The Legacy of Designer Norman Potter

Graphic designer James Langdon has begun an extensive research project on Potter and his teachings 

BY Annie Godfrey Larmon | 15 JAN 13 in Interviews

James Langdon's re-staging of Norman Potter's 1974 play, 'In:quest of Icarus', at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 2012. Photo: Courtesy James Langdon

The opening pages of the script for Norman Potter’s 1974 play In:quest of Icarus inform audience members that the first characters that will appear on stage are themselves. A slide projector, a light bulb, a drum, and the hall that contains the audience are likewise listed as players in the event.

In 1964, Potter, an English designer and educator, co-founded the Construction School, an experimental design programme at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. His unconventional approach to design pedagogy favoured interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and was met by institutional resistance, which fuelled his increasingly anti-authoritarian ethos. In:quest of Icarus, an allegorical meditation on Potter’s struggles against the institution, diverges substantially in tone from his other more pragmatic writings, and includes dense and convoluted appropriations of Greek myth and original poetry. It has been staged only once before, by Potter’s students, on 5 December 1974.

Nearly 40 years later, graphic designer James Langdon has begun an extensive research project on Potter and his teachings. With a methodology that might align with Potter’s, Langdon has taken an experiential approach to his re-staging of Icarus at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in collaboration with a group of students from Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem. In fidelity to the original production, Langdon and the students constructed the isomorphic set and rehearsed in the theatre for three days prior to the performance. These days of preparation, together with the performance – all of which were open to an audience – constituted the work.

On 2 December 2012, at the Stedelijk’s Teijin Auditorium, the character ‘Speaker’, played by a student from Werkplaats, introduced the show with the announcement: ‘Ladies and Gentleman … I am the Speaker and I shall have a few things to say, but don’t twist your heads off looking. As you can see, I’m one of yourselves and, therefore, one of the same people in this carry-on …’ The audience he addressed was seated among the other performers, each on a grid of circular black carpet samples that together mimicked the keys of a typewriter. At the fore of the stage, slides featuring typographical forms and Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1590–95) were projected onto a constructed white wall that doubled as a sheet of paper feeding into the larger apparatus.

Langdon and his students delivered their lines with scripts in hand and a sort of measured clumsiness that emphasized that the centre of the production’s gravity was not a spectacle, but rather the relational networks produced by the process of the performance. The expanded cast of the play (the projector, the audience), the unpolished delivery, and the unfolding durational nature of the public rehearsals are among the various de-centralizations that illustrate Potter’s methodological investments.

The staging ran alongside an exhibition at the Kunstverein in Amsterdam that featured Landgon’s archival research and constructions based on Potter’s pedagogical methods by artists Daniel Hofstede and Benjamin Roth. Both are part of Langdon’s larger, unfolding project, which has manifested and will manifest in several venues, eventually culminating in a publication. In December 2012 I spoke to Langdon about Norman Potter’s legacy.

Annie Godfrey Larmon  How did you come across Norman Potter, and what about his practice initially resonated with you?

James Langdon  Around 2000, I discovered his first book, What is a Designer, through the reputation of its current publisher Hyphen Press, an independent design publisher in London. I had just graduated from art school and was working as a graphic designer. I remember feeling the book was rather boring, not a sexy idea of design – it famously has no pictures. But that was part of Potter’s philosophy. He might have said that design students shouldn’t be looking at small pictures of designed objects – they should be trying to understand those objects as the products of forces beyond aesthetics. What I find important about Potter’s teaching is his emphasis on communication in design processes, on asking questions and understanding a given situation to the fullest degree possible. It’s a more fluid and negotiable idea of design, and a system of values based on seeing a work of design as a response to a specific set of circumstances.

Norman Potter's 'What is a Designer', originally published in 1969.

Two years ago I was invited to do a project at Spike Island, a studio and gallery space in Bristol, England, and I remembered a chapter in Potter’s book about the Construction School, which he co-founded in Bristol in 1964. Prompted by this invitation, I reread the book and began contacting students and teachers from the school. I was given generous help in that process by Robin Kinross, the publisher of Potter’s books at Hyphen Press. Jim Wood, one of Potter’s assistants at the school, had a large collection of documents, as did Robin, and gradually other students and teachers have contributed things. When I started I thought the project would just be this research, but I’ve since been asked to present it in various contexts. Earlier in the summer there was an event in Zurich, and now Amsterdam. There will be two final presentations in Bristol in 2013. As I’ve done these events in Europe I’ve been surprised that Potter isn’t very well known by the current generation of students. He was a prominent designer in a certain scene that informed my early perspective on design, in particular through the journal Dot Dot Dot. That unfamiliarity has forced an emphasis on the storytelling part of my project, and that is exciting to me.

AGL  Are you compiling an archive?

JL  Yes, although the archive will inevitably be incomplete. But people have given me documents, so now I have a responsibility to the material. The exhibition at Kunstverein in Amsterdam was about introducing Potter and his teaching to an audience, but my motivation to study this material is more particular. What interests me isn’t so much displaying the work of the school’s students, but rather considering Potter’s ideas about how the school would be organized – the spatial questions, and the ‘staging’ of design education.

In the later phase of the school, Potter instituted The Arena. Instead of organizing students by year or discipline they formed ‘family groups’. Each informal family would include students from different years and interests who would collaborate on projects and were free to configure their studios and structure their programmes and time as they wanted. The Arena united these families through a space of ‘critical disputation’. The important idea was that the Arena represented the institution, but that it should be thought of as providing a critical service to the family groups.

AGL  What is it about Potter’s approach to interdisciplinary and experimental pedagogies that seems particularly relevant to re-examine today?

JL  Potter’s project was radical in spirit. Experimentation with the organization of education was flourishing internationally, particularly in California, so it was not novel in that sense, but for Potter to attempt something of this nature in a provincial English context was very bold. For a bit of background: in the early 1960s in England, there was a political feeling that art and design education outside of London were too variable in standard, and that there should be a new national qualification that would bring courses to university standard. The Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education, William Coldstream, issued the Coldstream Report, and every college that wanted to offer the new standard, called the Diploma in Art and Design (Dip.AD), had to apply for accreditation. Potter came to Bristol from the Royal College of Art in London at this time, as a result of the West of England College of Art (at Bristol) failing to gain accreditation. He wanted to call the programme ‘Construction’, which immediately conflicted with the national guidelines under which the course had to be called ‘Interior Design’, a term Potter would probably have hated.

'In:quest of Icarus' performed at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo by Ernst van Deursen

AGL  I noticed that Potter was interested in flattened hierarchies when the script was distributed at the performance. He listed the mundane aspects of the set and the audience as participants within this event. Have you read much about his theoretical investments at the time?

JL  In 1968 there was a significant student protest at Hornsey College of Art in London. Potter attended the Hornsey sit-in, where the students took over the college. This protest was important because of its very constructive nature. The students self-organized their own programme of visiting speakers, occupying the main hall and inviting guests to lecture there. This lasted several months, but authority was eventually restored and the old administration came back and took control again. Potter writes in his correspondence about being profoundly moved by what he saw at Hornsey. That experience seemed to be the main impetus for the play. He presents Icarus as this idealist embodiment of that student energy – it’s about resistance, but also about naïveté and vulnerability. The suppression of that energy is what the play covers.

'In:quest of Icarus', photo courtesy James Langdon

AGL  It seems there is a tension between a desire to remain faithful to the documentation of the original performance (and the control that is required to make sure that happens) and a methodology that is specifically anti-authoritarian, as the project was originally navigated. Were you able to cede some of the authorship function to the students or did you still feel like a gatekeeper trying to maintain certain parameters that pursued a loyalty to Potter’s production?

JL  I definitely thought we shouldn’t change anything about the script. When I agreed to present the play in the Stedelijk Museum, I hadn’t anticipated what that would mean. I liked the idea of performing in a gallery rather than in a school – the original performance was at the Construction School. I thought that re-framing was enough to suggest the impossibility of doing it quite in the sprit of the original. But the Stedelijk is necessarily bureaucratic, since it is a large public organization. It actually served as a brilliant casting of the labyrinth – our presence there required such a complicated effort on behalf of the museum staff that it really suited the production wonderfully. For me the purpose of the re-staging was to try to make a full representation of Potter’s most significant work as a poet, purely for the purposes of accessing it, being able to consider it as a performance and not only a text. I told the students we were doing it as an experiment, to try to get to an understanding of the work. I think it was easier for them to relate to that than to cast them in the same spirit as the original performers of the work, for whom the events of 1968 were much more immediately relevant.

Ticket to Norman Potter's 'In:quest of Icarus'

AGL  Potter’s second book, Models and Constructs, contains largely pragmatic chapters – ‘Wall Units for Production’, ‘The Work-Station’ – but then there are love poems towards the end, ‘Retrospects of Love’, and this play, In:quest of Icarus. How do you see his poetry as contradicting, estranging or fitting into Potter’s larger project?

JL  He spoke of his career as being characterized by phases of intense concentration on particular activities; the main three being designing, teaching and writing. I suppose the thing that unites these is Potter’s sense of the gravity of the age that he lived in, a kind of disgust at the trivial aspects of culture. He was intensely aware of what was at stake in design and technology in the 20th century. In 1969 he wrote, ‘I have always seen our central experiences as twofold: technology on the one hand, and our twentieth century experience of Auschwitz, of supreme suffering, on the other. I believe that every aspect of our working assumptions must respect, and in some sense face up to, those facts of experience, and we ignore them at peril of irrelevance or infantilism.’ I don’t think poetry for him was a form of relief from his other work; rather, he seemed to consider all of his creative production with the same seriousness, as part of the same effort.

Annie Godfrey Larmon is an arts writer and curator living in New York. She is currently a Masters degree candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2013), and is a former fellow of the Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writing Workshop.