The human magpie

Designers have curious minds which can lead to great things. Read our latest opinion post from designer, Ed Nelson. Retail design by Dalziel & Pow

By Ed Nelson
Posted 15. 08. 2014
OPINION the human magpie 01

My son Jack is 8¾ years old and he’s a collector. Washing his trousers is a journey of discovery; I’m constantly intrigued by the contents of his pockets and the oddities they reveal. A bright piece of unspecified plastic, a coveted wingnut, a curious stone or a run-of-the-mill feather… there’s always something that has caught his imagination, aroused his curiosity and pricked the magpie instinct of the childhood mind.

This inquisitiveness, a joy in the mundane and the overlaying of imagined stories, makes me reflect on the best and possibly least-appreciated quality that we have as designers – curiosity. Without curiosity, a hunger to discover new things, it would be impossible to create design solutions to the problems we encounter on a daily basis. So how best to nurture this precious attribute?

The 16th-century Renaissance types would salve their appetite for the new and unknown by creating cabinets of curiosity or wonder rooms (a title more recently appropriated by Selfridges). These collections of unclassified artefacts would range from enormous chambers to a small shelf filled with all manner of curios intended to engage and inspire all that encountered them. The importance of these spaces cannot be underestimated, having formed the basis of some of the greatest collections in the world, most notably I the BritishMuseum.

Fast forward 400 years and place yourself in the studio of Charles and Ray Eames. Here they housed an assortment of over 350,000 slides documenting the extensive collection of objects they had amassed from around the world and the inspiration they saw all around them. Their own cabinet of curiosities helped them take inspiration from the everyday and commonplace and to create design that stands the test of time, as well as inspiring students and the general public for generations to come.

“We found things and kept them as examples of principles or aspects of design. We kept it to show it, to use it, to share it, to give insight to others and ourselves.”

—Ray Eames

The godfather of British pop art, Sir Peter Blake, has always been informed and inspired by the ordinary, and has been an avid collector of ephemera since childhood. His obsession with the found object is perhaps the most obvious example of how the unnoticed and everyday can be transformed into something that inspires wonder and imagination. Each work is a cameo or collection of the uncategorisable, re-imagined as some of the most iconic and recognisable art in history.

“For me pop art is rooted in nostalgia: the nostalgia of old popular things.”

—Peter Blake

Be it the cover for the Sgt. Pepper’s album or for Oasis’ greatest hits, Blake’s seemingly random curation of objects always intrigues and is so much more than the sum of its parts. His exhibition, A Museum for Myself, and his show at The Museum of Everything only go to show the depth of importance the curious plays in his inspiration and creation.

Another British design great, whose work is less obvious but equally reflective of a self-confessed hoarder, is Sir Paul Smith. He gets to work at six every morning to sit in his Department of Silly (DOS) for a couple of hours and peruse his hoard for inspiration before anyone else arrives. Stacked to the brim, the DOS is his personal cabinet of curiosities, or in fact one of a few – he has a warehouse in Nottingham and another close to his office acting as overflow. Within these dedicated spaces are the items he has collected and others that are sent in every day from around the world, with some contributors establishing a 20-year supply of the weird and wonderful. They inspire his design, from colour palettes to linings for jackets, and also creep into his stores. One find, a charm from a bracelet found whilst delayed in Milan, influenced a button design that featured on some 30,000 shirts.

Sir Paul’s insatiable habit is being revealed in all its glory as part of the retrospective, Hello My Name is Paul Smith, taking place at the Design Museum, London, until March this year. Intriguingly, his favourite item in the DOS is in fact a scale model of the DOS, faithful to the very last detail, a gift from a Japanese fan.

My own cabinet of curiosities is a modest affair, and mostly lives in a shed at the end of our garden. It’s a place to sit in and to reflect on objects found and given, somewhere to imagine and get inspired, but this collection is the end result of a longer process – looking. The thrill is in the chase, they say, and I can’t disagree. I’d like to think Paul Smith shares the same feeling I get as I approach the weekly car boot, when he opens his postbag of random global offerings. It’s the anticipation of what might be found, what might be added to a mix of objects and ephemera collected over the years, and it predates by decades the ubiquitous Pinterest.com and other contemporary online repositories of inspiration.

I have no beef with the concept of ‘clickspiration’ – I supplement my analogue collection with a ‘digital wing’ of my own and Thingsorganizedneatly.tumblr.com seems to fire the right inspirational synapse, it’s a daily must-see for any member of the cult of curiosity. However my sense is that it’s a less satisfying, less stimulating and less inspiring experience. There is no serendipitous discovery, no fruitless search, no anticipation, rather a simple browse of something already curated, already found, already categorised and already catalogued.

The upside of this democratisation and centralisation of collecting is that it equips not only designers but also consumers with the ability to gather, curate, browse and share their inspiration. Sites like Lookbook.nu and Polyvore.com (and of course Pinterest) provide an avenue for expression not previously possible. It also gives retailers an insight into emerging trends from a street-up perspective rather than the traditional shop-down view, creating a relevance and appropriateness for the consumer that has long been missing from the high street. Personally I would encourage the analogue collection over the digital, the car boot over the browser and the skip over the search engine, but of course the breadth of digital resources can’t be ignored. Whatever your method, stay inquisitive, collect things, hoard things and be inspired.

Picasso once said, “I am king of the rag pickers”, so rest assured you’re in good, if not curious, company.

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