Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Twist of Fate: Intuition Is as Much a Part of Design as Logic

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Twist of Fate: Intuition Is as Much a Part of Design as Logic

Article excerpt

There is no going back now. The Victoria and Albert Museums 1909 Aston Webb screen is coming down to make way for the diggers, which will hollow out a 15-metre-deep void, forming the shell for the new gallery. It is a meticulous and painstaking process that has already revealed some unexpected details about the screen's history.

The removal of the first stonework course from where it had lain for the past century revealed joints made from cement mortar (historical precedent had suggested that the screen had been built using lime). At the end of the 19th century, people experimented with cement because of its strength and resistance to water but, in many cases, it caused severe damage to the stone--hence the best conservation practice was and still is to use lime mortar.

Accurately predicting the continuity of historical convention has proved difficult, but it is the accidents of history and experimentation that move things forward. Accidents, chance encounters, intuition or twists of fate are as much a part of the design process as logic or forensic analysis. Each project is unique in its complexities. For our work at the V&A, an examination of its ceramics collection and the ceramics embedded in the building became our starting point for the design's narrative. To create something that reflects the didactic ethos of the museum and marries art with industry, we set out to explore the limits of ceramics and re-contextualise it in the design of the new courtyard.

This has tested but deepened our relationship with the V&A. The research has been more complex and taken longer than we envisaged. I am grateful for the V&A's unequivocal support and I have relished the slower pace of working with a museum.

We have collaborated with manufacturers from three European centres--Stoke-on-Trent, Granollers in Spain and Makkum in the Netherlands--each with an extraordinary history and the dedication to take risks. When the ceramics industry departs from standardised volume production, development follows a more artisanal line, in which accidents and difference are prerequisites of advancement. …

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