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.

Q. In what ways do you feel the design community could benefit from a deeper understanding and knowledge of materials?

A: Keeping up-to-date with innovations and newly available products would seem a normal professional attribute, but in my experience professional design communities build their understanding of the materials in use in their field upon the platform of their original training, or devolve responsibilities to a small cadre of specialists: material librarians and sourcers, or technical support. The importance of delving deeper, reconsidering whether there are safer or more sustainable alternatives, or more ethically produced options, needs to be more forcefully promoted. In many cases, the longer term implications of retaining the status quo, including the dangers of simply tinkering round the edges of an existing material system rather than fundamentally addressing the downsides of its existence, should be more readily acknowledged. At the RCA we are fortunate in having staff and PhD students whose personal research focuses on the social implications of particular material supply chains as well as the technologies and science of the materials in question. This means our students are made aware of the complexities of material use in the real world alongside abstract physical properties.

There could be other benefits from developing a deeper understanding of materials science than is currently present in normal design practice. From what I understand of the literature on creativity, the presence of knowledge about the field is one of the key conditions for creativity. All the other five conditions for creativity (these include personality traits, environment and motivation) do not necessarily need to be present for creativity to be enabled, but knowledge is always part of the set of conditions.

Q. What role does the School play in the education of design communities with regard to the adoption of new materials, new colours and new technologies?

A: The School’s long-term role in the education of design communities is played out through two core actions: through our graduates going out into the professional environment and through the research work of academic staff being disseminated through journal articles, books, designs, exhibitions, industry presentations and consultancy work. This engagement includes actively supporting and promoting the commercialisation of new materials and associated technologies and the development and improvement of regulatory standards and certification systems for specific commercial contexts. Shorter-term direct engagement with industry occurs through student projects, where groups of students work to a brief from the client, with the core objective being innovation with material, form, colour or technology. As part of their working practice, many of our academics also work on specific briefs with clients from industry, education and the public sector. Again the focus is on innovation and thus with material, colour and technology. Sometimes this may take the form of short courses for industry clients in the UK or overseas, and these clients can be from within the design industries as well as those industries which buy design services.


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.

Q. How important are the topics of materials recycling, sustainable materials and the development and use of materials for social good?

A: The understanding of material and product life-cycles has become a fundamental aspect of the responsible designer’s repertoire. Similarly, the implications of choices made about their use are a part of the new professional designer’s knowledge base. At the RCA, the SustainRCA unit provides a focus and cross-college resource base for expert guidance on issues relating to sustainability, complementing the specific expertise of the academics associated to the School of Material programmes. Sustainability is a central dimension of the ArcInTex ETN, which the RCA, through the School of Material, is a partner. Staff in the School have also made substantial contributions to the international debate on the ethical sourcing of precious metals for the jewellery trade and the reduction of waste in the fashion industry; they also influence the creative sector through involvement in initiatives such as the Sustainable Luxury Forum and Making Futures.

Q. You’ve said in the past that it is an exciting time to be working with materials. Where does this excitement come from and what opportunities do you see for the School in the near future?

A: Whilst acknowledging the difficulties faced by the educational sector as a whole, I find the difference that well-placed educational establishments can make to social and economic development, both directly through research and indirectly through helping to equip the next generation with the tools to make a meaningful and positive contribution, to be a constant source for optimism.

New investment in the School of Material will help us achieve this. Over the coming year we will see the expansion of the School’s physical facilities through the relocation of the Ceramics and Glass and Jewellery and Metals programmes to a new, purpose-built campus at Battersea, and the release of extra space for Fashion and Textiles at our current site in Kensington. As a result we will be able to provide more workshop space for students and continue to upgrade and expand our technical base for both teaching and research projects. This expansion includes an enhanced engagement with new digital manufacturing technologies, underwritten in part by recent substantial research funding awards from the AHRC and Horizon2020, which will help us to construct a more formalised cluster of excellence and so consolidate the range of activities we are undertaking in this area. We will also be revisiting recent successful activities, such as the Inspiring Matter conference, which provided an opportunity to bring together experts from across the creative industries and from associated disciplines with an interest in materials.

About Judith Mottram
Professor Judith Mottram is Professor of Visual Arts and Dean of the School of Material at the Royal College of Art. Her research interests include colour, drawing and pattern, and the inter-relationships between subject knowledge, creativity, research and practice. She was a member of the UK HEFCE REF 2014 sub-panel for Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory, and is a Fellow of the Design Research Society, and a member of the Coventry Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee.

After studying painting at Manchester Polytechnic and Reading University, Professor Mottram completed a PhD at Manchester Polytechnic in 1988. Her academic roles include Research Leader for Design and Visual Arts, Coventry University (2012–14); Dean of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University, (2009–12); Associate Dean for Research for the College of Art, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham (2004–9); and Director of Research at Loughborough University School of Art and Design (2000–3). She joined the RCA in October 2014.

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