Design in focus

More comfortable behind her camera than promoting herself, design journalist and photographer Barbara Chandler is persuaded by Aidan Walker that they should have a chat...

You don't get very far in design journalism without coming across Barbara Chandler. She knows more about design and designers in this and most other countries than the rest of us put together. Her conversation is peppered with accounts of how Alberto Alessi said this to her and she said that to Alessandro Mendini, but self-effacing to a fault, she is not boasting, merely telling a story to make a point. She persistently demurred at the idea of this interview and profile, basing her objections on the premise that no one wanted to know about her, only about the work that she writes about - or perhaps, at last, her photography.

Which is how this piece came about, because a book of said photography, Love London, has just been published, and I was able to persuade her that it would be a Good Thing if more people knew more about it. It's selling well, and in an unlikely move, Barbara has used some of the images on a range of photographic furnishings - placemats, tea towels, cushion covers - which when we last talked were up for selection to sell in John Lewis, and were also shortlisted for use in the VIP lounge at Grand Designs Live by exhibition designer Justin Southgate.

Why would I want to write about a writer, you ask? Because Barbara is no ordinary writer, and in many ways I think she sees herself as more of a photographer. I've known her for many years, and have arrived at an enormous respect for her breadth of knowledge, a great fondness for her razor-sharp humour, and a gratified delight in her ability to pinpoint, with language as keen as her wit, the real crux of almost any matter at hand - especially when its initials are BS.

Since the passing of the much-mourned Peta Levi, originator of the New Designers one-stop-shop degree show, there is no one in British design whose acquaintance and understanding goes back as far as Chandler's. Her career more or less matches the growth in this country of 'contemporary taste'; she was working on Ideal Home magazine in the Sixties when it represented the apotheosis of cool, and - typically controversially - doesn't subscribe to the received wisdom that the aforesaid contemporary taste in British furnishing was kickstarted by Sir Terence Conran and his shop in the King's Road.

Biba, Chandler reckons, was much more exciting than Habitat. Well yes, I say, pretending to be too young to have been much aware of Biba's impact at the time, but it was more about fashion than it was about furnishing, and no one can deny that Conran swept the board when it came to the English middle-class deciding on a new sofa. It was revolutionary enough that they were buying a new sofa at all. Their parents had thought that their sofa was good enough, so why do we need a new one? Chandler, meanwhile, claims to have wrong-footed Conran and his bentwood Thonet chairs by collecting enough from skips to have completely furnished her kitchen before the rest of the bourgeoisie even knew what was happening.

It's this prescient eye that makes Chandler a force to be reckoned with. One of the many other reasons why she gets my vote is that she tirelessly trawls the exhibitions and graduate shows for work of quality and value, is up to speed with what's new and what's hot and is completely at home blogging and tweeting about it all. It's a communication method, as far as I'm concerned, of the under-25s, and although I recognise the professional and business value of Twitter I am unconvinced that the world at large wants to know what I had for breakfast or whether I'm about to go to bed. Chandler has quickly understood that it is a powerful tool to spread valid opinions and ideas, and that you can use it for a bit of self promotion as well if you feel so inclined. No trivial pursuits in Chandler's tweets.

Which brings us back to where we started, and how it was that I was finally able to persuade her to sit down long enough for me to turn the digi-recorder on and let it roll. Fortunately Chandler's inbuilt reluctance to self-promote is a little weaker when it comes to Love London, the photography and the accessories range, so we were able to shuffle the conversation round to the collection of images which started it all.

'I've been taking photographs that celebrate London,' she says in the book's introduction, 'for 25 years.

As soon as the light's right - and often when it's not - I've been out with my camera, endlessly wandering and wondering. London has been an unfailing source of imagery, but how best to put it in order, to present it?'

The answer, suited to a T for a professional writer who sees herself more as a photographer, is to punctuate the images with what she calls 'snippets of what has been marvellously said' about London. The city's literary archive, in other words, can boast contributors ranging from Shelley, Johnson and Blake to Peter Ackroyd to Banksy.

We've all seen enough evocative pictures of the Thames Embankment, Hawksmoor churches, black cabs, telephone boxes, bearskin-hatted sentries in St James's and urban blight in Hackney to know that a photographic essay on London needs to have some extra element to make it stand up on its hind legs - and, by juxtaposing pithy phrases from writers great or obscure with her images, Chandler has succeeded in creating a work of distinction. It's not breathtaking, but it is - like London itself to those who know it - familiar and surprising at the same time. Under a picture of summery children eating ice cream on a park bench Groucho Marx is quoted as saying: 'I'm leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it's not raining.' To which, under a shot of fervent umbrella-toting spiritualists singing hymns in the pouring rain, Jonathan Swift can be heard to answer: 'Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down / Threatening with deluge this devoted town'.

The trick is a neat one, made to look deceptively easy by Chandler's painstaking editing of her images and research of her quotations, and for that artifice we should be grateful. Thank the Lord for Chandler and her wandering and wondering; she is a one-off, and British design is all the better for her unique vision. But I won't have a cushion adorned with a telephone box and the graffiti'd slogan 'ring ring'. But I might consider a black and white wallcovering of Hampstead Heath. In the rain. Of course.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.





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