How flabby our ideas of draughtsmanship have become

The term drawing is a broad umbrella, so in an exhibition of 120 works it helps to outline some distinctions. A good place to start is to ask what drawings are for, and that is what Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has done with its current show of sketches by Flemish masters – staged in collaboration with Antwerp’s Museum Plantin-Moretus – dividing them into studies, designs and stand-alone finished works. Van Dyck’s teenage studies are a measure of how flabby our ideas of draughtsmanship have become If you’ve ever had the chance to visit it, you’ll know what a special place the Plantin-Moretus is. Still occupying the original premises in which it

What Japanese cities can teach us about architecture

There are three things that occur to you when you travel the length of Japan: that kimonos are surprisingly good for any occasion; that the country’s reputation for cruelty may partly derive from breakfasts comprising tea porridge and prawn soufflé; and that the hordes of camera-wielding Japanese tourists taking thousands of snaps – a comic trope in the 1980s, at least – were really just ahead of their time and the rest of us are only now catching up thanks to our iPhones. First impressions of Tokyo might persuade you that you’ve accidentally fallen into a dystopian future: the march of skyscrapers and mesh of streets sprawls greyly on for the best part of

In defence of the 15-minute city

At the end of last year, the subject of the ‘15-minute city’ began to creep into neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, interrupting the usual discussion of lost cats, car crime and blocked drains. Oxfordshire County Council had proposed a traffic-zoning scheme to reduce car usage in the city – and suggested that to address unnecessary journeys, every resident should have ‘all the essentials (shops, healthcare, parks) within a 15-minute walk of their home’. But critics up and down the country hit on the proposals as an example of the ‘international conspiracy’ and ‘tyranny’ of the 15-minute city – which, they warned, is probably coming to a neighbourhood near you soon.  Although the

Hot property: 10 buildings to look forward to in 2023

Every year produces a number of ‘firsts’ and ‘mosts’ in architecture – and 2022 was no different. Most obviously, at least for residents of New York, the world’s skinniest skyscraper, with sixty storeys of single apartments stacked to a height of 435 metres, was completed on ‘billionaire’s row’ in Manhattan, perhaps becoming the ultimate example of ‘form following finance’ in the construction annals. But while that was dispiriting for so many reasons, there was much to celebrate too – not least the pleasing restorations of Marcel Breuer’s Armstrong Rubber Company headquarters in Connecticut, which has become a hotel, and the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin, an old department store that has become

The art of menus

There is, of course, no endeavour, no craft, no profession, no trade that neglects to ‘reflect society’. This is a commonplace. The collective narcissism of considerate builders, for instance, claims that hod carriers and brickwork reflect society. The contention of Menu Design in Europe is kindred. Graphic artists, restaurateurs, decorators and chefs have, through two centuries, expanded their capabilities according to the milieux in which they have practised. Menus are, then, not merely functional lists, they are self-advertisements, exhibitions, seductions and, occasionally, desirable objects that are apparently collectible. Indeed this book has the unmistakable feel of an obsessive’s scrapbook, a completist’s trophy. The completist in question is Taschen’s California editor

The enduring appeal of Arnos Grove station

It’s not in Whitehall nor Westminster; not on the central London tourist trail. Instead it’s ten miles away, on the wrong side of the North Circular, an obscurity in the suburbs, rarely visited for its own sake. But Arnos Grove Tube station is one of the masterpieces of 20th century British architecture – and this week it celebrates its 90th anniversary. Until September 1932, the northern branch of the Piccadilly line ended at Finsbury Park. Then five new stations were built: Manor House, Turnpike Lane, Wood Green, Bounds Green and, finally, Arnos Grove, all commissioned by Frank Pick and designed by Charles Holden. Suddenly it was only 20 minutes to

The art of the Christmas card

It’s the thin end of the wedge, the slippery slope, the beginning of the end of a civilised Christmas. It is the first week of December and I still haven’t started my cards. My friend Charlotte was at it in October. She signed up for a lino-cutting class, cut holly boughs and robin redbreasts and printed her own cards. She sent me photos of the fruits (berries?) of her labours and very merry they were, too. Usually, I am a Charlotte. By November, I have made cards, addressed envelopes, applied thumbs to 80 stamps. But after an illness in the autumn, I’m feeling as uncreative as a turkey. Could I

Absurd and amusing, solemn and scholarly: Charles Jencks’s Cosmic House reviewed

An editor once told me: always look at the loos. It was remarkable, she said, how many grand cultural projets, having spent a fortune on the atrium, the concert hall, the galleries, spent pennies on the bogs. The smallest rooms at Charles Jencks’s Cosmic House are among the loveliest loos in London with windows on to the garden and a ‘Jencksiana’ mirror over the sink. This was the Baltimore-born writer, critic and landscape designer’s take on the ‘Serliana’ window devised by the mannerist architect Sebastiano Serlio and it recurs throughout this mad and marvellous post-modern house. Jencks died in 2019 leaving his house on Lansdowne Walk in Holland Park as

Meet the woman who designed Britain’s revolutionary road signs

‘Design. Humanity’s best friend,’ proclaims a row of posters outside the Design Museum. ‘It’s the alarm that woke you up… The card you tapped on the bus… And the words you’re reading right now. So embedded in our lives we almost forget it’s there.’ It is one of the ironies of good design that the better it is, the less we notice it. This is especially true when we really need it: when lost in an airport five minutes before the gate closes or battling helplessly down the wrong road. In these instances, the woman we invariably have to thank for helping us to find our bearings is currently the

The rise of blocked-off design

Plexiglass bubbles hover over diners’ heads in restaurants. Plastic pods, spaced six feet apart, separate weightlifters in gyms. Partitions of all kinds are creeping up in workplaces. As offices, restaurants, bars and businesses reopened after months of lockdowns and closures, a new phenomenon emerged, one that I’ve come to think of as ‘blocked-off design’. It’s design and layout that aims to construct and enforce distancing in a somewhat makeshift way. It’s characterised by partitions, sheer walls, six-foot markers. As a visual language, it’s defined by barriers and blockage — physical reminders that spaces where we once went to mingle with others are now fraught, and that even in public, isolation

The art of street furniture

It was possible to stand in the middle of the road during the lockdown without being run over. In Willow Place, near Victoria Station, I crouched over a narrow grating of stout grey iron, and caught a glimpse of light reflected from moving water deep below, as though at the bottom of a well. This was the River Tyburn, on its way from Hampstead via Buckingham Palace to the Thames. During the endlessly sunny lockdown days, I wandered the streets near my office in Victoria. The bright unpeopled silence (like a landscape by de Chirico) brought to my attention details unnoticed before. With all the galleries closed, this was street

The weird and wonderful world of hotel carpets

Consider the carpet. In all likelihood, you usually don’t. It’s simply something beneath your feet, soft or scratchy, bright or beige, thick or thin. But in a new book, Bill Young asks you to pause and really look at a particular genre of floor-padding: the carpets in the hotels around the world. In Hotel Carpets, the long-neglected designs pop from the pages. Young, a corporate pilot, would often send pictures of hotel carpets to his wife and daughter while he was travelling. ‘Because I spend most of my life in hotels, that’s just one thing that was sticking out,’ Young says, in a video interview from his home in Dallas,

Meet Congo, the Leonardo of chimps, whose paintings sell for £14,500

Three million years ago one of our ancestors, Australopithecus africanus, picked up a pebble and took it home to its cave, most likely because the pattern of lines and holes on its surface looked beguilingly like a face. Perhaps this was the birth of art. Or perhaps not. Maybe art arrived in this world later. One day in 1940 Marcel Ravidat was walking in the Dordogne when his dog, Robot, fell into a hole. Robot had stumbled across the entrance to a network of caves containing more than 600 wall and ceiling paintings of horses, deer, aurochs, ibex, bison and cats dating from 17,000 to 15,000 BCE. The discovery of

A museum-quality car-boot sale: V&A’s Cars reviewed

We were looking at a 1956 Fiat Multipla, a charming ergonomic marvel that predicted today’s popular MPVs. Rather grandly, I said to my guide: ‘I think you’ll find the source of the Multipla in an unrealised 1930s design of Mario Revelli di Beaumont.’ He looked a bit blank. This exhibition is a rare attempt to explain the car, perhaps the most dramatic since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 New York show where Philip Johnson coined the term ‘rolling sculpture’. It is both occasionally brilliant and continuously exasperating. Rather as if in a crowded restaurant you are overhearing snatches of fascinating conversation coming from different tables. The context is significant.

From cartoons to stage design: the genius of Osbert Lancaster

‘Bigger,’ said Sir Osbert Lancaster when asked the difference between his work for the page and for the stage. ‘Definitely bigger.’ For almost 40 years Lancaster was the ‘pocket cartoonist’ for the Daily Express. He had remarked to the features editor that no English newspaper had anything to match the little column-width cartoons of the French papers. ‘Go on,’ said the editor, ‘give us some.’ On 1 January 1939, Lancaster gave them the first of around 10,000 line-drawn cartoons. His subjects were the war, the Blitz, the weather, Stalin, Hitler and Dr Spock, the Swinging Sixties, the Common Market, the test tube baby and the topless swimsuit. His heroine, his

When Cartier was the girls’ best friend

The word ‘jewel’ makes the heart beat a little faster. Great jewels have always epitomised beauty, love — illicit or sanctified —romance, danger and mystery. And no one knew better how to cash in on this mystique than the firm of Cartier, for years the go-to jewellers for discreet, elegant razzle-dazzle. Its customers were kings, princes, maharajas and the whole of ‘society’. The iconic panther brooch it created for the Duchess of Windsor sold for $7 million (in 2010). When Francesca Cartier Brickell, searching for a special bottle of champagne in her Cartier grandfather’s cellar, spotted a battered leather trunk in one corner, she opened it to find bundles of

How Nova revolutionised women’s magazines

Batsford has just brought out a huge tome on Nova — ‘one of the most influential magazines in history’ — compiled by two of the magazine’s star art directors, David Hillman and Harri Peccinotti. It covers the ten years that the magazine existed, 1965 to 1975, and focuses on the brilliant and groundbreaking layouts it introduced. But somehow it is not quite the Nova that I loved when I went to work there as assistant editor in 1967. For me, Nova was its editor, Dennis Hackett, who had been brought in to save the failing magazine soon after its launch. I don’t know what genius first thought of putting a

Vegas dreamtime

It’s to be expected. You take photographs in order to document things — Paris in the case of Eugène Atget in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shacks of the American south in the case of Walker Evans in the 1930s — and these documents then acquire a quality of elegy. What is extraordinary is the speed with which this happens, the brevity of the ‘then’. As soon as the images emerge in the developing tray — even, conceivably, the moment the shutter is clicked — they are imbued with how they will be seen in the future. The photographs in Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas were commissioned

Our flexible friend

Plastics — even venerable, historically eloquent plastics — hardly draw the eye. As this show’s insightful accompanying publication (a snip at £3) would have it, ‘Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves.’ They exist within inverted commas. They can be shell-like, horn-like, stony, metallic — they do not really exist on their own behalf. Mind you, the first vitrine in Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery in east London contains an object of rare beauty: a small, mottled, crazed, discoloured sphere that looks for all the world like the planet Venus, reduced to handy scale. It’s a billiard

Freudian dramas

I must have seen hundreds of opera productions in my time. Out of these, hardly any made a lasting impression on account of their design: the great Tarkovsky Boris Godunov for Covent Garden; Hockney’s Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne; Es Devlin’s Les Troyens; the Richard Peduzzi Bayreuth Ring preserved on film. Very few others. For many opera-goers, an interventionist or bold visual approach to an opera is automatically a bad thing, and (I guess) a lot of the musicians involved are visually somewhat conservative. The ludicrous 1980s Met Ring cycle, designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen to follow every one of Wagner’s demands, was driven by musicians. It’s fair to guess, too, that