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On the Way to Language: A new vocabulary for design and making

Takahiro Kondo in his workshop, photograph by Saji Kim
Written by
John Wallace
Published date
27 April 2018

On the Way to Language is an exhibition and series of events curated by Maiko Tsutsumi, Course Leader of MA Designer-Maker at Camberwell College of Arts. We went to meet up with Maiko to find out more about the inspiration behind the show.

The project began two years ago, when I was offered the slot in the gallery programme. It’s my fourth curatorial project here at Camberwell, and it continues a train of thought and research practice that I have been working on throughout my career.

I grew up in Japan, and first came to the UK to do my masters’ degree. At the time I was studying furniture design, and was very much a maker working in craft. In Japan I was used to work being judged by the level of skill one demonstrated, eye for detail, and choice of form. Many makers couldn’t quite articulate with words what they were trying to express or make, and weren’t asked either – as soon as we started trying to say something about our work, it felt like something about the work itself was getting lost.

Then I came over here to study furniture at the Royal College of Art alongside international students from all over the world. I noticed there were some students who could really talk the talk, but their work didn’t seem to match up with what was being said. I thought ‘what’s going on here?’ because it seemed to me that although one could be very successful at convincing people with words, the work itself didn’t always convince me. I think that’s when I started to first try to find a way to have both visual and material thinking and language working together to create something more coherent.

Sunday Lunches, BalinHouseProjects

Sunday Lunches, BalinHouseProjects

The idea for On the Way to Language began when I was having a conversation with a student. She was talking about her work and I suddenly realised that she had chosen the wrong word to describe what she was trying to do – and because of that particular word, I could see that the direction she took with her work was misguided, somehow. Her actions related to the idea she had about the definition of this particular word, but it wasn’t in line with her actual intentions. I realised then that accurate use of language in making practice is really important in this sense. Here in Western culture, and especially in arts education, there is a lot of weight allocated to how well you can speak about works of art and craft. There’s especially a focus on the canon of texts coming from the fine art context. But in design and craft practice, that vocabulary is not quite as well developed yet. So I started to explore the subject and set about opening up more dialogues around it for the project.

The Last Man’s Seat, Committee, film still, 2017

The Last Man’s Seat, Committee, film still, 2017

The general perception here is that language facilitates a person’s creative practice, helps them to conceptualise things in a new way. I think that making things, or interacting with materials, can also facilitate this in the same way. I really wanted to open up a discussion around how language interacts with making and designing, especially in a way that will empower students. Many students think that having to write about their work is a daunting task, that it’s difficult and takes time away from their studio practice. But there are lots of artists/designers/makers for whom language IS one of their creative tools, and I want to ask how we could learn from them and develop this area of our practice.

I am approaching this project from an everyday way of thinking. I’m not looking to present a specialist vocabulary, or anything that is hard to penetrate. I’m after something that’s closer to your heart. Many of my students speak English as a second language. I know that different languages and their internal structures organise your thinking processes in very different ways, and I ask them to keep that in mind. By learning another language they are enriching their power to locate ideas. Language is used to classify things, so if you speak more languages, you simply have more ways to pinpoint something accurately in your mind. For example Chinese and Japanese, generally, are very emotional languages. They are not very precise, and are more about the feeling of things. That’s an advantage in lots of ways, but I also like English because you can be very precise in addressing ideas and concepts.

So what can visitors expect from the exhibition? Rather than a static show, the plan is to have a salon space, where we can hold workshops, discussions, and events: a work in progress really. I was thinking about ways to make a record of the conversations that will happen in the space when I invited two writers in residence, Kimberley Chandler and Stephen Knott, to come and collect words from the show. They have recently presented a paper proposing a new approach to talking about craft using shards of text. They are collecting text from all kinds of places: perhaps an instruction manual, or a glaze recipe, or an historic piece of writing. I wanted to see how their project would grow, so I invited them to be part of On the Way to Language to develop it further with us.



We will be showing a stop motion film called Last Man’s Seat, which was commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum for their exhibition What is Luxury. Committee Studio, the makers of the fi lm, have such an amazing eye for curation and can edit so beautifully. Their decisions are all based on visuals, but they use them so precisely that they are almost like a language – in materiality as well as representation.

Takahiro Kondo is a third generation Kyoto potter from Japan who works as a fine artist. He’s a very unusual practitioner, he grew up around his father and grandfather who were very well regarded ceramicists, but at first he did not follow the family trade. He only went to learn ceramics after university (and played table tennis at a national level). He has incredible skill with clay – he can throw a 1m porcelain urn on a wheel. I went to talk to him a few times about his work. His practice has evolved to be inclusive of the accidents and mistakes that occur when fi ring such large works, and there is a conversation between maker and material that is very much a two-way process.

Other contributors to the show include Haptic Tacit, an artist/maker collective; Dunhill and O’Brien who will be showing 5 their work Stone Appreciation 3; and Sunday Lunches with Eduardo Padilha of BalinHouseProjects. They will all be putting on events that will be open to the public, details of which can be found on the Camberwell Space website (address below). The whole focus of the show is on the exchange of ideas – it will be a happening place!

On the Way to Language is at Camberwell Space between 1 May and 9 June. For more information about public events during the show visit the gallery’s website.

The private view, with a curator’s introduction, is 10 May, 6pm – 8pm.

Find out more about the MA Visual Arts: Designer Maker course at Camberwell.