how to draw – it’s the foundation of everything. What was missing, though, was that I had yet to discover there were other things you could do besides paint and draw. Maurice recommended I apply to the Royal College of Art.

Drawing is still the best way to communicate ideas quickly – that’s why all the engineers here carry a sketchbook. CAD is great for detailed intricacies of design but it all starts with a sketch – a Rotring propelling pencil, 0.9mm with 2B.

At the time the College was exclusively a graduate school. But, as luck would have it, it was experimenting by letting ne’er-do-wells in the back door. Well, they accepted three students [including me] without degrees. They were running an experimental scheme by which you could get in straight from school, or having just done a Foundation course. This was during the era of Hugh and Margaret Casson, and among the staff were John Miller, Margaret Dent and the renowned structural engineer, Tony Hunt.

The College had grouped us with the Interior Design and Industrial Design people, forming a kind of three-department class. I started with Furniture, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across Hugh Casson’s lectures that I orchestrated a move to Interior Design. At least, it was called Interior Design but it could not have been further away from pillows and plush curtains. While Furniture was about crafting beautiful things, Interiors felt like the nitty-gritty of design. Furniture in those days was all secret lapped dovetails – it never really grabbed me. Hugh had a profound effect on me, though. He taught passionately, and watching him sketch on a blackboard was mesmerising. He had me hooked. Sadly, I never took any of the courses offered by Misha Black in Industrial Design Engineering. Misha was a design heavyweight and I should have taken notice.

I was in the same year as the sculptor Richard Wentworth, who started off at the College studying Design before switching to Fine Art. It was fluid in those days and mattered not a jot that you flitted between fields: painting to furniture to interiors to engineering. We were encouraged to explore filmmaking, sculpture and industrial design. I eventually settled on engineering, and Richard on sculpture. When I started at the RCA, I didn’t have a clue what engineering was about. I chanced upon it but saw the beauty in mechanics – I was hooked. Of course, I had some catching up to do: maths is indispensible to understanding structural concepts.

During the 1960s and ’70s at the College, non-conformity was positively celebrated and young people were creating their own culture. We were enjoying life to the full – there were even a few protest marches. I traded in wine to make ends meet, supplying staff and the Junior Common Room. I wasn’t hedonistic or renegade, but I did have quite long hair, wore the odd flowery shirt and had bell-bottoms made in Kensington Market. I honestly just became absorbed in my London studies, although it hardly felt like studying. It was an adventure. My peers were, and still are, some of the most exciting artists and designers around. David Hockney was already fetching high prices at [John] Kasmin’s gallery, and I remember Ossie Clark graduating with flashing light bulbs down the front of a dress. And the late Anton Furst was also a fan of Buckminster Fuller.

Tony Hunt had a profound influence on me. I’d never met anyone like him. He was as passionate about the aesthetics of a structure as he was about workings. He also introduced me to the geodesic world of Buckminster Fuller. Buckminster Fuller could envisage ideas that were beyond conventional lines of thought. Wrong thinking. He inspired me to go on and design large-span structures, well, a geodesic theatre in London for Joan Littlewood. I’d met Joan at a Bohemian hangout in Clerkenwell. I overheard her saying that she wanted to build a new theatre at Stratford East. Under the influence of Buckminster Fuller and space-frame structures, I designed an aluminium mushroom-shaped lattice, though unfortunately, we didn’t have enough funding to build it.

Somehow I’ve managed to approach most of my ventures in an unconventional way – the wrong way can sometimes turn out to be the right way. Even at the RCA I went off cue. I was studying Interior Design but built a high speed, flat-hulled fibreglass landing craft as my final year project. Jeremy Fry, founder of Rotork and my industry mentor, tapped into my desire for making things. Off the cuff he had mentioned he wanted to make a boat. Jeremy had already been working on it, but he wanted me to finalise it. I would get away from the RCA as often as possible to test prototypes. Hugh Casson was never anything less than encouraging and let me get on with it. He awarded me a 2:1, despite not having actually designed an interior. 

When you look at the projects coming out of the Innovation Design Engineering course over the timeframe of, say, 2010 to 2012, and compare the students and their work to that of the late 1960s, I suppose the biggest difference is a greater commercial focus now. It is an exciting and challenging time to be a design engineer. Technology is progressing faster. New materials are emerging. And people are becoming harder to please. To compete globally, British designers are needed more than ever.

"Drawing is still the best way to communicate ideas quickly – that's why all the engineers here carry a sketchbook."