OBITUARY: Norman Potter

Tanya Harrod
Saturday 16 December 1995 00:02 GMT

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.

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