When a professor of architecture finds that his work is ‘so last season’, is something seriously gone awry? Jamie Mitchell talks to Richard Weston, whose scan explorations into rocks, fossils and stones have found their way on to fashion items and accessories...
When Richard Weston bought a computer scanner and began using it to capture images of minerals, fossils and stones, the professor of architecture at Cardiff University never expected to see scarves printed with the resulting patterns sell for more than £100 a piece at London department store Liberty - let alone to have his own picture splashed across the fashion pages of several national newspapers. But that's just what happened.
'When I started scanning the images I thought they might be good as pictures to hang on the wall, or something,' muses the 60-year-old, who has published several books on modern architecture, 'but I never expected all this.'
As well as scarves you can now buy iPad and iPhone covers printed with the many images and patterns Weston has captured with his high-powered scanner, and he and his business partner, who trade under the name of Weston Earth Images, have plans to expand into the worlds of architecture and interior design, with ranges of ceramic tiles and carpet tiles in the pipeline.
The moment Weston began to think of his labour of love as a potentially successful ancillary career came when he was listening to Radio 4's Today programme one morning and heard Ed Burstell, the American-born managing director of Liberty, talking about reviving the American tradition of an 'open day' where customers can come and present their own homemade products to department-store buyers. It was to be televised for a new TV show, Britain's Next Big Thing. Weston turned up to one of the open days feeling confident that his creations would wow Burstell - and they did.
Since then he has become the unlikely focus of fashion editorials, including one in Vogue that described him as 'perhaps fashion's most unexpected new design star'.
'It's been interesting,' says Weston, when I ask him about the media attention. But the academic is naturally wary of the fickle and capricious world of fashion. 'I do have my worries about fashion,' he says. 'I understand its logic and its commercialism and of course I know how it works. But I do find it slightly dispiriting that some of my most beautiful images are now "last season", and that's it as far as the fashion world's concerned.'
Fashion may have given instant life to the images, but as a trained architect Weston is keen to see them applied, with greater longevity, to the design of furniture and buildings. The designs, which after all come from nature, fit perfectly with the current trend of designing buildings that look more organic, and with the emergence of digital technology that could change the look of a building at the touch of a button it's likely that buildings will soon look however we want them to look, rather than simply looking like the materials they are made of. All of this, Weston thinks, could bring greater opportunities.
Born in Leicester in 1953, Weston went to Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys (Richard Attenborough's old school). The building wasn't very inspiring in itself, but it was near Leicester University's Stirling- Gowan's Engineering Building and this, Weston thinks, may have given him his first taste for architecture.
'I did have a very early and uninformed encounter with that major piece of architecture and I did see endless coaches of Japanese and other tourists coming to look at,' he remembers. 'But I think I can honestly say what really did lead me to architecture was, from the age of about five to 14, playing with Meccano and making model aeroplanes.'
Later, when a friend showed Weston a prospectus for the architecture degree at Manchester University, he thought, 'Oh great - you can do a degree in model making.' He duly applied and was accepted.
Nature quickly became a preoccupation. 'On the first-year course, my very first project was to analyse a leaf, and my lecturer's whole approach was a kind of abstract way of looking at form in general terms.' Around this time Weston became 'transfixed' by the ideas of American architect Louis Kahn, whom he heard speak in Manchester shortly before Kahn died in 1974.
After Manchester, Weston went on to study landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before returning to England where he practiced as an architect for three years, eventually moving into academia and developing a passion for writing. Since then he has published several books, including a monograph on the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and a study of the modernist movement, entitled Modernism.
While Weston has no plans to give up his day job, he is hopeful that he can grow Weston Earth Images into a fairly successful business. 'We're gradually growing, and we're planning on exhibiting some of our new work at Clerkenwell Design Week this month and 100% Design in September,' he says.
'We've booked our slot and they're letting us bring in a shipping container as our stand, which is going to be a sort of "container of curiosity" all about my house, which I designed, my studio and all the related interior products that we're working on. We'll also show, not just things for the house but wallpapers and tiles and all sorts of finishes, and hopefully convey a vision of how this lot might come together in a 3D environment, rather than simply isolated pieces of fabric.'
Whatever happens, it's clear that Weston is having lots of fun exploring the possibilities of his idea. But the story is also a fascinating example of a modern phenomenon in which the availability of technology is allowing amateurs to produce goods and services that would previously have been beyond their capabilities.
Says Weston: 'I used to say that because I indulged in buying a top-end Epson printer, which was the best colour printer in the world at that time, I could produce images of the same quality as anybody - in my garage. When, in human history, has that been possible?'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.