A new exhibition is both a celebration and sad reminder of how extraordinary the Scottish carpet industry once was
Glasgow School of Art
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Martino Gamper: Tu Case, Mi Casa
Modern Institute, Glasgow
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In 2005, when Stoddard International PLC went into receivership, nearly two centuries of industrial and artistic history threatened to go with it. For the Stoddard name, synonymous with the Elderslie carpet mill, had also acquired Glasgow’s legendary James Templeton and its range of subsidiaries had included Kilmarnock’s BMK.
The loss of a company that made, in the words of its advertising blurb, “carpets for palaces, castles and homes like yours,” meant the loss of jobs, skills, prestige and a way of life for generations of Glaswegians. It was another terrible agony in the West of Scotland’s post-industrial death throes.
But the efforts of the University of Glasgow Archive Services, Glasgow Life and the Glasgow School of Art Library to secure the company’s history by acquiring its archives have rescued something from the ashes.
At Glasgow School of Art, the company’s Design Library has found a home, and a champion, in the shape of Helena Britt, whose ravishing exhibition Interwoven Connections is both a celebration and a melancholy reminder of just how extraordinary the Scottish carpet industry once was.
If it is now, like our steel and shipbuilding, something of folk memory, industrial and social history, then Interwoven Connections also suggests that it might continue as a lived tradition. The extraordinary resources of the Design Library, a collection of publications, portfolios, samples and source material, can and do serve as inspiration to new generations of students and researchers.
This is a show that is almost too rich to describe. Carpet designers, at Templetons, in particular, drew on a vast library of historical material to inspire new designs. The display cabinets show a fraction of that material: portfolios of flower designs, botanical specimens, historic Egyptian and Islamic textiles that were used in design houses across Europe. The material might include traditional Japanese fabrics or Finnish folk weaving, but designers were also kept up to date with the latest modernist designs from Paris or Russia. The artist and designer Sonia Delaunay’s gorgeous portfolio Tapis et Tissus, for example, included work by artists and designers as avant-garde and distinguished as Stepanova, Popova and Albers.
This is also a social history of the design process. Carpet design started as a male world, designers were skilled artisans who began apprenticeships as “slab boys” mixing colours and washing out pots. There were slab girls too and women who worked as tracers and copyists would later become designers. It was a world, of course, captured by the irrepressible artist and playwright John Byrne, who appears here among the dandies and rebels of the company in an archive photograph.
In the 1960s, a colourist from Stoddard recalled somewhat comically that studio work was intense, in a year the team of 50 would “sharpen away 475 pencils, wear out 97 erasers and apply 700 lbs of paint … at the expense of 960 brushes.” Studio work was nothing of course to the hard labour and terrible danger of looms of the 19th century, or the engineering skills of keeping big machines going in the 20th. But as this lovely show demonstrates it was work of skill, tradition and innovation. Interwoven Connections is an absolute delight and at the same time a great sorrow.
It is of course the time of year for home and hearth. But even so, it comes as a bit of a shock to find the Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane space transformed from its customary grungy factory chic to cosy domestic bliss by designer Martino Gamper.
From the wood-burning stove to a trio of flickering candles set in chunky forged steel, Gamper has created a soft-edged domestic setting for an installation of furniture and lighting that falls somewhere between practical design and speculative sculpture.
Many designers are chair obsessives, but the traditional high-end design solution to chairs is the attempt to strive for a single, perfect example. Gamper, in contrast, is quirky and lo-fi. His best-known project, 2007’s 100 Chairs in 100 Days, was an exhibition in which the purpose was less the individual chairs as the repurposing of found furniture and working processes that allowed the designer to turn things around at such a prodigious rate.
Tu Casa, mi Casa has the same endearing improvised quality, from a Thonet bentwood chair reshaped with its back plucked out and one colourful leg to a low arts and crafts stool that has sprouted a fat yellow tail. A mid-century modern teak dining set is incongruously re-crafted with a cheerful pie chart tabletop made from linoleum. Its understated seats have been reworked in brightly coloured geometric velvet.
Gamper’s textiles are raw and woven; his lighting a po-mo hybrid of colourful anodized steel and teak or asymmetric polycarbonate. I’m not at all sure I could live in the house of Gamper, but he’s a designer to admire and enjoy – his “glass half full bottles”, polished marble shelves and pendant lights are truly lovely.
There is repurposing too in House Style at Tramway, where Annette Lux and Steven Cairns, a Duncan of Jordanstone graduate who is now a London-based film curator and writer, have worked with Glasgow design curators Panel to refashion some archive films made by the Central Office of Information. It’s hard to know how to describe the raw material, a magazine series called Roundabout, other than as good old-fashioned propaganda. Made between 1962 and 1974, the magazine was shown in cinemas in Asia and presents Britain as a thriving centre of technology and arts.
Four artists and musicians: Hilda Helström, Travis Jeppesen, Rob Kennedy and Daniel Padden have been enlisted to rework the raw material. Helström’s film Experiments with Plastics is all throbbing sounds and visuals, a sci-fi exploration of gloop and colourful raw materials. Jeppesen takes footage of military parades and prowess and crafts a new narrative through a melancholic voiceover. An English Model sees composer Daniel Padden soundtrack an awkward fashion show “pink and white for the English Rose, green for the Burmese beauty” with looped discordant sounds and traditional Burmese music. There are diminishing returns, though, from the close conjunction of these works, as they all tread similar ground.
The most successful film is Rob Kennedy’s What are you Driving At? a riotous and ironic look at the subliminal Freudian subtext of ardent propaganda which also revels in the saturated colour and slippery textures for their own sake. From machine parts to the manufacture of rubber gloves, piston engines to pillarbox red lipstick, Kennedy identifies a libidinal energy to Roundabout’s hymns to British capitalism. It is gloriously and hilariously soundtracked to the revs of an engine.
Interwoven Connections until 11 January; Martino Gamper: Tu Case, Mi Casa until 25 January; House Style until 19 January