What began as teaching aids for students is now a fascinating collection of art across a range of media
HIDDEN BEHIND the scenes in many art and design colleges are rich collections of works by alumni, graduating students and staff, as well as oddball collections of design classics, historic teaching aids and photographic archives.

In December 1998, the London Institute - an umbrella title for five of London's art and design colleges: Camberwell, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea, the London College of Fashion, and the London College of Printing - decided to mark the century's close with an exhibition of the colleges' joint archives and ongoing contemporary collections.

A Century in the Making was prepared in just six weeks, a formidable task directed by Professor Margaret Buck (head of Central Saint Martins), curated by Sylvia Backermeyer, head of the Museum & Study Collection at Central Saint Martins, and designed by Russell Warren-Fisher.

While all the collections are today freely available to students and teachers, and are regularly drawn on for loans to exhibitions, they have never before been exhibited together. The range is extraordinary, from images of 1920s students grappling with hairdressing problems in one of the trade schools which was a forerunner of the London College of Fashion, to historical objects from the Teaching Examples Collection, such as fragments of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts or painted Victorian tiles by William de Morgan, collected to inspire by W R Lethaby, the first Principal Of the Central School.

The Camberwell Collection contains an assortment of artefacts, not necessarily associated with members of the college, which once formed improving exhibitions circulated to schools by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). It is strong on avant-garde European design and British studio craft from the 1950s to the 1970s, containing stainless-steel tableware by Robert Welch, cutlery by Arne Jacobsen, ceramics by Lucie Rie, Bernard and Janet Leach and Ewen Henderson, and glass from Whitefriars, Kosta Boda and Murano. And no British representation would be complete without a dash of whimsy, supplied here by Sam Smith's carved and painted wooden "tugs".

The Central Saint Martins Museum Collection houses not only the teaching examples, but works by its famous alumni and teachers, including Lethaby himself and Joyce Clissold. Clissold, who studied in the School of Book Production in 1927-29, became a successful designer of textiles which she printed by wood and lino block. A team of women in her Footprints studio in Brentford produced furnishing lengths, garments, scarves and handkerchiefs in Clissold's charming illustrative style. These, together with dye-recipe books, swatches, blocks and ephemera, are housed in the Southampton Row building, close to Bloomsbury.

In a similar way, an archive of Tom Eckersley's poster designs has been formed at the London College of Printing, where Eckersley was head of design from 1957 to 1976. His posters exploit typesetting, colour offset litho and screen-printing to the full.

The London Institute's Contemporary Collection covers the broadest possible range of media. It was established in 1986 and since then has steadily acquired outstanding work by students and, latterly, teachers. From Central Saint Martins students it has absorbed the latest research in textile design and printing using Cad/Cam (computer-aided) systems, and a stylish jacket in flower- sprigged paper-like fabric made by Hussein Chalayan in 1993. Camberwell graduates rate highly for ceramics and metals; interesting recent items include a raised and patinated copper vessel designed by Hiroshi Suzuki in 1996, now studying at the Royal College of Art in London, and the forged-steel "Croco" stool by Nathan Abbey, now set up in a studio in Old Street in the East End.

The London Institute collections have one obvious advantage over most museum collections, in that many of the works pre-date or divert from mainstream trends; this enables us to see directions that our existing visual culture might, and might not, have followed.

A Century in the Making: museum and contemporary collections from the London Institute, London Institute Gallery, 65 Davies St, W1, to 10 March. Mon-Fri 10-8