North lands Creative Glass

September 2010


North Lands Creative Glass
Annual Conference: ‘Form’
4–5 September 2010

As in previous years, the North Lands Creative Glass annual conference proved a well organised, highly stimulating affair with a range of professional international speakers and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. These included the Czech glass artist Anna Matoušková, US glass blowers Ben Moore and Dante Marioni, the English figurative glass artist David Reekie, the typographer Dr Gerard Unger — as well as Keynote Speaker Dr Rüdiger Joppien, Head of the Department of Art Nouveau and 20th Century European decorative arts at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.

The theme addressed this year was ‘Form’ – and although that concept was never adequately defined – it was addressed, implicitly and explicitly, by a number of speakers.

For many years Roger Billcliffe was an art historian at the University of Glasgow before working as Director of the Fine Art Society and since 1992 as director of the eponymous Roger Billcliffe Gallery in Blythswood Street Glasgow. 

Billcliffe is a direct, no-nonsense speaker whose approach is head on, highly informative and lacking in pretension and theory-laden ‘art-speak’. But as a scholar he is also formidable; he has just published perhaps the most definitive and handsome magnum opus on Charles Rennie Mackintosh to have seen the light of day. Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald – and their relationship to the Modern Movement - were the subject’s of Billcliffe’s talk. 

Billcliffe’s title was deliberately provocative ‘Form Follows Function – Ornament is Crime’ — for these, in summary, were the values of the Modern Movement and ones which, according to Billcliffe, Mackintosh questioned, redefined or simply ignored. One can only wonder in awe at Mackintosh’s vision which, today, seems to get more brilliant and visionary the more one looks at it. His treatment until around 30-40 years in Glasgow was — by and large — appalling: a number of his buildings, as well as copious amounts of furniture and other objects, have been lost, stolen, burnt or otherwise destroyed by neglect. 

One of the world’s best known buildings, Glasgow School of Art, is a gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art which Mackintosh conceived, according to Billcliffe, from “the inside out”, combining his prodigious talents as a painter, furniture and interior designer, with those of the architect. Mackintosh worked to strict budgets, always aware of costings and was prepared to compromise on materials and details in order to achieve an overall vision. His interest in form was all too evident and underpinned his every brushstroke as well as his aesthetic and functional decision-making. 

For Mackintosh, form neither followed function nor did he allow decorative and aesthetic issues to compromise good functional design; they were symbiotically linked with each equally dependent on the other. Neither form nor function were allowed to gain the upper-hand in Mackintosh’s pursuit of an ultimate, all-encompassing vision.

The potter and ceramist Magdalena Odundo grew up in Kenya but moved to Britain in 1971. In August she conducted a week-long masterclass in glass at North Lands, migrating from her usual medium to another with radically different properties but with certain shared similarities (both clay and glass are composed largely of silica which is intrinsic to the firing process. Professor Odundo has commented that “form is a common word in both disciplines and that in this project form and forming glass …..[is]…. the central theme.”

Discussing her work in ceramics, Odundo illustrated a variety of influences: from the traditional pottery of Africa and New Mexico as it is made by women to European Modernism. In Africa and New Mexico the traditional techniques of firing and hand-building pots go back several thousand years.

Observing Odundo’s forms, one is aware of their apparent simplicity and essential femininity; they exude an archetypicality which seems timeless but it is evident also that these vessels have been informed as much by the Modernist forms of sculptors such as Arp, Brancusi, Hepworth and Moore as by traditional ‘ethnic’ art and craft.

Odundo told the story of her seeing a pregnant woman from behind ascending the steps from and underground station. The image of the woman haunted her because of the apparent perfection and grace of the human form which the woman represented. Odundo tried repeatedly to capture not only a representative stylisation but also her sense of the woman – the form she strived to achieve being the perfect balance of observation and essence.

Odundo’s pottery is highly moving, attractive and essential. It resonates deeply with something in our common shared humanity; the objects plead for a tactile response and the absence of this was the only disappointing aspect of her lecture.

In 2009 curator and product designer Gareth Williams curated a major exhibition - Telling Tales – at London’s V & A in his capacity as curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Furniture. The exhibition sought to present a series of assembled narratives using the contested ‘new’ medium of designart – objects which use the language of the designed object to create ‘fine’ art. The subject has been given extensive treatment by the art critic Alex Coles.

Williams chose to assemble the exhibition around the work of around fifty works by contemporary designers using objects and grouping of objects which ‘told tales’. His inspiration and motivation centred on the important function stories play in society and the significant role of the tale teller in social cohesion. He also cited Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller, first published in 1922 as a significant influence.

The establishment of North Lands Creative Glass was a remarkable achievement by Lord Robert Maclennan and his Oxford contemporary, the late Dan Klein. The fact that fifteen years later the organisation goes from strength to strength is even more remarkable and a cause for celebration and congratulation. It is one of the most dynamic cultural forces — relative to its size — operating in Scotland today.