A powerful design nerve

January 21, 2009

Great phrase, isn’t it? It’s not mine, it’s Richard Wentworth’s. He said it last night in discussion with Emily King at London Transport Museum in a discussion of the London Underground posters going back a century. Man Ray was the man with the actual powerful design nerve in question, but Wentworth boldly went on to say it’s what all American artists have.  Of course I really wanted to know what it is to have a powerful design nerve. “They know how to organise things” said Wentworth, “they’re do-ers, while here we just desire”. He made several exceptions, most notably among the “commissioning class” who in the 1930s included Frank Pick, Managing Director of London Transport and among many achievements, commissioner of the Edward Johnston typeface and roundel. In Wentworth’s always distinctive words, “these people had a sense of connection accross a big critical territory”. I think part of what he means is that people like Pick, who trained as a lawyer, weren’t cowed into thinking commissioning design needed a specialist: it is simply in the workaday gift of a public servant to think critically about design.

We talked later about how America’s early pioneering spirit – “do-ers” out West building their own houses and tilling their own fields, getting railroads built – obtains today in some magnificent amaterism from high-craft wooden-boat building to Pro-Am running a ranch for pleasure. It’s something about doing things with complete commitment. I occasionally subscibe to a beautifully designed American magazine called Cook’s Illustrated which goes into magnificently scientific, alchemical detail as it presents not just the product but the process of its recipe testing in order to determine the ultimate 5-bean chili or chewy chocolate cookie; the archetype. 

“Yes we can!” With a powerful design nerve, maybe it’s true.