Bauhaus at the Barbican



As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Michael Bracewell’s 2007 book Re-make/Re-model: Art, Pop, Fashion, and the Making of Roxy Music, 1953-1972. Having now finished it, a few comments on the book and, more generally, Roxy Music.


Anyone looking for a straightforward pop biog of the early days of Roxy Music would be seriously disappointed. The first section deals mainly with Richard Hamilton and his teaching at Newcastle University in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Bryan Ferry was a Fine Art student there. The second section then alternates between the Art Departments at Ipswich (Eno) and Reading (Andy Mackay). The third and final section describes how these key people came together in London in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Personally, I found the first section hugely interesting for its description of Hamilton’s Bauhaus-inspired teaching methods and the development of his early influential pop-art works. The Eno-related elements of the second section are likewise of interest; less so the Mackay/Reading axis. Things pick up again in the third section as the band gradually coalesces in London.
Overall: an intriguing investigation into a little-known area of England’s pop history.

Unfortunately, there are a number problems with the book as a whole. Firstly, you have to buy into its central thesis – that the life of Bryan Ferry is a Hamilton-inspired “work of art” – which, frankly, I didn’t. Secondly, the book’s “argument” often depends on these tenuous and unfounded links between people who probably never met let alone ever discussed or contemplated the life-as-art concept. This is a very typical example of the nebulous logical threads the author tries to set up:

Bryan Ferry had come to Brian Morris’ party with another friend of Juliet Mann’s called Paul Macbeth – who was at this point working as a private secretary for a friend of Elizabeth Taylor. Macbeth would subsequently work for the owner of Legends – a fashionable nightclub on Old Burlington Street, where much later in the 1970s Juliet herself would become well known as the glamorous hat-check girl. [pp.336-337]

Take this apart: it’s just piffle, insubstantial name-dropping for the sake of it. It tells us nothing.

Thirdly, by the end the author has to make some pretty outrageous claims for Roxy Music as a group so that he can justify everything else he’s written about the individuals. Talking of the first eponymous Roxy Music album, Bracewell says that it was:

…a project that would soon bring the avant-garde to the mainstream, and would have a massive effect on not just popular music, but the coordinates of popular taste. [p.342]

He goes on, calling the album and the group:

…an utterly unique new musical form, prompting many further ideas and questions about the nature of music-making and, very quickly, the making of stars. [p.347]

All of this is vacuous hyperbole. Yes, Roxy Music were popular at the time, but their music is essentially traditional, a collage of existing forms. They changed nothing (compared to say the Velvet Underground, whose name is bandied about quite a lot in the book whenever a bit of supporting evidence is required).

Fourthly, Bracewell spends a lot of time establishing a kind of “cool” timeline for the group: pop-art, Hollywood, Art school, Mod fashion, Stax and Motown, Warhol and the Velvets, etc. But wait! Let’s look at almost any picture of Roxy Music from this era and what do we have: glitter, leopard-skin prints, platform boots, flares… Like: gross!!!

So, to sum up: yes it’s an interesting book if you’re interested in pop art, Richard Hamilton, and Art School practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It tells us a lot about the early days of Roxy Music. But its central thesis is almost laughably overblown: if you can live with that, it’s worth reading.

Suprematist Teapot


Dieter Rams

I’ve just finished reading a marvellous book on Dieter Rams, Susan Lovell’s As Little Design As Possible (Phaidon 2010). Beautifully illustrated and very well written, it explores in some detail his deeply felt and highly committed views on design. Even though he was principally a product designer, these views are entirely relevant to any design-centred discipline:

Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. Function-oriented design is the fruit of intense, comprehensive, patient and contemplative reflection on reality, on life, on the needs, desires, and feelings of people.



What the text also brings out is a very clear line of descent originating with Peter Behrens, via the Bauhaus, on to Rams and then on to Jonathan Ives at Apple. This design philosophy is user-focused, minimalistic, and quality-driven. In his foreword to the book, Ives openly confesses the inspiration he has derived from Braun products. The extent of this debt can perhaps best be gauged by comparing Rams’ T3 radio of 1958 with the iPod: very similar in form, and just look at that rotary controller:

Following up on ideas expressed in my earlier post on Steve Jobs, in the final section of the book Michael Di Tullo (design director at Converse) says:

We are taught that material things cannot make us happy, that the stuff of this world is trivial and temporary. Rams work proves that wrong. It shows that material things do matter and that we should respect what we make, what we buy and what we use. It reveals that a simple functional object can do its job while conveying joy, optimism and democracy.

An excellent book.

Steve Jobs 1955 – 2011


Nobody who is vaguely interested in technology can have failed to note the passing—on October 5th—of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. There have been many moving and insightful tributes in the press and across the WWW. It is not my intention here to add to that great outpouring: I never knew the guy and I’m not sure I have anything interesting or original to add to the story of Apple Computer. But I’ve got to say something: I’ve been using Macs as my main information-processing tools since 1991, and in any one year I may spend hundreds of hours sat in front of one. The quality of that interaction is something I both depend upon and enjoy. I owe the man… Nothing more than a few thoughts:

Firstly, we should surely recognize the tragedy of a man who has died so prematurely. Steve Jobs was almost exactly the same age as I am – in fact he was born about ten weeks before me – and I don’t feel old at all. With our rich diets and the supporting framework of modern medicine our life expectancies are stretching into the 90s. Dying in your mid-50s may have been a “good innings” in the Middle Ages, but it certainly isn’t nowadays.

Secondly, amongst the reams of text generated since his death Steve Jobs has been called many, many things, not least amongst them “visionary”, “genius”, “revolutionary”, “pioneer”, etc. All of which may or may not be be true: it’s very difficult to tell. The quality of the discourse in our current media ecology is such that hyperbole and lurid exaggeration are the norm: everyone’s shouting, everything’s turned up to 11. An overpaid pimply teenager who plays football for a living is a “hero”, the talent-shy showroom dummy who wins a hideously reactionary TV reality show is lauded as a “superstar”. The language we use is wearing dangerously thin.
What I can be sure of though—because I’m sitting here using one, directly experiencing it—is that the products that Apple design and produce are the best that money can buy. The man responsible for this is Steve Jobs. His long-term commitment to producing objects to the very highest standard means that for those of us who care about such things—those of us in other words who recognize that the tools we use directly impact upon the quality of work we ourselves produce—have somewhere to go. Apple Computer may be Big Business, but it is a business that has the quality of its products at the very core of its strategy. Apple products, on the whole, are so much better than everyone else’s it’s actually pretty embarrassing. A world without Apple would be a cheap and tawdry place indeed.

Thirdly, and following on from the above, it is gratifying that the whole Mac versus PC debate is finally dead and buried. Whether you view it technologically, conceptually, or financially Apple has blown the competition out of the water. The man responsible for this is Steve Jobs.
[As a footnote to this, an observation of mine: the Mac versus PC debate was always a lop-sided argument. Although I don’t have any actually data to back this up, it seems pretty obvious that everyone who uses a Mac can also use a PC pretty well. The reverse is not true. Even many so-called “IT specialists”—particularly those working in the corporate and public-sectors—have never used a Mac in their life. On other words, most people on the PC side of the fence, even the techies, haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about, and most of their views on Macs are simply mulch regurgitated from the media.]

Goodbye Steve Jobs. You leave the world a better place. I don’t think we realize how much we’re going to miss you.