Mechanistic icons

27/04/21 14:29

We react to industrial buildings in different ways. Some people are indifferent, some overlook them, but industry creates its own aesthetic and the mechanistic forms of factories, power plants and steelworks have their own, particular appeal. One powerful response to the machine age was excitement; there is a long tradition of celebrating machines and their capabilities.


Marinetti, for instance, describes a power station in 1914 as follows ~

“Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming power-station, holding back the hydraulic pressures of a whole mountain range, and the electric power for a whole landscape, synthesised in control-panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.”


Hopefully during the last thirteen months of Covid lockdown, stress and fear, some of us have found a release valve in picking up a sketchbook again and taking the chance to draw. Doodling and scribbling can help you to develop a personal language – and long afterwards, flicking through the pages often demonstrates how we return to our signature shapes and forms, time and time again.


In my case, the results are mechanistic, including aerofoils, cranked arrows, hoods and wings.  Many of them stem from creating imaginary industrial landscapes, which I guess are born of years spent trudging around post-industrial cities and rusting wastelands with a camera, peering over walls to see what the furnace or factory looks like up close.


Sometimes the drawings spring from intuitive sketching, at other times inspired by the “readymades” you come across in everyday life.  Above is a sketch by Hugh Chevins who visited de Havilland's factory at Hatfield in the early 1960's to record all the shapes and forms produced by ICI Metals (panels, skins, castings, forgings) which went into the Comet 4 airliner.  Collecting those pre-made forms and applying them to new purposes isn’t a new idea, but Jasper Morrison summed it up well a few years ago in his book “Everything but the Walls” (Lars Müller Publishers, 2006):

“Following the “ready-mades” and the adaptation of basic, recognisable object types to make new objects, I had come to believe that it was not the designer’s job to invent form, just to apply it in the right places at the right time and for good enough reasons.

“I had a catalogue from a company in the East End of London called W. H. Clark Ltd. who supplied equipment for trade vehicles, motorised, horse or human powered, and looking through it one day I found the direction for the door handle in the form of what was described as a coach handle. I followed up this discovery by using the form of a light bulb for the door knob, and a wing nut for the door lock.

“This process of not trying to invent anything while being open to outside influence was similar to the idea of adapting objects for new purposes, but more sophisticated, and somehow the economy of recycling a form seemed more rigorous than trying to invent one.”


Of course, a few years later Morrison also said, “People don’t trust design – they think it’s shit”, during an interview with Icon Magazine in 2009. But that’s a whole different story.


Meantime, have some super-heavy engineering…


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