Tuesday, 11 August 2015

TEA CUP...maybe!!!!!

A definition of what good design is as difficult to come by as a definition for what the word, art, means and art is impossible to define really. Here are a few attempts.
“Good design is not just what looks good. It also needs to perform, convert, astonish, and fulfil its purpose. It can be innovative or it might just get the job done.”
“A good design cannot be measured by a finite way – multiple perspectives are needed.”

“A good design is always the simplest possible working solution.”
Statements taken from Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design.

“Design is the way we decide how we want things to be. Everything we make is designed by somebody. So the question is not whether we need or can afford design. It’s whether design is good enough.
Richard Simmons Chief executive, CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment)
“The stock answer is that good design is generally a combination of different qualities - what it does, what it looks like, and so on. But as our expectations of design change, so do those qualities and the relationship between them.”
 Alice Rawstham (design critic) writing in the New York Times, June 2008

There are many more sources where definitions of good design can be found but these, I think, cover the generally accepted ideas even though they are merely generalisations. It is difficult to pin down a truly satisfactory definition maybe because new designs to solve new problems are always being created. Especially with modern technologies new things never seen or imagined before are being created. 
Roughly speaking then, good design is about ensuring something is able to do a job well. It can be easily  used for its purpose. Often, just by looking at a well-designed artefact, you can see immediately what it is for. A side effect of a well-designed artefact is that it has elegance and beauty. Maybe that is what beauty is, if something works well and does a job it is beautiful and elegant.

Minoan cups from about 1500BCE

This all leads to the moment when I walked into the rooms I and II on the ground floor of Heraklion Archaeological Museum during our recent holiday on Crete. Most of the museum has artefacts from the Minoan period, a very sophisticated Bronze Age civilisation that was centred on Crete and the island of Santorini before the catastrophic explosion of the volcano at Santorini in about 1450BCE. The Minoan Civilisation lasted from approximately 2600 to 1400 BCE. A lot of the artefacts come from Arthur Evans excavations at Knossos, the main Minoan palace on Crete but there were also many artefacts from the other Minoan palaces, country houses and temples located at Phaistos, Gallitos, Mallia and Hersinnosis. Rooms I and II have many pottery artefacts from Knossos. There in front of me was an elegant cup with a handle attached to one side, perfectly turned on a potter’s wheel, sitting there on a tray. It was ready to be used for afternoon tea  in one of Jane Austens drawing rooms. I felt immediately disoriented. How could this be?
This cup was 3,500 years old. Cups with handles looking identical to this one were designed for use in English drawing rooms in the 19th century. The tea trade with China brought with it tea bowls from China to drink tea from. However, the Britiish liked their tea hot and the design was adapted by adding a small handle to one side so we didn’t burn our hands. Drinking from saucers, to cool the tea, as an alternative, was quickly passed by. New manners and tea drinking conventions were created. A tea etiquette was created to go with teacups with handles that sat on small saucers to protect the varnished and veneered table surfaces they were placed on. But here was a tea cup that was designed well before the British Empire was thought of, long before tea drinking was even imagined, when here in Britain we lived in mud and thatched roofed houses, hunted with flint tipped arrows and were just beginning to create cast iron and bronze artefacts in small furnaces. We were a hunter gatherer society slowly settling into a more rural farming lifestyle.
The cups in Heraklion Museum were designed almost identically to the cups first designed in the 19th century. If we agree that design, using our earlier definitions, are for a given purpose then surely these Minoan cups must have been designed for a very similar purpose.

 A tray to hold six cups and a teapot? "Afternoon tea Jeeves!"
There were many examples of cups with handles in the Heraklion Museum. They are round in shape and taper from the top to the bottom getting narrower at the flat base. A flat base enabling the cup to stand on a flat surface without being unstable. From visual evidence the volume of liquid each cup could hold looked about the same as a 19th century or modern cup will hold. In one display cabinet there was a circular tray with holes in it to rest a series of cups on. This suggests they were used when a group of people gathered for some purpose somewhat like afternoon tea with a group of friends. The small round handles attached to one side suggest that the cups were held in the same way as their modern counterparts. I can just imagine an ancient Minoan, man or woman, sticking out their little,”pinky,” and delicately raising the cup to their lips. "Pleasant weather we are having Elizabeth."
 In the 19th century the handle was a necessary design feature because the liquid inside the cup was hot. I can only guess that the liquid the Minoans drank in these cups must have been hot too. However, I am sure it was not hot tea. I decided to find out about  the Minoan diet and maybe discover if there were any drinks they might have drunk hot. Surprisingly, nowadays scientists can discover what ancient people ate and drank from their eating and drinking vessels. Scrapings from the inside of containers can be examined and their molecular structure can reveal what foods and drinks had been used in them. The Minoans drank a variety of wines produced on Crete but also imported from around the Mediterranean. Of course they ate olives and used olive oil in their cooking. They sweetened their food with honey. They also made a form of mead using honey. Interestingly I discovered that Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian, living about 500BCE, wrote about the drinking of mulled wines and meads. Mulling a wine involves adding spices and herbs to a drink and then heating it until it is hot. This was the only mention of a hot drink in the ancient world I could find. We know wine drinking and mead drinking was popular amongst the Minoans so why wouldn’t they mull their drinks? A,”tea cup,” with a handle would be ideal to drink hot mulled wine from.
"Will you pour or shall I?"
One more thing. Drinking a hot drink from a cup with a handle solves one problem. However, the hot drink has to get into the cup. In the 19th century and nowadays we use a tea pot, with a lid and a long spout enables us to poor  the steaming liquid accurately into the cup. A large handle, large enough for our hand to hold the teapot firmly is placed to one side of the teapot to make it easy to  lift and pour. So what about the Minoans and their hot drink? They would want to pour it accurately and carefully into each cup on their tray too before serving. Yes, they designed a ,”teapot,” with a spout and handle. Amazing!! Their teapot looks a much better designed pot than our version. Claris Cliffe herself would have been proud of designing the Minoan teapot.
I am sure Jane Austen would approve.

Sunday, 9 August 2015


The audience gathering at The Tooting Folk and Blues Festival.

It seems that I have been hearing about the Tooting Folk and Blues Festival as long as I can remember. Gabriel, a good friend of mine, has been planning this event with Ellen, his daughter, for the last year or two. The festival is the legitimate offspring of their much lauded folk nights at The Breathing Room held at the back of the Antelope Pub just off Tooting Broadway on the last Sunday of every month.
Now Ellen Harrison and Gabriel Mesh have achieved their dream. 

The proud organisers Ellen and Gabriel.
The festival took place on Saturday afternoon the 8th August in a setting that belies the fact that this was South London. The event location was in a beautiful corner of Tooting Common just along the road from Tooting Bec station.  A setting with large glorious oaks and bordered by poplars and low shrubs. The birth pains are over with a delivery as sunny and joyous as the blue skies and warm sunshine that graced the festival on its first outing.

Marilyn and I arrived early. There were mums and dads with young toddlers settling down on their blankets dispersed around the large grassy area. A relaxed family orientated atmosphere was beginning to be formed. Food stalls surrounded the arena area. There were the smells of delicious kebabs, Korean barbecues, various burger grills heating up and vegetarian stalls. The stage area and Green Room tent were located at one end.

I was sitting on the grass in front of the stage. As the minutes passed by before the first act at 1pm, approached, I looked around. Where there had been a few groups of people, families and friends, there was now a large crowd forming and as the event progressed more and more people joined the crowd  from all points of Tooting Common. By the time the music began there were at least two thousand gathered and this number was added to as the afternoon progressed. There was a buzz of voices, people enjoying themselves and relaxing. As the afternoon unfolded toddlers danced, sometimes even moving to the beat and sometimes, in a totally unaffected way, approached the stage. Some mums in floaty dresses did impressions of a hippy past taking great joy in performing loose limbed dances like strands of wheat in a gentle breeze. Their little children laughed.

The beer tent provided by The Antelope Pub did a very good trade. The queue stretched far back along one side of the arena area for most of the afternoon. They had five staff on the bar and I think this is something that could be expanded next year. Two beer tents perhaps? I had three pints of the local Wandle brew which created a very pleasant sensation.  

Steve Morrison,opening the  first Tooting Folk and Blues Festival.

Some of the musical highlights included the opening set by Steve Morrison. He made the excuse that he was starting the event because he had another gig to go to later. However, I am sure the crowd got the feeling after a while that he so much enjoyed playing to such an appreciative audience in such beautiful surroundings under  a blue warm sky that he was regretting having to depart later. I think he realised that he was the first act in an event that was important and going to be important for the future. Steve played his version of delta blues, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf style. There were some Eric Clapton riffs in there too.When, inadvertently, one of his guitar strings broke and he had to leave the stage for a few moments to replace it  the excellent professional stage crew slipped in a few  blues tracks and just as slickly, faded their sounds  out  as soon as Steve rejoined us.  He created a rich fruit cake of moods that tickled your arm pits and punched you in the guts, occasionally, both at the same time.

The one and only Gabriel Mesh.

The great Gabriel Mesh performed an iconic set in the middle of the afternoon. Gabriel’s exciting and brilliant guitar riffs and techniques pervaded the arena creating a kaleidoscope of  fantastic sounds. He performed his wonderful eclectic collection of self-written and well known numbers. His songs are often personal, especially those penned to his, “special lady.” His voice has an elastic quality bending notes from a deep guttural base to a high invigorating flute like pitch.

Other great performances included the Case Hardin band with their electric blues ; a mixture of insistent electric guitar riffs overlying some stomach churning drum beats. 

Wizz Jones performing.

The wonderful, hoary headed, hunched form of Wizz Jones, his white shock  of unkempt hair like a sparkling explosive November the 5th firework graced the stage towards the end of the afternoon with his famous  mix of blues numbers. In one song he reminisced about his father who was awarded the Burma Cross.  His wonderful guitar playing was overlayed by his clear lyrical voice pushing through the air like a forceful breeze. He was backed at times by  his son, Simeon Jones,a talented  musician who added some Gerry Rafferty style saxophone and  Jethro Tull type flute chords. An exciting and interesting collection of musical delights.

To complete a fantastic afternoon, other wonderful performances included the brilliant Niall Kelly Band, The Bara Bara Band, both groups stalwarts of the Breathing Room nights, Whom By Fire, who I have also seen at the Breathing Room alongside Chaz Thorogood and Garry Smith. There was not one under par performance. They were all incredible.

The atmosphere at the whole event was relaxed and fun. I can only imagine that all those who attended will tell their friends. The local press was there to report on the festival. I hope Croydon Radio will invite Gabriel and Ellen back to tell the wider world about the events great success too. I spoke to the two members of the parks police who were obliged to attend. I commented on what a wonderful event it was and how friendly and happy everybody seemed to be. They agreed with me. They said that they will report back to the council. Both of the constables could not see why Gabriel and  Ellen should not get council funding  in the future. They also suggested that lottery funding would be possible. I know Gabriel and Ellen found it tough to get enough funding this time and are so grateful to The Antelope, Daniel James, the Pearl Chemist Group and the Tooting Daily Press for the bulk of their funding this time.

Everybody who I have talked to thinks that this event is the start of something important.  I fully agree with that. Events like this one are important for our community.  I am looking forward to the Tooting Folk and Blues festival, next year.