Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Stile Counsel

I recently attended the opening of Ben Kelly's exhibition International Orange: Please Shut The Gate at the Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Gallery. A re-mixed and extended version of a similar exhibition held two years previously at the Stanley Picker gallery, it was in part a retrospective of the designer's career, and, you won't be surprised to learn, references the Hacienda on more than one occasion.

However, like his former Factory colleague and sparring partner Peter Saville, he seems to have come to the conclusion that having less enlightened clients than Factory inevitably leads to compromise, and so for the most part this show was a chance for Kelly to work through some of his personal motifs and stylistic signatures, unencumbered by commercial considerations. It also saw this most urban (and urbane) of designers turning to more personal and autobiographical sources of inspiration. As such, the show was a surprise and a delight.

An accompanying talk earlier in the day, at Glasgow's Film Theatre, provided an overview of Kelly's career, from attending the RCA, to designing Seditionaries and the first Paul Howie shop in Covent Garden, to his recent reworking of Fac251. The talk also gave some context for some of the more esoteric items in the exhibition show, and in particular those of most personal significance to the designer. His cast plaque bearing the words "Craven Cottage", which I initially took to be a pledge of allegiance to Fulham FC, turned out to be a reference to the name of the cottage in Appletreewick. Yorkshire, where Kelly grew up. Two coracles, a collaboration with designer Michael Marriott, both hand-hewn and a long way from his more familiar formal language of girders and hazard stripes, were apparently inspired by holidays in Ireland as a small boy. A chrome-plated bronze walking stick, placed on a rectangular reflective frame, was similarly baffling until I learned it was a cast of his late father's own stick. The latter exhibit also showed off Kelly's penchant for rendering a familiar and prosaic object in another, unfamiliar material; his Duchampian urinal, remoulded in orange plastic rather than the more usual ceramic, was another example of this tendency.

Possibly the most personal exhibit was a large, farm gate, its rotten parts removed and replaced with new wood by the original manufacturers on Kelly's instruction, so that it resembled a patchwork, and then branded and inlaid with logos and symbols, from the peace sign to the "Use Hearing Protection" graphic that was ubiquitous during Factory's first few years. This new-found penchant for the countryside gave the exhibition its subtitle (Rural Studies), and this subtitle was rendered in different styles by 5 or 6 different designers (including Peter Saville and Graphic Thought Facility) on another wall of the gallery. The most recent piece, a meticulously-measured country stile reproduced in miniature by a 3D printer, was the most succinct piece in tying together the modern and the traditional. The exhibition has now closed, but given that it seems to resurface every couple of years, there's every chance it may reappear at some point in the future, suitably revisited and with additional new items. If it does, go and see it, as Kelly remains one of the most interesting and thoughtful industrial designers in the UK.

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