Martin Boyce and the Design Research Unit, (unbeknown to him).


“The machine is accepted as the essentially modern vehicle of form. Our designs will therefore be essentially designs for mass production, but at the same time we hope to rescue mass production from the ugliness and aesthetic emptiness which has so far characterized the greater part of its output”. —Design Research Unit, 1943

Another post-talk train ride, another blog write up. Again, seizing on the time allowed by this journey, I’m going to try to condense an interesting talk from Martin Boyce, and an interesting peruse around the Design Research Unit exhibition, currently at the Cooper Gallery in Dundee, into a succinct and coherent blog post.

The talk for me raised some pertinent issues which were hinted at in an earlier post covering an interview with Metahaven, where the politics of aesthetics raised their head, and the point was made about how the politics of a design piece can fade over time, (or at least not be directly replicated in a different place and time). Boyce’s work heavily references, and in some cases perhaps directly appropriates, design forms of various types. And he talked eloquently about about how by processing and representing these forms in a contemporary art context, their meaning is changed, “distorted by the process of recollection”.

While it might be possible to question this appropriation of accepted ‘well’ designed objects – is it primarily for their forms and aesthetic value? – he pre-empted this by talking of his lack of ‘academic’ insight into his work, and interest in “wild knowledge”. He talked about following his eye and instinct, and this reminded me of an idea of Brian Eno‘s, where he talked about the “intellect catching up with the instinct”. I think there’s probably a studio project in this, and the same could be said for his approach to his typographic pieces. It was interesting to hear how these pieces came into being and how they then went out into the world, with seemingly little reference to typographic history or conventions which we perhaps get a little fixated by.

The Design Research Unit exhibition which this talk ran alongside was a concise and functional display of some of the projects undertaken by that design organisation between 1942 and 1972. Again, the key thing it raised for me was that the politics of the time, while implicit in the work, often get overlooked by designers who seem fixated with this orderly way of working in terms of stewarding design and identity today. It’s difficult to put my finger on, but I’m fascinated by why the template laid down by this early move into corporate compliance is so resilient. Maybe it connects to ideas about why a particular way of looking at design, productivity and manufacturing, (and I guess by all this we mean the free market economy in its many facets), achieved such traction in the post-war years. Definitely a subject for further thinking, and a very good exhibition, well worth a visit.


N.b. Apologies for the use of ‘Boyce’ during this post. ‘Martin’ seems overly familiar, while ‘Boyce’ sounds a bit pompous. Rock and a hard place.

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