This week I learned of the death of designer and educator Peter Rea (1938–2014), whose funeral will be held this Tuesday in Ashford, Kent.
My first encounter with Peter’s work was in the form of the ADAR (Art and Design Admissions Registry) catalogue of 1991:
Peter’s designs from this period made explicit use of stepped elements, rules and letter spacing, most commonly associated with the work of Weingart, whom Peter admired.
A student on my BTEC National Diploma brought into class the Ravensbourne prospectus Peter had designed, and I remember how distinctive his design was, I can’t recall why I didn’t apply to Ravensbourne at that point in time, however this publication made a lasting impact on me.
Peter was head of the graphic design school from 1988–1991. During this period Peter brought in some influential speakers as told on page 34 of the prospectus:
The caption to Peter’s image reads: ‘Visiting specialist in applied design studies, Peter Rea introducing an exhibition of the work of April Greiman. Recent visitors brought into the school as part of Peter Rea’s input have included Wolfgang Weingart, from Basel, Switzerland, and Erik Spiekermann, MetaDesign, Berlin, West Germany’.
When I visited Ravensbourne in April 1993, I was given a tour of the college. I remember seeing Peter teaching in the third year studio assisted by Andy Lawrence. Peter was animated and appeared intense and enthusiastic. When I began my degree at Ravensbourne in September 1993, unfortunately Peter had left so I never had the opportunity to be taught by him.
Peter wrote the Introduction to the 1993 Visual Communication Degree Show catalogue and an essay titled ‘Time for hard facts. It’s cold out there, in here it’s warm’. This is the essay in full:
‘Our education world is virtually a fantasy and someone else pays the bills. We don’t parody reality through our teaching but try to give our students an approach to design which will carry them through or above the daily dilemmas or drudgery. Design may be a job but it can also be a way of life. We don’t deny that designing is hard work, with moral and ethical issues to face. But ‘the artist is the editor of their own portfolio’ and must be prepared to face such decisions in addition to those of ‘form and function’ ‘Study’ is not for today or even tomorrow, study is a source of life in the future, designer or not, come good or hard times.
It is a difficult concept to grasp that today’s study is education for the future, when the enthusiastic designer naturally has one eye, or both, on the employment market. It is often easier to emulate the average visual standards which we see all around us in the high street, on the breakfast table, in the magazines and it is more difficult to grasp longer term principles such as: good communication means ‘think with the head of the audience’ or ‘we are what we design’ , or ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’; maxims which can help you through life whatever you do. Tell this to today’s students and they understand, don’t tell them and they are betrayed later when their inner resources run dry. Students are the new visionaries, the pioneers and the avant-garde who struggle to use the computer as a creative instrument to make design.
How many times have our students quietly blasphemed as the computer crashes or the wrong key is struck, the time-code slips, the processor doesn’t process or the rub-downs don’t rub down …and of course ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!’ Hard fact: nothing is perfect, only virtually so.
What state is ‘virtually so’ a virtual reality? ‘Virtual’ technology visualises what we cannot perceive until it is made a reality. Is the student designer just a rough for the real thing–in all their shapes, sizes and colours they are embryonic designers seeking their next step into the real world.
A long journey and a long one if you let the good book of knowledge drop from your hand. It can be a testing process, taking the final responsibility onto oneself. These students have sound foundations, they have planted their roots deeply and are ready for growth. Time to work out a strategy for survival, to develop a greater conscience: design for need and design for the public sector–design that is needed as a move towards balancing our work for commerce and industry. Where is the school of thought?
Exciting times. Perhaps we are moving to an electronically supported neo-medieval do-it-yourself serfdom. Equipped with global communications systems, fax machines, Macs and personal computers, television. We are becoming the neo-medieval electronic scribes of a changing world. We may become the designer, compositor, reader, pressman working from our own individual strips of land. Exciting realities.’
Peter wrote an essay ‘Where is the School of Thought?’ published in Octavo 87.3 (1987). It is likely this essay was an abridged version of that which appeared previously. Re-reading Peter’s words, twenty one years on, allows us to reflect on our developing and symbiotic relationship with technology. The premise that students are warm while institutionalised, and face the cold hand of reality upon graduation still resonates, although student fees and the high cost of living, mean that today’s students are subjected to the cold well in advance of graduation.
I last saw Peter at the DIY Design symposium at St. Brides in 2010, he accompanied Weingart who stated, according to Farrelly: ‘“…students need to know the rules, otherwise it is all egotism”. He advocated providing access to letterpresses and trained technicians, teaching the basics, and then letting students loose to play’. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m certain Peter would have agreed.