Risks worth taking: FX Talks 2019

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, so the adage goes. Taking the simple route is always tempting but seldom rewarding, which is why those brave enough to think independently can be such valuable sources of inspiration. FX Talks returned for its second year with another engaging line-up of inspiring radical thinkers to share their individual perspectives on thinking differently

Words by Toby Maxwell

Very few things fail to excite people more than a traditional business conference, which is why FX Talks was established to take an altogether different approach to industry discourse. Following the success of last year’s launch event, it followed the same format this year and featured another set of provocative speakers, each with wildly different areas of experience and expertise who have challenged conventional thinking.

Their careers demonstrate that radical thinking can be found in all manner of industries, demographics and lifestyles, and that there is much to learn from hearing the thoughts and perspectives of others to act as a catalyst for exploring further fresh directions.

The discussions were the fuel to another key aspect of the event – the networking sessions. It was great to see such a turnout of some 250 guests from our industry, including architects, designers, clients and developers.

The atmosphere in the interval and afterwards had a powerful electric buzz, with plenty of opinions on the speakers’ diverse topics. But who couldn’t be excited and motivated with people who think differently?

The FX Talks concept is the brainchild of FX editor Theresa Dowling. She said: ‘The default in most companies, even in our creative sector, is to do nothing; repeat the familiar and follow a procedure. Understandably, it can be dangerous for anyone to stand apart from others by thinking differently, which is why it takes such courage to have a separate vision. It is this vision that has galvanised pioneers over the ages to transcend the ordinary and the humdrum into something memorable and magical.’

Alan Kitching

A practitioner of letterpress typographic design and printmaking, Alan Kitching is known worldwide for his expressive use of wood and metal letterforms in commissions and limited-edition posters and prints. He used the FX Talks to explain how taking a different approach, by thinking differently, has enabled him to be at the cutting edge of graphic design through a long-established manual process in the age of computers

‘I was working in professional publishing on books and magazines throughout the Sixties and Seventies but when the modern computer was widely introduced to the full publishing process in the late Eighties I decided to take a change in direction. I decided that in order to go forwards as a designer, I had to go back.’ Kitching found an altogether new use for the old technology – utilising these established techniques to create a new kind of image.

Presenting a number of examples from his varied back-catalogue of works and commissions, he explained how some of the prints involved a painstaking process based on typesetting skills that are largely lost today.

‘Letterpress is no longer relevant today. That’s a fact,’ he admitted, pointing out that it is a print production method reserved pretty much solely for wedding invitations.

However, he has used the traditional process to evolve it into an art form that aligns his technical know-how with inspiration from a range of sources, taking cues from artists in the use of colour in what has traditionally been a predominantly black and white print technique.

‘Adding the colour and texture means it’s more akin to fine-art painting than graphic design in some respects, although I am most certainly still a graphic designer,’ he said. Last year saw the release of Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress, a monograph by John L Walters, which presents the work of the typographer, designer and letterpress practitioner from the past 50 years, drawing on examples from his vast collection of past work stored at his workshop in south London.

In December his A-Z of London, a handprinted letterpress alphabet alluding to city landmarks, will be available as a boxed, limited edition of 25.

Madeleine Bunting

Author, journalist and broadcaster Madeleine Bunting opened proceedings with a call for attention, and underlining the discipline of distraction. And saying that the route to creativity is smashing through the boredom barrier. Odd though this seems, it reveals how our daily lives are increasingly dominated by technology requiring distraction, not attention

‘Attention is now becoming a major concern as we struggle to understand the implications of a digital culture that in a little more than a decade has infiltrated every second of our waking hours. Each glance of our eyes is now a target for commercial gain as businesses look to capture – and keep – our attention.

‘Recently I noticed a woman walking down the centre of the pavement, her eyes glued to her phone, and she went rather beyond a moment of distraction. She had abandoned the unspoken contract that avoiding a collision is a mutual obligation,’ she said.

For many, the slow creep of technology has become all-encompassing, with daily lives dominated by mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets in an ongoing battle for our attention, but at what cost? Bunting said: ‘One of the founding fathers of psychology, William James, who was one of the first to attempt to define attention, said “Paying attention to one thing requires us to withdraw attention from others. It’s a limited resource and has to be allocated”.’

Bunting explained how just as important as our ability to pay something attention is how we learn to ignore other things – selective attention – to ensure that our focus is on the things we want to prioritise. One of the impacts of digital technology constantly striving to grab our attention could be significant in the long term. ‘What if our power to allocate attention is weakened, leading to a new “attentional underclass”. In the working environment, we have become accustomed to the noises and distractions in our offices, such as telephones and chatter. What has become much harder to block out is email.’

Technology has given us new tools to reach and keep people’s attention, but it has also meant that there are no longer any gaps or spare moments in the day, as these have all been harvested by social media and advertising. This may simply be modern progress but, she said, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of our most creative thinking can occur during moments of relaxation. ‘It may be that we actually need what we most fear – boredom.

‘Anxiety about the exponential rise of our gadget addiction and how it is fragmenting our attention is sometimes dismissed as a Luddite reaction to a technological revolution, but I think that’s missing the point. The problem is not the technology per se, but how the commercial imperatives that have gone with it and which are colonising our attention, are fundamentally changing our perception of time and space, saturating both.

‘Distraction of an audience as part of a commercial or political strategy amounts to a form of emotional violence that renders people unable to gather their thoughts and encourages a sense of inadequacy. It’s a powerful form of oppression, dressed up under the disguise of free choice.’

Piers Taylor

Architect, broadcaster and academic Piers Taylor’s work is characterised by his efforts to push the boundaries in terms of cost, technique and process. And he is refreshingly critical of architecture and design education

Starting with the example of Peter Salter’s Walmer Yard project in Notting Hill, London – a development of four labyrinthine townhouse properties that challenge the norms with features such as doorways disguised as mirrors, moving walls and yurt-shaped rooms – Taylor asked the FX Talks audience to consider the factors that drive architecture today. ‘We can never escape the conservative values that judge something in terms of its form and in terms of its taste. In a way, architecture is a world conceived of by architects for other architects,’ he said.

Deciding that he wanted to challenge himself and in his project Room 13 – a building housing a purpose-built art studio for a charity where resident artists work alongside excluded children – Taylor eschewed the usual concerns over materials and finishes. Instead, the most readily available materials were used to build it, and its interior was left unfinished, allowing the residue of the art techniques that were to take place there to create its own patina over time.

In creating a new office and work space for his own architecture practice Invisible Studio, Taylor enlisted the help of neighbours and friends and used untreated and unseasoned timber grown in the woodland surrounding the space and constructed in a way to demonstrate the possibilities of low-grade, home-grown timber and amateur labour. In a project that cost just £15,000 including materials and labour, none of the team working on the build had constructed a building before. It was an exercise in establishing a system of building that could be constructed by unskilled labour, with minimal drawings, allowing ad-hoc discoveries and improvisation to be embraced, and the tyranny of predetermined design to be escaped. ‘The mistakes of the unskilled team remain evident in the building, and no attempt was made to conceal them,’ he said.

Waste materials from the build were used to construct an ‘outhouse’ toilet facility for the office, using scavenged material and built at zero cost. It was also hugely improvised, says Taylor: ‘Of course, the drawings were done afterwards.’

He ended with an image of a pile of bricks, beautifully photographed and visually striking. ‘It sums up my existential dilemma as an architect: that which is undesigned is often far more beautiful.’

Jacky Klein

Jacky Klein is an art historian, author and broadcaster whose books include a monograph on the artist Grayson Perry, and broadcasting work as co-presenter of BBC4’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. In FX Talks she explained how radical ideas have defined the evolution of the art world for centuries, and how fresh thinking remains the cornerstone of creativity

‘Art nowadays has reached a zenith of commercialisation and commodification – not just in the art market, but in the use of art and art-inspired products all around us,’ said Klein. She pointed to Van Gogh wallpaper, Grayson Perry cushions and Monet lampshades available to us in every shape and size and anytime and anywhere, courtesy of online retailers.

Klein took the audience on a journey of five key moments that have seen modern art as we recognise it today emerge from the more traditional ideas on what makes art. From impressionism in the 1870s which, as the name would suggest, was to do with giving an impression of its intended subject, to the work of Paul Cezanne and the post-impressionist movement, which was to further break the established rules in order to convey the essence of the image.

This bold, avant-garde work inspired a raft of new artists at the start of the 20th century, the most important of which, says Klein, was cubism. Pioneered by the likes of Pablo Picasso, it started around 1906/07 and had the aim of breaking down pictures even further to express the fast-moving nature of modern life.

Paris in 1913 saw the next seminal moment with Readymade by Marcel Duchamp, an artist who emphatically rejected the work of some of his contemporaries such as Matisse, which he rejected as purely ‘retinal’ art. Instead of art made just to please the eye, he was interested in ‘art that would serve the mind’. His approach was to spurn painting and instead remove an everyday object from its usual context and present it differently, designating it ‘art’. Klein said: ‘It was an incredibly simple idea, and yet it was the starting point for all of the conceptual art that has come since then.’

The next key moment came in the Sixties with the advent of minimalism, which moved beyond painting or sculpture, towards something described simply as ‘three dimensional work’, in which the space around an object became just as significant, and installation art could involve people as well as inanimate objects. ‘There are always fresh ideas – new ways of looking at, interpreting and experiencing the world, and understanding what it is to be human,’ she said.

‘From projects by artist eco-warriors today using their beauty or shock-factor to wake us up to the threat of climate change, through to the latest virtual-reality projects that aim to unsettle and reconfigure our physical and mental experiences, contemporary artists still find ways to move us and provide new ways of looking and thinking.

‘Although our digital lives are just beginning in many ways we have two lives – one in the material world and the other in the digital – and I’m quite certain that artists will continue to make new work that reflects our new reality, work that one day, just like that Van Gogh wallpaper, will move from the margins and become so accepted that it will start appearing on our iPhone covers, or our cushions.’

Monty Roberts

Back by popular demand, Monty Roberts steered proceedings in an entirely different direction again, to non-violence in training horses, bucking established protocols as a cowboy on the hills and plains of Nevada, where he honed his natural gift as the original Horse Whisperer

Having noticed as a young boy that wild horses had their own way of communicating, he went on to incorporate this into his own non-violent approach to horse training. Some 6,000 years of conventional practices had used fear, pain and domination to beat the horse into submission, and yet Roberts’ biggest challenge was not even the horses whose natural instincts he aimed to align with, but traditionalists who did not take kindly to his challenging their conventional thinking.

‘I grew up with violence from a father who was violent towards the horses as well as to me. When I said: “But the horses are telling me they don’t need that approach” he’d reply “You’ve got to hurt them before they hurt you”. I worked with a horse devising a method that gave it freedom of choice, but ensured the horse felt that little bit more comfortable with me than to move away, even though as a human I’m a natural predator for him. I called it Join Up. I thought it was revolutionary, and that the world would change tomorrow – surely they would have to change when they see how much better this is?’

But Roberts was wrong. Instead they fought against this radical thinking and he was hated for it by his critics. ‘I remember my father once saying, “You’re possessed by the devil, and I’m gonna beat the devil out of you with these chains”. It left me with four broken bones that day. Of course, this wasn’t a good thing, but we can still draw some good from it all, because it caused me to keep to my goal of showing how this training could be done without violence.’

The BBC programme Panorama, screened some 20 years ago, showed him training a mustang against the clock by using the language that horses communicate to each other in the herd. It was a radical concept. And he tamed the horse really quickly and peacefully by winning its trust through applying horses’ own behaviour.

He added that things have changed more today than ever before in the history of horses. ‘How gratifying is it to win championships on a horse that is not struck with a whip? It was absolutely radical, and most people fought it. But that resistance is caving in, and one of the reasons it’s collapsing is that I kept my goal in place, kept going for it, and worked hard every day to demonstrate how much better non-violence was.’

Roberts said that some may suggest he just was lucky with the right horses, but he states that if you work hard enough at something you believe in, then you do get lucky. He has visited 43 countries demonstrating his work, training 11,500 horses in 28 years.

‘Radical thinking is not always going to work for everybody – there are no guarantees.

But investigate it, consider your work, and see if it’s the right way to go. I still have critics who somehow see my work and feel it shows their way to have been wrong all along. But I call these critics my best friends because they play a big part in getting me up every morning, working harder, keeping me from making the mistakes I’ve made before and getting the horses to do the talking for me.

‘Radical thinking is a lot of fun. I haven’t had a day off in seven years… except every day is a day off when you’re doing the thing you love. Seek the thing you love, and if it’s radical and hard to attain, just keep seeking it.’

Tom Dyckhoff

Returning to host the second edition of FX Talks, Tom Dyckhoff brings with him a wide perspective from a broad and diverse career as a broadcaster and writer on architecture, cities and places. As well as presenting the BBC2 series The Great Interior Design Challenge, Dyckhoff also hosts BBC Radio 4’s The Design Dimension, was formerly an architecture critic for BBC’s The Culture Show and can often be heard on Radio 4’s arts and culture programmes.

Other programmes written and presented by Tom include The Secret Life of Buildings, I Love Carbuncles (both Channel 4), and Saving Britain’s Past (BBC2). He has also presented various Radio 4 documentaries. An Honorary Fellow of the RIBA and a trustee of the Architecture Foundation, his wide-ranging writing credits include various books and documentaries, as well as a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper’s Weekend magazine and spells as architecture critic for both The Times and New Statesman.

The focus on radical thinking delivered by FX Talks is a reminder of the need to take every opportunity to question the status quo, said Dyckhoff: ‘Challenges in life are to be welcomed as a chance to look at yourself, your life, and the world from a different perspective. Thinking radically is not just the preserve of the young. It’s a state of mind, of continually learning and provoking, and looking at things from different angles, which should continue with you throughout your life.’

And now a word or two from our sponsors... What did they think of the second FX Talks?

John Atkin
John Atkin is managing director at Bisley

As one of three headliner sponsors what made you get involved with FX Talks?

We’re keen to support new ideas and I really enjoyed the high-tempo, short presentation format of the event when I attended in 2017. My highlight last year was hearing Michael Pawlyn talk about the role of nature in architecture and how biomimicry has the power to change sustainable building and address our environmental concerns.

Where, in your opinion, does radical thinking come from? Team building or individual isolation?

I’ve always said blue sky thinking, especially in a team environment, is usually a waste of everyone’s time. If you task a group of people to come up with ‘20 new ideas’, you just tend to get the far-fetched notions! In my experience the most revolutionary ideas have come from individuals with a belief, who have then been challenged, questioned and critiqued by several other, perhaps less visionary, people. If you have individuals with ideas and teams to shape those ideas in to working solutions, you’ll get radical thinking.

What can businesses and organisations do to encourage fresh thinking and innovative ideas that challenge or break the industry status quo?

You have to create an environment that allows people the time and space to have ideas and innovate. We probably all spend the majority of our day ‘doing’ and too little time strategising; but we really should make time for self-reflection and personal improvement as this is where fresh thinking will come from and when ideas will be nurtured. Everyone within an organisation should be encouraged, if not instructed, to schedule time for this, either individually or as part of a team.

How important is it to harness ideas and practices from industries outside of our own, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve this?

No one organisation or industry has the monopoly on good ideas; we should all strive to learn from one another.

The best bits about FX Talks ... (what inspired you, what made you laugh, the food, and what your guests made of it...)

Piers Taylor’s stories of his retreat from the world of architecture were provocative and entertaining, and seeing how Alan Kitching is using ‘old school’ skills and true craftsmanship to remain unique in the age of technology was inspiring. I believe all our guests found the event enjoyable and worthwhile; the discussions certainly carried on well into the evening, almost certainly helped by the delicious food and drink!

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott is national sales manager at Delta Light

As one of three headliner sponsors what made you get involved with FX Talks?

As FX Talks is an innovative and inspirational event, we are delighted to have sponsored it for the past two years. FX Talks offers us something different, above and beyond the usual industry events. It’s an event our clients love to attend, and our team really looks forward to it too.

Where does radical thinking come from: team building or individual isolation?

Radical thinking can be born in many ways, and while often instigated by individuals it’s the team and working environment that can encourage and stimulate this way of thinking. Promoting radical thinking and managing change is often how the best ideas originate.

What can businesses and organisations do to encourage fresh thinking and innovative ideas that challenge or break the industry status quo?

Delta Light believes in creating a positive company culture, where team members are encouraged to express themselves and put forward fresh ideas. We believe embracing change and challenging the norm aids business growth, and it’s something we prioritise. By offering our team this platform, we are never short of new ideas, and its something we would encourage other businesses to do too!

How important is it to harness ideas and practices from industries outside of our own, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve this?

It’s essential to be open-minded and harness ideas and practices from other industries – as the saying goes, ‘the day you stop learning is the day you stop living’ and that’s true for individuals and businesses alike. By attending events such as FX Talks this two-way communication can begin, and cross-sector thinking can commence.

The best bits about FX Talks ... (what inspired you, what made you laugh, the food, and what your guests made of it...)

FX Talks puts together a framework of compelling short talks, in a relaxed atmosphere – you’re at a business event without even realising, and that’s the beauty of it! The team and our guests genuinely leave the event feeling inspired, refreshed and motivated – everyone needs that post FX Talks feeling!

Adrian Norman
Adrian Norman is head design at Morgan Lovell

As one of three headliner sponsors what made you get involved with FX Talks?

FX Talks connects us with the most creative people in the design industry.

Where does radical thinking come from – team building or individual isolation?

It can come from both – whether it’s unique thoughts in the middle of the night or radical ideas during brainstorming sessions with a team, radical thinking can spring from many places. Radical thinking is important for our industry because the way people work is changing, and thinking outside the standard four-walls-and-a-desk approach leads to innovative new ways to bring people together at work. Co-working and shared office spaces are leading in radical redesigns of workspace, and this is migrating into offices as they move on from the traditional corporate look.

What can businesses and organisations do to encourage fresh thinking and innovative ideas that challenge or break the industry status quo?

Most importantly a company needs to build a culture that encourages, facilitates and even empowers its staff to challenge the status quo, a core value of Morgan Sindall Group. Organisations could go as far as starting initiatives that encourage staff to pursue their own ‘pet’ or ‘passion’ projects in company time – a practice that Google adopted that incubated the Gmail concept.

With the culture in place a business can then shape its office environment to facilitate innovation by creating huddle areas for collaborating, making destinations within the office to create movement and bump moments while recognising the need for quiet contemplation areas for reflection. Microsoft went as far as creating a project space nicknamed ‘the Garage’ that allowed staff to develop passion products using Microsoft resources.

How important is it to harness ideas and practices from industries outside of our own, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve this?

It is incredibly valuable to take inspiration from the wider world; failure to do so will blinker designers and ultimately stifle creativity. Interior designers are increasingly venturing outside their speciality for inspiration. Office interiors have been softened with influence from home and hospitality over recent years, with colour trends and fabric choice influenced from further afield, such as fashion.

As designers, responsibility falls on our shoulders to be open to the world, always looking and absorbing influence, pocketing abstract ideas for our next grand scheme.

The best bits about FX Talks ... (what inspired you, what made you laugh, the food, and what your guests made of it...)

Piers Taylor gave a thoroughly enjoyable talk packed with architectural eye-candy projects, with an insight in the to unique way they were built. All nicely wrapped with humorous home truths about our industry. Possibly more thought-provoking still was Madeleine Bunting’s piece on ATTENTION (or the increasing DISTRACTION in the modern world). It’s a theory for me that easily translated into my own world where I have the ability to create shelter from distraction in the offices I design – creating a menu of environment for people to choose, from collaborative and buzzing workplaces for the extroverts to gain their energy to quiet corners for precious quiet time away from distraction.

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