OBITUARY: Norman Potter

The designer Norman Potter liked to quote Rilke's command "Hold to the difficult", alternating it with the sombre maxim of his fellow poet and friend Denise Levertov: "We are living our whole lives in a state of emergency." His presence was uplifting, even electrifying. He was a free spirit of great charm, wit and integrity, a Christian anarchist with deeply ingrained habits of dissent, whose thinking, like the layout and content of his typed lectures and letters, tended to be "ranged left and open-ended."

Potter's childhood was not an extended one. His background, gentility fallen on hard times, took him to a semi-charitable militaristic school. Aged 14 he turned to Rational Press Association books for comfort, taking in Joad and Huxley. Still in his teens, living in a commune, he read Herbert Read's Poetry and Anarchism, finding in Read a mentor he never ceased to admire and an intellectual home in anarchism. He thus came to know the scholarly, sophisticated circle of men and women associated with the journals War Commentary and Freedom - Mary Louise Berneri, John Hewetson, George Woodcock and Vernon Richards.

During the Second World War he spent a month in Chelmsford Prison (aged only 16) for refusing to carry an identity card. This was followed by six months in Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs, after an unsuccessful attempt to initiate a moral debate on the nature of war with a military tribunal. He found prison educative and thereafter saw himself as outside the class system, duty-bound to question any kind of institution.

In solitary confinement for non-co-operation he scratched some lines by W.H. Auden into the plaster with a bent pin - "look shining / at new styles of architecture, a change of heart". These words proved prophetic. By 1949 Potter had begun his life as a designer, teaching himself skills, investigating hand and power tools and evolving a design philosophy which took in figures from the Arts and Crafts movement like C.R. Ashbee and W.R. Lethaby, together with younger members of what he saw as an intellectual family - Lewis Mumford, Herbert Read, E.F. Schumacher and Colin Ward.

Like his hero Lethaby he loved sailing boats, lived on them in hard times, and regarded their interiors, when well fitted, as perfect design statements. He immersed himself in a study of the modern movement, visiting its key sites, starting with Wells Coates's Lawn Road flats, where he felt instantly at home. He was buoyed up by his friendships with the typographer Anthony Froshaug, with Geoffrey Bocking and with a lively group of Architectural Association students editing the magazine Plan.

After secondary school Potter had no further formal education. Such a thing seemed hardly necessary. A spacious mind, a marvellous feel for accuracy and precision in language and a sense of the high seriousness of the designer's calling took Potter to the books, buildings and objects which he needed to know. All this provided the basis for his workshop which he ran in Corsham, Wiltshire, during the 1950s in partnership with George Philip. This was intended to be as accessible as a local garage and offered undiluted modern design. Though interested in handwork, Potter abhorred the craft furniture movement as it had developed since the 1920s; his own furniture and fittings, recorded with a Brownie box camera by his wife Caroline, were closest in spirit to the Dutch cabinetmaker and architect Gerrit Rietveld. In siting a modernist workshop in a small Somerset town, Potter created something that was in the best sense marginal and quietly disruptive.

At the end of the 1950s Potter went to teach in the Interior Design School at the Royal College of Art at the invitation of Hugh Casson. Conscious that art schools provided "a useful education frequently offered to the wrong people at the wrong age for the wrong reasons", he made his contribution there as "grimly undecorative as our subject-matter would allow", bringing in a "modernist monoculture and methodological underpinnings". There were Bauhaus precedents for Potter's pedagogic style. He demanded a whole-hearted commitment from students. Those able to take the heat and fire found themselves embarked on an invigorating, far-reaching, occasionally unsettling dialogue with their tutor.

In 1964 Potter and a group of like-minded designers and academics migrated to form a Construction School at the West of England School of Art and Design in Bristol, beginning what Potter described as "a long, long, struggle against the grain of English design education". The intention was to re- examine and re-address the modernist project. At Bristol Potter emerged as an indispensable (if dangerous) man to have in an institution, an asker of hard questions and an inspirer of youth.

In 1968 he largely abandoned teaching to join the disaffected students at Hornsey and Guildford. He resigned from Bristol, returning in 1975 to work out a radical non- hierarchical structure for the Construction School with students working in "families" and awarding their own degrees. Potter's last foray into teaching in 1989/90 at Plymouth School of Architecture took his ideas to their natural conclusion. He soon came to see the school as over restrictive and his so-called "counter-course" interventions eschewed assessments. His writing at that time had a real darkness at its philosophical core, as he encouraged students to face up to "extreme situations".

The conventional sites of post-war British art education were unable to accommodate a man with Potter's bold intellectual range, but out of his first period at Bristol came a classic work. What is a Designer first appeared in 1969 to much acclaim and was enlarged and republished (in 1980 and 1989) by Robin Kinross's Hyphen Press. The book is an update of the early modern (and Arts and Crafts) project, which puts the workshop (and a moral sensibility) at the heart of the design process. It is an intense, practical book, a combination of vision and good sense.

Potter's friendship with Kinross led to a close collaboration on an edition of his collected writing, which appeared in 1990 as Models & Constructs. This extraordinary book (designed on the purest modernist principles in collaboration with Kinross) contained snatches of autobiography, poetry, illuminating writing on music, together with philosophical and practical thoughts on design, construction and the workshop.

Potter's horror of compromise in both public and private life did not make for material ease. Those who loved him and whom he loved were tested to their limits. Things were always difficult on a day-to-day basis, although his combination of practicality and vision meant that he could transform any interior into a modern movement statement of pellucid beauty. This was dramatically demonstrated by his flat in Falmouth (his final home) and a studio in France (intended as a permanent home, out of an England that from the 1980s held few charms for him).

He left four children, the eldest, Sally, a film-maker, the youngest, Charlotte, still a schoolgirl. In their company the essential sweetness and humour of his character became movingly manifest.

Tanya Harrod

Norman Arthur Potter, designer, craftsman, writer and poet: born London 17 April 1923; married (two sons, two daughters); died Falmouth 22 November 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?