Under the banner of April 2015’s focus on materials, Icsid reached out to Dr. Judith Mottram, Dean of the School of Material at the Royal College of Art, to find out more about the School and about the importance of materials as part of a designer’s education.
Q. When was the School of Material founded at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and what were its founding principles?
A: The School of Material at the RCA was founded in 2011. The new School was established as one of six in a restructuring of the College, which was designed to support the strategic development of our activities in research, knowledge exchange and teaching. The School of Material brought together two distinct programme clusters: the Department of Fashion and Textiles and the Department of Applied Arts, which encompassed the Ceramics & Glass and Jewellery & Metal programmes (the second programme was called Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Jewellery and Metal until 2014). The fundamental aspect shared by our disciplines is that they all focus on the specific properties of materials in the realisation of designs, though the context changes, on a continuum from artistic objects, through the traditions and idioms of craft, to designs executed in haute couture ateliers or through global manufacturing operations. This is a wide scope, but a common link to the understanding and utilisation of material for the realisation of creative design practices forms the basis of our shared objectives and interests.
Q. Staff and students at the School come from a variety of backgrounds, including industrial design, and the programme requires that they participate in interdisciplinary projects across the College. To what extent is this cross-pollination seen as essential to the student’s development?
A: Each student’s personal development needs to include an understanding of, and preparation for, the professional environments in which they will operate after leaving the RCA. Whether this will be a multinational producer of decorative objects, a collective of craftspeople or a university research department, is each individual student’s choice. But in all cases, as well as developing their ability to innovate and be responsive to the requirements of markets, colleagues and supplier and client demands, the student has to develop an awareness of other creative contexts, what the agendas are in adjacent creative disciplines, and recognise the advances in other fields that may have wider implications.
In order to foster this understanding the College holds an annual AcrossRCA event, where all MA students are encouraged to work on collaborative projects or take practical workshops with colleagues from other programmes and Schools. This provides a stimulus for cross-disciplinary experimentation and a model that normalises co-working across disciplines. AcrossRCA not only echoes the realities of design practice within many professional environments, it also underpins the College ethos of real experimentation and risk-taking as fundamental aspects of the students’ creative development.
Q. Would you say that there is in fact an increasing importance accorded to the science of materials? How has this affected the curriculum of art and design schools?
A: I do not believe that the current and future importance of engagement in the science of materials has yet been recognised within the educational design community at large. There are pockets, such as here at the RCA, where specific staff expertise and ongoing research work can support the transmission of cutting-edge developments in particular areas. I suspect that the specialisation of study and practice and an imbalance between scholarly and creative learning over the past twenty years has led to a relative disengagement with the idea of what constitutes canonical ‘subject knowledge’, or of whose responsibility it is to ensure students know enough about the ‘stuff’ with which their disciplines engage.
There are also wider issues that have affected the students’ background knowledge: the overall decline in physical engagement with, and experience of manipulation of, materials in earlier stage educational contexts, including school chemical laboratories and wood and metal workshops, as well as the loss of close engagement with large-scale manufacturing that has occurred in many post-industrial societies. To an extent, I do believe we need materials science to be more clearly embedded within the education field for designers. Creativity can be realised more effectively, more efficiently, and more fluently if there is extensive knowledge of the materials that could be employed.
I am not yet aware of thinking differently about materials affecting the curriculum in UK art and design schools. Much of the innovation in UK pedagogy in recent years has been focused on other matters, such as the theorisation of student-centred learning, or the application of models of a community of practice as a validation of pedagogic approaches.