LDFW4: “Compromise With Integrity” – Simon Thorpe of Leeds College of Art
BY Daniel Chapman
Simon Thorpe is a director on the senior management team at Leeds College of Art and describes his own education as “traditional art school training,” although the headline differences of Simon’s social and educational experiences at the Royal College of Art in the late seventies hide similarities to the arts education of today.
At a party in an 18th Century house said to have belonged to Sir Christopher Wren, Simon shared the dancefloor with ballet’s international star Rudolf Nureyev. College talks from larger than living London icon Quentin Crisp transferred to London pubs and eventually, years later, the bar of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Simon’s dissertation was written on the work of illustrator Ralph Steadman, with assistance from Ralph Steadman. He also got involved in supporting a Zandra Rhodes fashion show.
Perhaps the most significant difference was the fact that within two days of leaving the RCA in 1977, Simon had six job offers. He was trained as a textile designer, specialising in woven fabrics, and an offer from David Hicks Ltd took Simon away from the art school to the leading edge of the new design agencies that were ascendent at the time, in the company of one of its most gifted and renowned stars.
“It was a strange world, the David Hicks world,” said Simon. “He was an extraordinary man.” In 1960 Hicks had married Lady Pamela Mountbatten, the younger daughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten, First Earl Mountbatten of Burma, last Viceroy of India and great-grandson of Queen Victoria. The New York Times reported that their wedding was the first time that 11 year old Prince Charles appeared in long trousers; Princess Anne was bridesmaid. His signature style combined clashing colours, geometric patterns and bold antiques and paintings, and was the definition of high class decorating chic in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It was like working for aristocracy,” said Simon. “I used to visit his house in Shropshire, his house being a forty bedroom mansion with a butler; I was only 23, and coming straight into his track record of working for celebrities and royalty, those society circles were very unfamiliar to me.”
Simon was running the Hicks design studio at a time when the David Hicks name in the Far East was being used to market clothes and accessories alongside Christian Dior, Dunhill and Burberry, while the core interior design business produced suites and restaurants for luxury hotels in fast-growing Tokyo.
“We designed two themed restaurants for the top floor of a skyscraper in Shinjuku, Tokyo. We used to design in London, send it out to Japan and then go out to see the progress and talk to the builders and architects.” The builders of the restaurant delighted in showing David and Simon the bespoke rawl plugs they’d designed to ensure the sheets of mirrored glass they had designed for the walls were earthquake proof; which were tested that evening as they ate underneath enormous chandeliers of their own design, that swayed back and forth during a tremor.
“Those three years took me all over. It was a brilliant time, living in the fast pace of London and doing all that jet setting, and it gave me a good grounding in all aspects of design. But out of the blue I got an opportunity to leave David Hicks, and went from all that to the wilds of County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland – to a traditional woollen mill, owned and run by nuns. As textiles was my passion I jumped at the chance.”
The mill at Foxford had been established by Sister of Charity Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard in 1892, and at the time of Simon’s arrival it provided employment for 100 of the village’s 1,000 people. “It was a fantastic place in a way,” said Simon. “After the potato famine in Ireland a lot of the social regeneration work was done by the religious orders, because there was no social state. They did very good work – albeit on their own terms – setting up schools, hospitals, and weaving mills for orphans to learn to hand-weave.”
By the 1980s when Simon joined, the mill was mechanised and producing cloth for the worldwide market, although at 12 o’clock every day the looms would be turned off and everyone would gather for prayers. Then it was back to business.
“Raw fleece would come in at one end of the factory, and out would come this cloth at the other, and we used to do fabrics for fashion houses in Paris, Milan, New York – they would all buy our Irish tweed. It was an interesting time.
“When I went to college I thought I was going to do graphic design, but I really enjoyed silkscreen printing and thought I would try textiles. I got hooked on weaving – I liked the formality and the structure of the set parameters, like the size of the loom and the width of the fabric. In the early days of weaving it was a bit like being able to draw with yarn in straight lines, and I liked being able to play with straight lines of different colours, with different textures and different types of yarn – weaving really became a passion.
“I got to love natural fibres, wool and silk and linen and cotton. For a while I never wore anything unless it was natural.”
At Foxford Simon was able to cultivate the raw, rural side of life, while keeping a connection to the industry he had learned with David Hicks.
“I lived in a house next to the mill gates, and after work I would fly fish for trout in the River Moy, cook the trout for supper, and then next day I would be flying off to New York for two weeks.
“My phone number at the time was Foxford 4. I used to give my card to agents in America and they’d ask what the rest of the number was; when I told them that was it, they’d have to ask how to dial it. A bell would sound outside my office and I had to go to this cubicle and pick up one of those old fashioned bakelite handsets to hear the switchboard in the local village exchange. ‘We have a call for you from New York, it’s a Mr Carrillo. Will you take the call?’ If I wanted to make an international call myself I had to book in advance. At the time Irish companies were at the cutting edge of telecoms, installing systems all over the world, but it hadn’t reached Foxford.”
That one phone line was vital to maintain the connection between Foxford and the fashion industry, and the principle of making and maintaining connections hasn’t changed throughout Simon’s career.
“Understanding how to communicate effectively can be the difference between getting work and not getting work,” said Simon. “It’s a bit of a myth that only the most talented individuals become the most successful; of course creative talent is important, and it helps, but often success comes to those who are able to communicate and work well with other people.
“I think we develop that pretty well in the students at Leeds College of Art, by getting them working together on projects outside the college and across disciplines, so they’re prepared for life after college. I always tell students never to underestimate how important their communication, networking, teamworking and negotiation skills are.”
Online developments make it much easier to create networks today, but Simon is unconvinced that technology can sustain relationships any more effectively than in the days when he was reliant on one phone line and a business card.
“The digital world is perhaps even more challenging,” he said. “There’s nothing like sitting down with somebody face-to-face to build relationships, and that’s no different for young creators going to the outside world than it was in my day. It’s harder online to determine the integrity of individuals, and if you don’t have integrity, and as a result mutual respect, then nothing much can happen.
“You still have to physically talk to people, to meet them and be part of a community. Knowing the right people, at the right time and in the right place is as vital as it ever was, and I think the jury is out about whether you can sustain that online.”
Collaborative working and broad design knowledge were integral to Simon’s career after leaving Foxford, when he spent a decade working for Bute Fabrics designing bespoke fabrics alongside international architects and furniture designers.
“I could see the pitfalls of staying too long at Foxford, and wanted to work for a company that was really making waves in the design world. Bute was just that. We designed the upholstery for the Queen’s Flight, and my claim to fame from a design point of view might be that some of the most famous bottoms in the world have sat on my fabrics in airports, offices, conference centres and hotels.
“It’s interesting though that nobody would say, that fabric was designed by Bute Fabrics, or that Simon Thorpe was involved in it. When you work in design within the manufacturing industry you always have to be subservient in your design to the overall look, and never try to shout or take over from what an architect or a fashion designer is trying to achieve.”
When working on a major project, like Norman Foster’s ground-breaking terminal building at Stansted Airport, design work becomes less dependent on creative inspiration, and more about utilising broad knowledge to offer the best design advice for the project.
“I had to advise on the best functional fabric for the situation, so I had to see the furniture they were thinking of using, to know about the interior of that seating, and density and quality of the foam, how the fabric would be stitched; I had to have knowledge of the manufacturing techniques of all the other products that go into the overall look. And that’s where the best relationships happen, because if you’ve done a job that has worked well, and has integrity, and you’ve helped someone make the right decision, they will come back to you, and that’s where that longevity and sustainability of relationships happens.
“It’s about knowing when to compromise with integrity, and it’s difficult, especially for anybody who is freelance. When you’re chasing work it can be quite hard to say ‘no’ to somebody, but I think that’s a skill that designers in particular have to learn the hard way. You have to be able to say no as well as yes, to maintain integrity. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, provided that compromise provides the answer to your client’s needs, and does not compromise your integrity.”
Simon moved to Skipton to take the job with Bute Fabrics, for its connections to motorways to reach the Isle of Bute itself, and to airports to reach the rest of the world. After twelve years with the company and influenced by the Marquess of Bute’s own art and design patronage, he moved into education in the nineties, “almost by chance. I did a little bit of lecturing and then just got sucked into it.”
At Leeds College of Art, Simon is able to help cultivate and reinforce the importance of collaborations, connections and integrity that students require in the world after college.
“As a specialist institution we’re relatively small, and as everything we do is to prepare students for life in the creative industries, that creates its own distinct culture. Within that are individual cultures within each discipline, so the culture in fashion design is quite different to fine art or photography, but there is commonality across those cultures to bring them all together. The beauty here is that the studios and workshops are all next to each other rather than being spread across a huge campus, and the students all see each other in the cafes, so there is a strong community that supports individuality within those networks that are so important. The Whatuni student choice awards have just announced that the College has been voted by students as the best uni in the UK for the facilities we offer. That’s some accolade.
“We’re also really fortunate to have passionate and dedicated people everywhere among the teaching and support staff and the senior management; it’s a fun and dynamic place to work, and with the colleagues of the same mindset that passes by osmosis to the students. And their optimism and positivity feeds back to us.”
The job offers don’t come so quickly today as they did when Simon left the RCA, but the education Simon and his colleagues offer at Leeds College of Art gives today’s students the tools they need to make and then take their own chances.
“There are some really talented students coming through who get great jobs, and while it might not be as straightforward to tap into opportunities as it was when I left the RCA, what we give to students is creative and transferable training that helps them adapt, and we drill into them the importance of the two Ps: passion and perseverance.
“What I tell our students is that if they get a rejection, if they get turned down for an interview or for a job, then they should go out and celebrate. They look at me strangely when I say that, but statistics say that if you persevere and keep going through all the knock-backs, eventually one of your attempts will land. If you get a rejection you should go out and celebrate – because you’ve just moved nearer to achieving your goal.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 13