Let the hand delight the eye

For a century now, the Royal College of Art has put thought before talk when it comes to creating fine design.
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The Royal College of Art's centenary show, Design of the Times, closes tomorrow, which is a shame, because it is one of the most enjoyable exhibitions I have seen in a very long time and its run has been all too brief.

The enjoyment comes from walking into this brutal, early-Sixties building beside the Albert Hall and finding yourself besieged by old friends: sleeve designs for LPs you'd like to pretend you never owned (Yes, Led Zeppelin); cover designs for Penguins you read beneath the desk during double-maths; Tube posters you remember being pasted up at concrete stations; seat fabrics you sat on in venerable, but magnificent, red buses and trains.

Here is that fold-away cardboard chair you bought with your own paper- round savings and cutlery which you could only dream of eating with, yet which, because of its superb design, remains in production 25 years on. At some time or other, these things and countless others framed or enhanced everyday life in a country notoriously suspicious of beauty.

Prodigious, lively and perennially talented, the graduates of the RCA have immeasurably enriched our lives for 100 years. I have enjoyed every summer degree show there since I was 13 and have always found something to covet: the RCA could probably make a materialist of an Indian fakir.

Why? Mostly, I suspect, because it has always mixed invention with skill. Rooted in the Arts & Crafts movement, it set out to teach the nation's most promising design students that the head should never rule the heart and the hand should be equal partner with the brain. Despite periods when words (lots of them, mostly long and incomprehensible) have ruled design theory and education, the RCA has assumed that its students will make things as well as waffle about their making.

An essay in the exhibition catalogue (too many words, too few designs) by Christopher Frayling, Pro-Rector of the RCA, quotes John Ruskin speaking of the education of the young artist: art and design, wrote the great critic, "must be produced by the subtlest of all machines, which is the human hand. No machine yet contrived, or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of the human fingers. The best design is that which proceeds from the heart, that which involves all the emotions - associates these with the head, yet as inferior to the heart; and the hand, yet as inferior to the heart and head; and thus brings out the whole person."

Wherever you look in this show, you find whole persons shining from the most modern designs of their times, be it Edwardian calligraphy by Edward Johnston, Daniel Weil's radio-in-a-plastic-bag from 1981, or George Marmaropoulof's home fax machine of 1992.

Although there is no such thing as timeless design, age has wearied few of the things on show here, and some of the earliest designs are astonishingly modern. Christopher Dresser's silver decanter, for example, never ceases to delight with its simplicity and surety of line, its exemplary making and sheer beauty. In an age when Victorian manufacturies were churning out elephantine junk for the imperial market, Dresser, our first recognisable "industrial designer", gave shape to tableware that rivals anything new.

It is not economy of line, per se, that makes industrial products beautiful: posters by Edward Bawden and country houses by Edwin Lutyens (yes, another RCA student) are rich and complex things. What each has enjoyed, however, is a strong line of direction; thoughts have not been wasted in superfluous design. Whether you're considering an ebullient Philip Treacy hat or a minimalist hi-tech ceramic razor by Ross Lovegrove, the old adage that has underpinned a century of creative design at the RCA holds true: nothing could be added to these designs and nothing taken away without spoiling the end result.

n Ends tomorrow, 10am-6pm RCA, Kensington Gore, SW7