Stephen Willats, Raven Row

Conceptual Design
Stephen Willats in conversation with Christabel Stewart

‘In 1961, on a carbon-copied manifesto he handed out at gallery openings, Stephen Willats announced ‘Life does not exist on a two dimensional basis. When one walks down a street the sensation is not only a visual one, but a tactile and sound experience …’. [1] In suspending his formal art practice in 1965, Willats seems to have been acting on this assertion. ‘I stopped calling myself an artist and started to call myself a conceptual designer with the aim of entering the infrastructure of daily life, by working with furniture and clothing and things like that … I decided to take on fundamental and practical areas of expression that were normally seen as the province of the designer, and integrate my work as an artist with what people would consider useful and familiar’. [2] Histories of avant-garde art practice (Russian Productivism, the Bauhaus, etc.) might provide a precedent to these newly titled endeavours but, as he describes below, the framework for Willats’ adopted brief, ‘How to invite an audience to activate my work?’, was largely informed by contemporary theories about communication.

Design historians of this decade might be drawn to the achievements of former engineering graduate André Courrèges. In 1964 Courrèges launched a series of ‘space-age’ angular mini dresses and trouser suits in heavyweight white and silver fabrics stiff enough to hold geometrical cut outs. These were accessorised with goggles and helmets, ideas for astronauts. Willats, however, was not motivated by what he saw as an imposed hierarchy of couture and its representation in Vogue, or the new fashion resource for the middle classes, The Sunday Times Colour Section. He designed clothing not as a blueprint for wholesale manufacture, nor as a couture collection for a specific audience, but because he wanted to explore the idea of clothing as key to ‘interpersonal relationships’, as ‘an agent for expression’ and ‘a strategy in communication’.

Beginning as drawings, his pieces were handmade with the assistance of Felicity Oliver, an art student with machining and seamstress skills. Their principal creation was a kit for a dress or top, consisting of a black vest-shaped upper section onto which sixteen coloured square panels, with zips on each side, could be attached. Significantly for Willats’ concern with self-organisation, the wearer could choose how to assemble the various elements to make items ranging from a long dress to a short top. The dress was sewn from PVC because this might reflect onlookers, and was perceived as the height of modernity. He intended it to be accessorised with a helmet made from vacuum-formed plastic, another new technology. The wearer had the option of one of three colours for the helmet’s acetate visor, through which the world would appear either red, green or blue. ‘I thought that the whole outfit when worn would change the wearer’s relationship to people they came across, and in turn those people’s relationship to the wearer.’

Willats also designed a furniture prototype, titled ‘Corree Design’ (he cannot recall quite why that name; ‘perhaps this referred to a core, or perhaps it just sounded good’). Paralleling the modularity of the clothing, the furniture’s multicoloured extendable panels served multiple functions – as bed, table, seat and shelf – ‘prototypes from which a multiplicity of functions could flow’. He didn’t secure a contract for the production of ‘Corree Design’, and it was finally broken up after a decade of use in his studio, as was a kit lamp he had designed at the same time. The only lasting production from Willats’ work in conceptual design was the magazine Control. As Antony Hudek explains elsewhere in this publication, the successful distribution of each more-or-less annual issue of Control has managed to subsidise the production of the next, up to the present day.

Willats did manage to distribute the clothing kits and accessories into a number of fashion boutiques, the small owner-operated entrepreneurial inventions of the sixties, including Countdown in West london. There some of the designs that were easier to adopt did sell successfully: perspex jewellery designed by Oliver and Willats’ transparent plastic bags. However, the rest did not and were sent back to Willats, who after less than a year returned to producing artworks.

Remarkably for cultural work, the clothing kits functioned primarily as shops’ stock. Their activation was contingent on an unknown audience, which was not party to the codes determining their existence. In that way Willats explored the nature of choice, and the role of the artist as provider of tools which prompt the user/audience to make decisions.

Stephen Willats’ Studio, Rye, 14 December 2012

Christabel Stewart: I thought first it would be good to understand how in the middle sixties you came to the position of being a ‘conceptual designer’?

Stephen Willats: Well, in this particular period, if we start around about 1964, I was really supporting myself as an artist trying to set up my practice. I was working on the series of ‘Visual Automatics’, I’d constructed the ‘Shift Boxes’ prior to that and around ‘63 there was the ‘Manual Variable’ series. So I was establishing myself as an artist and in contact with a lot of people on the arts scene, in my own way. But I had to do menial jobs to support myself. I had a multiplicity of jobs ranging from office jobs to early morning cleaning, all of which would give me some time to continue with my practice. And I was also working as a part-time, lowly assistant at System Research, on an occasional basis. So I was meeting people, certainly at System research, scientists and people completely outside the established realm of art.’

Read the full interview on Raven Rows website here.