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July 12, 2005

The Master Craftsman: an Article for New Design

Writing about web page http://www.newdesignmagazine.co.uk

When asked to deliver a lecture in 1858, John Ruskin told the audience that ‘All art worthy of the name is the energy – neither of the human body alone, nor of the human soul alone, but of both united, one guiding the other: good craftsmanship and the work of the fingers joined with good emotion and work of the heart.’ Ruskin’s words were to influence the world of design and they would later reverberate through the Arts and Crafts movement. The Arts and Crafts movement is to be celebrated in an international exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London between the 17th March and 24th July 2005.

Karen Livingstone, the curator of the exhibition, states, ‘This is the first major Arts and Crafts exhibition ever to be held in this country and it will look at the international perspective on the movement. There have been regional Arts and Crafts exhibitions but never one that had studied the movement in such a broad way. For example this is the first exhibition to consider Japan’s Arts and Crafts movement. No previous show has included so many aspects of the movement all together.’

Art and Life

‘Many people have heard of the Arts and Crafts movement, but fewer people know the history of the term’, continues Livingstone. ‘We hope to rectify that with this exhibition’. In an age of late capitalism and mass production, the ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement may well give us pause for thought. It was Ruskin’s focus on the process of design and production elevated the role of the craftsman over mechanisation, the division of labour and the new work regimes of a prospering capitalist system. Ruskin revelled in the differences or even imperfections inherent in craftsmanship.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s major spring-summer exhibition is developed to show that while the Arts and Crafts movement idealised handicraft and the rural life, the group was also sophisticated and urbane with a strong commercial awareness and an aspiration to influence design and manufacture. ‘The movement began in the 1860s’, explains Livingstone, ‘but it had a wide influence and spread internationally. In each set of Arts and Crafts objects there is a reference to a simpler way of life, yet each country applies this rule in a different way. The Arts and Crafts movement was about remodelling the design process whether the objective was to create a country cottage or a city mansion.’

Objet D’art

The exhibition presents over 200 Arts and Crafts objects and the diverse international representation is intended to show how the movement spread beyond the UK to the US, Europe, Scandinavia and Japan. Consequently, the exhibition will include four rooms.

The British rooms are reconstructions which reiterate that while the ideals of Arts and Crafts lay in the countryside, the movement would not have survived without urban influences and patrons. The American craftsmen room displays how the influence of living in the countryside is enmeshed with the ideal of the American family. Finally, there is a Japanese model room which reveals how Western and Eastern influences merged in the Arts and Crafts movement. Livingstone explains that ‘the Japanese Arts and Crafts movement asked the question how do we revive our historical past but also be modern and embrace Western ways of living? The Arts and Crafts movement was radical in its influence on Japanese design.’

Britannia

The Arts and Crafts group was one of the first UK movements to have an international influence and it can be claimed as a school of thought that originated in the UK. British thinkers like Ruskin suggested that art had a moral value for the producer and the consumer. This concept was influential in many fields but particularly in the field of design and it seems appropriate that this exhibition is being held in London. ‘The Victoria and Albert Museum has one of the biggest collections of Arts and Crafts objects in the world and is perhaps only rivalled by the collection of Cotswolds Arts and Crafts in Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery’, explains Livingstone. ‘Ruskin and William Morris were read all over the world and their influence was certainly wide-reaching.’

Many British designers are represented in the exhibition such as C.F.A. Voysey, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and C.R. Ashbee. The objects on display vary from simple crafted objects to elegant designs for wealthy patrons, including textiles, stained glass, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery, books, architecture, photography, paintings and sculpture. ‘The Arts and Crafts movement was a highlight in the history of British design’, states Livingstone. ‘No other movement has had such a widespread influence on an international scale.’

One of the most interesting designers represented in the field of furniture design is the British designer, Sir Ambrose Heal, who worked for Heal and Son from 1893 until 1953 as a craftsman, designer and chairman. Heal’s had opened in 1810 as a firm specialising in hand-made beds. Heal was the fourth generation in the family business and it was during his reign that the Arts and Crafts movement proved to be very influential. ‘Heal’s has a history of interest in being involved with Arts and Crafts’, explains Livingstone. ‘The company was instrumental in taking Arts and Crafts to a wider public. Some Arts and Crafts advocates like Asbee set up craft workshops for production, but it was difficult to make a profit in doing so. Heal’s held onto the idea of craftsmanship but they were aware of economic viability.’

Like the other advocates of the Arts and Crafts movement, Heal felt strongly about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, in particular the inferior furniture which had flooded the market-place as a result of mechanisation. It is interesting to note that although Heal favoured craftsmanship, he was also concerned that the designs should be simple and well-proportioned. Consequently, his furniture rejected the stains, polishes and carvings that were popular at the time. The resulting country cottage furniture had a sleeker, cleaner line and its price was accessible to the masses. ‘The most radical idea inherent in the Arts and Crafts movement was the notion of design for ordinary, simple, working-class people’, explains Livingstone. Heal’s aesthetic ethos retained a consciousness of the economics of commercial production.

Heal’s success made him an influential character in the world of Arts and Crafts. Livingstone describes his authority in the sphere of design: ‘Here at our office, we have Ambrose Heal’s diary and it is clear from his address list that he was working with the best designers of his day. Heal produced his own ranges, but he also worked with the top commercial and freelance designers of the day, such as Lindsey P. Butterfield and C.F.A. Voisey.’ Heal later became a member of the Arts and Crafts Society and the Art Worker Guild. He moved in radical circles of the Arts and Crafts scene.’ In 1933, he was knighted in recognition of his innovative design and his influence on improving design standards.

Fine Feathers

Heal’s is no longer a family business after being acquired by Habitat/Mothercare (later Storehouse) in 1983. However, the company is still very aware of its Arts and Crafts roots and Livingstone calls them ‘the perfect sponsor for an Arts and Crafts exhibition’. Examples of Heal’s work such as the Heal Letchworth dresser will be an integral part of the Victoria and Albert Museum Arts and Crafts exhibition. ‘Ambrose Heal was originally a cabinet maker’, Livingstone reminds us. ‘Such objects are original with good design and good craftsmanship, but they are also economical.’ After London, the exhibition will move to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and later the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Other examples can be seen at Heal’s flagship store on the Tottenham Court Road, where Heal’s are also launching a collection of reproduction furniture inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. For example, an original Lindsey P. Butterfield apple print fabric featured in the Victoria and Albert museum exhibition is used in a new line of luggage and stationary. The effect is surprisingly contemporary.

Also at Heal’s store is a piece that captures the essence of the Arts and Crafts movement: the ‘Fine Feather’ mahogany bedroom suite, which features inlaid pewter motifs. The dressing table reads IF THIS BE VANITY WHO’D BE WISE, a reference to a work of the writer, Rudyard Kipling and the wardrobe reads, FINE FEATHERS MAKE FINE BIRDS, which is an allusion to one of Aesop’s moral tales. The design engages with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in a light-hearted manner. It tries to educate its user with such literary references, which are particularly relevant regarding the use of a bedroom suite with its mirrors, cosmetics and fine clothes. However, this aspect is handled deftly without seeming to moralising and ultimately a beautiful object is created. Heal achieved what Ruskin hoped for: a synthesis of good craftsmanship and good emotion.

For more details see the Victoria and Albert Museum website


Like a Marble or an Eye

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/bluebook.html

Book front cover
Title:
The Blue Book
Author:
Owen Sheers
ISBN:
1854112775
Rating:
Not rated

In the recent Next Generation list released by the Poetry Book Society as a counterpart to the 1994 New Generation poets, Owen Sheers features as one of the youngest poets included on the list. Born in Fiji and brought up in London and Abergavenny, Sheers is sometimes thought of as the ‘pretty boy’ of Welsh poetry, which is probably encouraged by his strong media presence. Sheers is the sometime presenter of arts programmes for BBC Wales and he has also appeared in glossy print promotions. David Bailey was commissioned by The Times in 2000 to photograph the foremost practitioners in the arts and sciences along with an up-and-coming peer of their choice. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, was featured alongside Owen Sheers; Motion described Sheers as the poet most likely to create new advances in the field of poetry.

Sheers’ credentials are impeccable. He has been included in The Independent on Sunday’s list of best British writers and has won an Eric Gregory Award. Sheers also boasts considerable support from poets of the Welsh bastion such as Robert Minhinnick. The Blue Book, initially published in 2000, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and it is easy to see why. The easy eloquence of Sheer’s observations creates an alternative selfhood for Welsh writers which is urbane, cosmopolitan and well-travelled. The title poem of the collection refers to a report published by the government in 1847 on the state of education in Wales. As Sheer’s epigraph reminds us, the report concludes that the Welsh are ‘dirty, lazy. ignorant, superstitious, deceitful, promiscuous and immoral’ as a direct result of ‘Nonconformity and the Welsh language’.

'The Blue Book' takes this as the starting point for a meditation on the history and future of the Welsh language. The poem begins with the view of an outsider looking in on Welsh culture: ‘Rather silence than these corrupt tongues, / the words of the father shall not be passed on to the sons’. The biblical language reflects the chapel culture inherent in Welsh culture and language, yet it also encourages the reader to think of English interventions in Wales as interruptions to a kind of holy order between the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost or the father, the son and the Welsh language. Sheers is adamant that the control over language is part of a colonialist project:

Because this is how an empire is claimed
not just with stakes in a stolen land,
but with words grown over palates,
with strength of tongue as well as strength of hand.

The conclusion of the poem moves away from the colonialist projects of empire to consider the future of the Welsh language. The speaker studies a comment on his brother’s Welsh homework: ‘Pam nad yw hyn wedi ei orffen?’ The comment, ‘Why isn’t this finished?’, is a mundane reprimand to his brother’s laziness, yet it is also a triumphant vindication of the survival of Welsh. However, the speaker laments his lack of language and the fact that he cannot take part in the triumph; he is ‘a hundred and fifty years and one tongue apart’.

The Blue Book is a poem that epitomises Sheers’ poetics which are very much concerned with identity, culture, language and place. Sheers’ collection includes: Welsh praise poems for characters who defy stereotypes; elegies full of wonder and lament for people lost; explorations of Welsh industrial and rural landscapes; and poetry that extends beyond the borders of that small country to Fiji and beyond.

Some of the most poignant poetry concerned with celebration of character revolves around the figure of the mother. In 'Not Yet My Mother', the speaker explores a photograph which presents a younger version of his mother and is startled to recognise himself in her image:

All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

Sheers’ treatment of the mother avoids stereotypes and it is good to see a male poet treating female figures in a subversive manner. Thus it is disappointing that the treatment of men and women in The Blue Book is not always so innovative and this conservatism seems to be rooted in the influence of a certain brand of Welsh chauvinist poetry. The kind of masculinity presented, from medieval bards’ odes to the penis to modernist poets’ anxiety over femininity, can be simplistic and self-aggrandizing.

Of course, some male poets have remedied such chauvinisms, the prime example being Sheers’ mentor, Robert Minhinnick. However, Sheers seems to have revisited certain nuances of Welsh chauvinism in some of the poems in The Blue Book. In 'Harvest', an intense and measured poem is spoiled by the proclamation ‘I am a man, and I have acid hands’ revelling in a masculinity which is erosive to womanhood. 'May Ball' is generally an interesting poem concerned with class politics, yet the speaker’s encounter with the woman’s lifted skirts and reverie in a phallic laser show seems detrimental. The triumph of class mobility is figured through the act of intercourse with an elegant woman. The feminine becomes a symbol used for male expression.

Other poems continue in a similar vein. 'Klimt’s Kiss' endorses the traditional masculine artistic tendency of using woman as a visual spectacle:

His to kiss and keep
in the gold cloak of his art.
Her kneeling to him in prayer.

In this account, woman is an object of visual pleasure for the artist and feeds male fantasies with her subjection and humility. This aspect of Sheers’ work is difficult to manoeuvre and it is difficult to reconcile his treatment of women here with other poems such as 'Not Yet My Mother'.

However, Sheers’ is obviously a talented poet and it is interesting to note his female influences in addition to Welsh chauvinist authority. Poets like Gillian Clarke, Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Sally Roberts Jones can be heard in the nuances of Sheers’ work. His treatment of the rural landscape and people is embedded in the cycles of life and death. Like Gillian Clarke, Sheers’ is preoccupied with bodies: ‘the afterbirth […] / a jelly fish placenta’ and ‘pulpy hooves’ in ‘The Hedge Foal’ and the birthed animals in ‘Lambing’ with ‘hooves/as soft as plums’ are all reminiscent of Clarke’s theme and style.

In a general sense, Sheers’ collection can be described an uneasy marriage of varied influences synthesised with his own brand of urbane charm. It can only be hoped that in future collections, Sheers will prefer his feminine influences, which have for too long been eclipsed in Wales by certain chauvinist poetics.


March 01, 2005

Reviews of Plath's Restored Edition

Follow-up to Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath from The Midnight Heart

It is interesting to compare my review of Plath with others online. Whatever one might think about Plath's life and work, it is certain that she was an influential figure and an important woman in the history of feminist writing. Her poetry is certainly difficult emotionally – the reader becomes a voyeur, a sadist, a necrophiliac – but I sense a lack of understanding in many critics and a lack of detail in the reading of her work. The persona of the suicidal woman poet is not desirable for male or female poets writing today, yet Plath's poetry did serve a purpose – a step towards exploring new modes of identity, new modes of being.

See this review Here She Comes Again by M.C. Caseley on the Stride website which I think misses the point entirely.


February 28, 2005

Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/ariel.html

Book front cover
Title:
Ariel: the Restored Edition: The Restored Text
Author:
Sylvia Plath
ISBN:
057122685X
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

The confessional women poets of the 50s and 60s like Sexton and Plath are the star witnesses desired by feminists to prove the inequalities of sex. However such critics tend to also feel uneasy about the personae of such poets. As Adrienne Rich said at the memorial of Anne Sexton, ‘we have had enough suicidal women poets… enough self-destructiveness.’ Similarly, this restored version of Ariel evokes divided feelings.

After Plath’s suicide, the manuscript of Ariel was found by her husband, Ted Hughes, who consequently rearranged the poems for publication. Plath had spoken of Ariel as beginning with the word ‘love’ and ending with the word ‘spring’, an arrangement evocative of a movement towards hope. Hughes’ arrangement denied such hope and instead concluded with bleaker poems such as ‘Edge’: ‘The woman is perfected/ Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment’.

Frieda Hughes’ foreword to this restored edition of Harper Collins’ restored edition of Ariel is vehemently protective of her father’s memory regarding the rearrangement of her mother’s poem. She writes, ‘many cruel things were written about my father that bore no resemblance to the man who quietly and lovingly (if a little strictly and being sometimes fallible) brought me up’. There is no doubt that Ted Hughes should be treated less like a monster and more like a human being and it is obvious that as Frieda Hughes explains, ‘For him the work was the thing, and he saw the care of it as a means of tribute and a responsibility’. However there is also a sense that Ted Hughes’ treatment of his responsibility was somewhat heavy-handed and it was his fallibility that led to Plath’s final journals and an unfinished novel being “lost”.

This restored edition of Ariel rights the interference to Plath’s ordering of her collection. Hughes’ list included extra poems such as ‘Poppies in July’, ‘Little Fugue’ etc. but excluded other which are now restored in this new edition. Hughes’ selection of additional poems seems to favour works which feature a frenzied or powerful persona. Some critics support Hughes’ decisions describing him as a skilled editor and it is true to say that the poems omitted by Hughes are less certain in their deliberations and contain a strong sense of self doubt.

However, poems in a sequence cannot be compartmentalised or separated from the rest of the series. To treat poetry in this way is to ignore the purpose of a poetry collection which allows poems to interact as chapters of one general drama. I suggest that the restoration of the missing poems changes the feeling of the sequence. These poems are interesting because they depict identity being dictated to or forced upon the speaker. In ‘The Jailer’, Plath depicts a voice whose identity is violently imposed:

I have been drugged and raped.
Seven hours knocked out of my right mind
Into a black sack
Where I relax, foetus or cat,
Lever of his wet dreams.

The protagonist is forced out of her ‘right mind’. A new identity is imposed, which is mapped over death and birth: the black sack that means death for the kitten or the womb that means life and rebirth. Finally her selfhood is dictated by the sexual whims of the male tyrant: his wet dreams are the arbiter of her existence. Such poems contrast with the powerful personae of others such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and their inclusion creates a schizophrenic feel to the collection, as the protagonist oscillates between passive acceptance of dictated identities and powerful statements of dangerous, potent selfhood.

While the project of the restored Ariel is an admirable one, its treatment of the book is more unsettling. The cover features a pile of papers bound with an elastic band. On the front, in scrawled handwriting are the words DADDY, one of the titles Plath considered for her collection before her death. The collection features appendices which include a facsimile of Plath’s manuscript, facsimile drafts of the poem, ‘Ariel’, and Plath’s script for the BBC broadcast, ‘New Poems by Sylvia Plath’. The ostensible reason for such extras is to give the reader some insight into Plath’s creative process. However, the dominant feeling is one of voyeurism and there is a sense in which the book is trying to appeal to the pornographic desire to be closer to the dead poet.

We may well question why there is still such an obsession with Plath’s life, work and death. The enigma of Plath and her poetry is not simply due to her well-publicised biography, her journals etc. but is conjured by a shared sense of human pain. It is cathartic to read Plath’s poetry, yet it disturbs us, because Plath has crossed the borders that bound identity stylistically and physically.

In her foreword, Frieda Hughes expresses fair concern about English Heritage’s desire to place a blue plaque on the house where her mother died rather than where she lived and worked. She describes one journalist’s response as ‘It’s because that’s where she died’. Plath’s suicide is so significant, because it creates a dangerous subtext. To empathise with Plath’s poetry is to involve oneself with a voice well on its way to self destruction or even to fraternise with the dead poet herself. There is a voyeuristic thrill for some in doing so.

The restored edition of Ariel engages with the play of desire and fear inherent in Plath’s poetry and while the project of restoring Plath’s manuscript is a good one, there is something disturbing about the collection’s proximity to Plath: the reproduction of her typed and handwritten words. Italo Calvino writes of the gesture of separation as ‘the first and indispensable condition of being’. Plath retains the legacy of one who redefined the boundaries of identity, who rejected the notion of a whole, bounded, separate identity. Plath rejected the gesture of separation and she failed to manage what Calvino describes as the separation of ‘the part of me that remains from the part I must jettison, in order to sink away into a beyond from which there is no return.’


February 08, 2005

Opening the Door (As Published in Acumen)

Writing about web page http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/

Book front cover
Title:
Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry
Author:
ISBN:
1852245492
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Welsh poetry has a history spanning 14 centuries, from Taliesin in the 6th century to the poets who compete to be bardd at the Royal National Eisteddfodau of Wales every year. This new anthology of 20th century Welsh poets in translation collects the most acclaimed Welsh-language poets in an anthology with enough space to prove their quality and diversity. The collection progresses from the nature lyrics of I.D. Hooson to the parables of Nesta Wyn Jones, from Second World War poet, Hedd Wyn, to the strict metre of Allan Llwyd. Welsh publishing houses like Seren, Honno and Gomer have laboured to promote these Welsh-language poets, but it is a unique event for this anthology to be published by Bloodaxe, an English press. At last, Welsh literature may cultivate a readership outside its national boundaries and perhaps even internationally. John Rowlands' informative, if dry, introduction announces, "my audience is not necessarily an English one, but an English reading one".

This is a very admirable project, but one dissenting voice questions its validity – that of poet and musician, Twm Morys. Morys refused to contribute to the anthology, since he proclaims, "I'm speaking with Welsh-speaking people – if others want to join in, well they can bloody well learn the language." Rowlands tries to deflate this anxiety by highlighting the global audience who now have access to these poets, but Twm Morys' protest reverberates silently in the absence of the Welsh originals, which were not included alongside the English translations. Morys' view is extreme and exclusive, but his comment illustrates a fundamental Welsh anxiety that exists between the binaries of inclusive versus exclusive, tradition versus modernity, Welsh versus English. Most Welsh poets exist in a no man’s land between opposing forces.

This collection has a great deal of support from Welsh writers and further afield. The anthology is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation and translators include the most prominent members of the Welsh literary scene, including Gillian Clarke, Tony Conran, Robert Minhinnick and Peter Finch. Most of the translations are faithful and innovative, but there are a few instances where the translator’s motives eclipse the depth of the poet's content. For example, 'Hon' by T.H. Parry-Williams is translated by Emyr Humphreys as 'This One', ignoring the feminine construction of the Welsh word. The feminine emphasis of Parry Williams’ title is crucial, because it invokes the trope of the femme fatale – his country is a woman with inescapable charms.

The female body is traditionally a great source of anxiety for Welsh male poets. “Dy wallt aur I dwyllo dyn”, writes an anonymous poet of the 15th century. Perhaps this tension explains the absence of women in Welsh-language poetry. Three quarters of the writers in this anthology are male. This is not a fault of the editors, but an unavoidable resonance of Welsh history. The women writers who do appear are outstanding; writers like Gwyneth Lewis, Mererid Hopwood and Elin Llwyd Morgan, who address the problem of writing in a language and literary form dominated by men. Elin Llwyd Morgan’s poem, ‘The Contemporary Jezebel’, interrogates traditional tropes of womanhood. Llwyd Morgan’s response is defiant describing “a switchblade in her beauty” and “the murderer in her eyes”. The excess of imagery mounts to a crescendo in which the woman becomes omnipotent, yet Llwyd Morgan presents the male suppliant with the very thing he cannot face – the woman’s humanity:

[…] for there’s no comfort
in knowing,
in his blackest hour,
that the contemporary Jezebel
owns a conscience.

Llwyd Morgan liberates the stereotypical muse of Welsh male poets by injecting the ‘Jezebel’ with a dose of humanity. The woman is not a detached force plotting the entrapment of men, but a vulnerable human subject equal in her sensations to men.

Modern Welsh-language poets are pioneering and subversive in sculpting the future of poetry with the demand that it should leap beyond its own conventions and culture. This anthology allows the traditional epiphanic, imagistic verse to stand alongside modern poetry that extends itself beyond the limits of its nationality. There is no better example of a modern, global Welsh-language poet than the editor, Menna Elfyn, whose poems are included. Elfyn's project is to reinvent the Welsh language as an active political agent capable of investigating the contemporary world. For example, ‘Broadway Morning’ observes a welcoming bore da from the mouth of an Iraqi.

Wales boasts one of the oldest poetic traditions in the world, but its Welsh-language poetry has been ignored beyond the limits of its language. This anthology is a great achievement. Its diverse collection gives a taste of the riches that remain in Wales and the Welsh language. For too long Wales has shut its doors on the rest of the world. This anthology is successful in its aim to make Welsh-language poetry more accessible to wider audience. As Gwyneth Lewis states, "Only rich cultures are hungry for news of the outside world – paradoxically, voracity is a sign of plenitude."


October 08, 2004

Good Things in Small Packages (as published in New Design magazine)

Writing about web page http://www.newdesignmagazine.co.uk/

Book front cover
Title:
The Macro World of Microcars
Author:
Kate Trant
ISBN:
1904772048
Rating:
Not rated

Zoë Brigley considers the resurgence of the microcar in relation to the new book, The Macro World of Micro Cars

The era of the microcar was fleeting and transitory. Sold as an economic alternative in the 1950s, microcars vanished when the emerging new economy of the 1960s was able to supply the needs of demand more efficiently. However, a confident resurgence in small cars particularly in Europe has resurrected the microcar as a ‘city car’. This is due in part to an EEC directive allowing most European member states to drive microcars in some restricted form without a licence. The UK has chosen not to implement the full content of this law, but it is possible to drive a microcar with a full motorcycle licence.

A powerful symbol of this resurgence is the Smart, which was launched in Germany in 1998 with much success. The Smart embraces many of the earliest microcar characteristics and the car’s marketing emphasises a sense of fun. “Welcome home, fun lovers”, reads its slogan. The car is two and a half metres long with a turning circle of less than nine metres. The three-cylinder engine of 698cc is combined with economical fuel consumption and safety conscious design. The precision design is an integral part of Smart’s branding and marketing as belonging to a design-conscious lifestyle. To personalise their cars, owners can purchase a wide range of accessories from fire extinguishers to sound systems.

In response to the rejuvenation of microcars, Kate Trant and Austin Williams have written The Macro World of Microcars. Trant is a research advisor for the Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment, while Williams is technical editor of The Architect’s Journal, but both have affection for microcars. “I was rumoured to have been conceived in the back of a Baby Austin”, jokes Williams. “I guess that my name was a foregone conclusion and I regularly thank god that we didn’t have a Cortina or a Minx or a Messerschmitt.”

Although the book is light-hearted, there is some serious analysis of the microcar. Trant and Williams avoid the focus of most critiques, which simply consider microcars from the perspective of consumption and specifically in relation to shortages. Rather than concentrating on trends reflected by microcars, Trant and Williams are concerned with what microcars represent and what they communicate about us.

Micro-History

Trant and Williams embark on this journey by studying the microcar’s rise and fall. The authors explain the growth of the microcar industry in the aftermath of World War Two, when economies and industries were in the process of reconstruction and manufacturers had to be aware of the associated restrictions as a result of rebuilding. Trant and Williams rightly highlight that manufacturers had to think big, but start small.

Economical issues were a high priority in post-war Germany. Trant and Williams use the Messerscmitt as a case study of a car that represented an emergent Germany. The company was previously synonymous with the aerospace industry, but it later adapted their experience of the aircraft to provide a cheap, small car with an excellent road handling. The car was based on a design for an invalid carriage by German engineer, Fritz Fend, but emerged as an internationally popular microcar. The first model, the KR175, was a three-wheeler steered by handlebars. The passenger sat behind the driver protected by a domed canopy. The Messerschmitt was marketed as “Fast, reliable, economical: the incomparable Messerschmitt”. It was certainly a curious design, but as Trant and Williams rightly note, the need for efficient transport in post-war Europe overcame drivers’ embarrassment.

The Heinkel 3-wheeler had its debut around the same time as the Messerschmitt KR200. The Heinkel 150 had three wheels and a 174cc engine. Models followed with increased engine size and three or four wheels. The Glas Goggomobil was produced in Germany during the 1950s and 60s, but rather than adopting a unique design, the styling was disguised with modelling designed to give a look similar to bigger models.

Both Heinkel and Glas exploited the UK market. The Glas Goggomobil T300 was exported to the UK as the Regent. Heinkel set up a production plants in Northern Ireland and later London. Larger cars in Britain were out of reach for masses. Some purchased microcars as a way of fulfilling a frustrated ambition – to drive, to have quick and efficient transport. The marketing of such cars focussed on independence and mobility. Glas boasted, “For those who wish to buy a small car with safety as well as economy, and a certain character, a Goggo would make a first-class buy.” Heinkel’s punchy jingle stated, “Travel in style for a penny a mile.”

The Rolling Egg

‘The rolling egg’ has earned substantial discussion in Trant’s and Williams’ study. The Italian Iso Isetta is the quintessential ‘bubble-car’. Engineered by Ermenegildo Preti and backed by Rezo Rivolta’s refrigerator company, the Isetta was first presented to the public at the Turin Motor Show in 1953. The model was four and a half feet wide, seven and a half feet long and had a single door at the front. The rear wheels were only 19 inches apart. The Isetta had a gas mileage of over 50 miles per gallon due to its two-cylinder two-stroke engine. Its top speed was 45mph and it could run to 30mph in 36 seconds.

In 1954, four or five Isettas were entered into the storied Mile Miglia race. Isetta finished first, second and third on the index of performance. Isetta was licensed to BMW the following year and also to Isetta Automobiles of Brazil. Under BMW’s influence, the power plant was redesigned and a one cylinder, four-stroke motorcycle engine was fitted. Much of the car was reengineered. Trant and Williams state that the changes in the car design are illustrated by the difficulties for Isetta collectors today in obtaining parts, since components of Isetta Moto Coupe and Iso Isetta can’t be interchanged.

BMW Isetta produced cars at Brighton and the BMW Isetta’s price in addition to its 250cc engine and capacity for 60mpg at 50mph increased the car’s popularity in the UK. The Suez Canal Crisis had dictated rationing and belts were being tightened. The Isetta was a good economical choice of transport.

One of the most interesting sections of Trant’s and Williams’ account of the microcar is devoted to its marketing and this is particularly interesting in the case of the Isetta. The marketing of the Isetta highlighted the positive characteristics associated with microcars such as motorcycle economy, comfort, safety and the lack of maintenance. However, product placement was also important. For example, the Isetta was photographed with Elvis to emphasise its fun factor. Also in 1958, Cary Grant featured in the BMW Isetta 300’s advertising. The star image of Cary Grant had associations of elegance, sophistication and suavity and these were all qualities that the microcar needed to symbolise if it was to survive.

This kind of marketing was more successful in Europe than the US. “It was a David and Goliath approach to marketing”, explains Trant, “since the microcar was being pitched alongside its larger competitors”. At the end of 1950s, styling became a major driver particularly in the US. The choice of car was no longer associated with practical factors but with how much status it could confer on the owner. The microcar could not deliver this status and eventually the Isetta was phased out.

Micro-Club

In spite of the microcar’s decline, Trant and Williams end the book on a positive note. A number of 21st century microcars have been launched on Europe including the Smart, the Microcar Virgo, the Ligier Ambra 505 and even a new model of the Reliant Robin. The designs focus on minimal environmental impact and Trant and Williams are right to note that ownership of a modern microcar represents a renunciation of the demand for mobility. Microcars are not so much a motorised liberation, but a guilty apology for the environmental damage inherent in an automobile culture. “The original microcars were small cars for people who were thinking big”, writes Williams. “Today the equivalent small car is justified less by aspirational mobility questions but by moral restraint.”

A collection of accounts by microcar owners is another optimistic and enjoyable section of The Macro World of Microcars. A positive collector culture is another symptom of the resurgence of microcars. Many collectors scour the country and beyond for specific models and this niche is also being filled by companies like the UK-based Tri-Tech, which replicates Isettas and Messaschmitts using modern motorcycle or scooter engines. Trant and Williams linger on the stories of microcar owners. “Anecdotes are a way of being close to the truth”, says Trant. “Hearing and telling stories surrounding a design object is valuable. The cars begin to speak for themselves and the support for microcars proves that they are not only an alternative. Instead they can become a greater part of car culture.”

Kate Trant and Austin Williams The Macro World of Micro Cars Black Dog Publishing £19.95 175 pages ~ ISBN: 1 904772 04 8


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