Obituary: Peter Dormer

Tanya Harrod
Thursday 02 January 1997 00:02 GMT

Peter Dormer was one of the most idiosyncratic and combative of contemporary writers on the visual arts in Britain.

His writing and his exhibitions bristled with awkward questions and odd perspectives. He condemned the complacent nature of British culture, at times with a loathing that recalled Jim Dixon's tirade in Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim. But he also liked to defend what he called "middlebrow, middle-taste" England, speaking up for skills neglected by high culture, such as flower arranging, cooking, juggling, dentistry and DIY.

The meaning of skill and the purpose of the crafts were two themes that dominated his writings in the 1980s. He was at pains to emphasise what he believed to be the nature of the craft project: "a world of modest ideas with a straightforward vocabulary of familiar and functional forms". A trio of touring shows he organised for the Crafts Council, "A Closer Look At Rugs, Lettering and Wood" (all in 1983), suggested the strengths of his approach.

Each show was concerned to place the work of individuals in a social context. Thus lettering was seen in conjunction with architecture, furniture and wood in terms of techniques, design and batch production. The processes of designing and making were explored through examples of work in progress diagrams and extended didactic exhibition panels.

Ultimately, for Dormer, fine art and much craft were peripheral activities to be contrasted with the essential and valuable work of the designer. His best book, The Meanings of Modern Design (1990), took an original look at the complex relations designers have with consumers and at the symbolism, metaphor and morality of product styling. This was surely the only design survey to include a disturbing photograph of an animal restrained for product testing - as an example of what Dormer called "invisible" or "below the line" design processes kept hidden from consumers.

The Art of the Maker (1994) was another very personal book, much inspired by the scientist and philosopher Michael Polyani's ideas about tacit or personal knowledge. Its core was experiential as Dormer grappled step by step with the skills of figurative clay modelling and calligraphy (characteristically eccentric choices) in an attempt to understand the special kind of undervalued knowledge involved in craft processes, in simultaneously designing and making.

Dormer spent his infancy in an army hut adapted for emergency housing just after the Second World War. In 1955 his family moved to a meanly designed new council estate in north Cambridgeshire, a place he recalled as the antithesis of the post-war promise of a new Jerusalem. The beauties of true modernism came his way as a school boy when he attended Walter Gropius and E. Maxwell Fry's humanely laid out Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire. Jim Ede's gallery, Kettle's Yard, in Cambridge, also delighted him, though in later years Dormer had harsh things to say about Ede's self-conscious simplicity. Tasteful piles of pebbles on polished oak tables came to ring false as Dormer became increasingly fascinated and appalled by well-intentioned middle-class aesthetes and by the snug convolutions of the English class system.

Impington was followed by two years at art school at Bath Academy of Art, in Corsham, and then at Manchester, an experience that left him doubtful of the value of an institutionalised avant-garde. In particular, artists' claims to a special level of risk-taking, experiment and innovation were seen by Dormer as "a self-delusion that leaves most other professions (especially those who take real risks of life, death and possible penury) bemused." In Dormer's view, contemporary artists were less competent than dentists and nurses, more pampered than their predecessors and, worst of all, outside the "real" economy and too ready to "seek the apotheosis of uselessness".

Between 1969 and 1972 Dormer read Philosophy at Bristol University and then worked as a teacher and in local government. He also served as a Labour councillor in Ealing, west London, from 1978 to 1982, where he learnt some tough debating skills. In 1978 he had begun to write for Art Monthly magazine, then under the inspired editorship of Peter Townsend. In the early 1980s he made the bold decision to become a full-time writer, contributing a regular "Artlobby" column to Art Monthly which cast a witty, disenchanted eye over state funding for the arts, the burgeoning of fashionable theory and the uneasy relationship between craft, design and architecture.

The objects that Dormer admired by the end of the 1980s were the visibly useful modest ones - thoughtfully designed ceramics and innovative furniture, both one-off pieces and prototypes for mass production. His flat in the Barbican, shared with Jane, his wife and dearest friend, revealed a humane and rational taste, tempered by a romantic sensitivity to materials and processes. In the last few weeks of his life he radiated a remarkable energy and optimism, planning books and projects and, as always, generously encouraging other writers and researchers.

For Dormer design and morality were inextricably linked. His seven published books (with two further books to appear posthumously), numerous exhibition catalogues, talks and articles take the reader to the heart of the stormy design debates of the last 15 years.

Tanya Harrod

Peter Andrew Dormer, writer: born Fakenham, Norfolk 1 January 1949; Assistant Education Officer, London Borough of Havering 1976-79; Assistant to Chief Education Officer, London Borough of Brent 1979-81; Councillor, Ealing Borough Council 1978-82; Reviews Editor, Crafts 1981-83; Co-director, Design Analysis International 1987-90; Visiting Fellow in the Critical Appreciation of the Applied Arts, University of East Anglia 1994-96; author of The New Jewelry 1985, The New Ceramics 1986, The New Furniture 1987, Meanings in Modern Design 1990, Design since 1945 1993, The Art of the Maker 1994, Jewelry of our Time (with Helen Drutt) 1995; married 1974 Jane Smith; died London 24 December 1996.

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