My designer life

I haven’t had a sudden conversion to fashionable designer brands nor a make-over.  What I want to explore here is my journey through design and my love of ‘good’ design.  By which I suppose I just mean design that not only matches its function, but also gives pleasure in its execution.

Street drinking fountain, Lille (suburban backstreet)

I can remember an exact moment when I realised that every single thing we encounter in our lives each day has been designed, for good bad or indifferent, by someone.  It’s not a deep or novel thought, but it changed forever how I looked at the world.

I can’t recall where or when it was, but I went to an exhibition and there in the museum was a Kenwood Chef Major, the same as my mum had at home (and I now have and use).  Somehow until then I had just accepted that things were as they were without thinking about how and why they were that way.

Since then, books and conversations and exhibitions and simple observations have enriched my understanding and appreciation of design of all sorts, and it has become a real passion.

Some of the things that have particularly influenced me are:

  • A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander.  I borrowed this book from our public library for months on end, until eventually I realised it was a book I wanted to own, and I used some birthday money to buy a copy.  It’s still a book I love to dip into, full of interesting ideas and beautiful photos (black and white).
  • Ways of Seeing, by John Berger.  This book really did change the way we see, capture and create images.
  • Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) – this is a fascinating (and very accessible) read – an examination of what makes cities work and what works against that.  “The eyes on the street” is just one memorable idea (and phrase) from her book.
  • Permaculture – a fascinating design process that I can’t begin to do justice here, but I will revisit some time.  Many years ago I did a weekend introduction to permaculture design course, and I have often applied it since, in all sorts of contexts (garden, home, allotment, processes….)
  • Inclusive design – the social model of disability proposes that disability is the result of the way society is organised (or buildings built), rather than simply the impairment of the individual.  It is possible to design our built environment to ensure that all can access it, rather than excluding some, and I see no reason why we should not do this as a matter of course rather than as the afterthought if often tends to be
  • Upcycling – I am drawn to ways of (re)using materials to convert ‘waste’ (a problem) to ‘usefulness’ (a solution).  Hence my love of wandering around allotment sites everywhere I go; visiting community gardens; enjoying innovative building methods.  In our house, garden and allotment you will find many things enjoying a second, third, or even fourth useful life.  Malcolm and I began our lives together by scavenging things from the street and skips, of necessity (our first fridge; the door we carried home through Brixton on our heads that became our ‘sofa’), and have continued doing so by choice.  Youngest son has proved to be a whizz at making real the vision I have in my head, using the materials I’ve accumulated for the purpose
  • Simplicity – I love the clean lines of Scandinavian and German design.  A long time ago my friend from Denmark gave me a book of pictures by Carl Larsson (Ett Hus – A House).  Years later I went to an exhibition of work by him and his wife Karin Larsson at the V and A.  I recently found the V and A book that accompanied the exhibition in a second hand book shop.  It is very beautiful.  Much of what you will find today on blogs and websites talking about hygge (Danish) can be found in the Larssons’ work (Swedish), dating back to the late C19 – early C20

House exterior, Fanoe

  • Nature – there is so much inspiration to be found in the forms and patterns of nature.  The beauty of repeating mathematical patterns seen in plants, seashells, snowflakes.  This is something oldest son has explored and been inspired by in his architectural and design studies and practice
  • Travel – both far and near.  So many visits to Denmark and to Germany.  Visits to (and a longer stay in) Freiburg.  Stays in the Dolomites.  A trip to the Stockholm archipelago.  German ‘Shreber’ gardens in large blocks in towns and cities, or strung alongside railway lines.  Trips to the seaside, walks in the woods, and on the hills
  • Detail – brickwork; ironwork; stained glass; carved wood.  I love the unnecessary detail added for the simple pleasure of adding beauty provided by craftspeople and designers.  Walking one day across a high alp in the Dolomites, there was a fence and a gate.  For no reason but beauty, the gate had a heart shape cut out of the centre.  And surely no other reason was needed

House wall, Avebury

I like to think it is no accident that both sons are designers and makers, each in their own way.  (Despite my much-resented and oft-repeated instant reply to oldest son’s 6th form art teacher that “he couldn’t have got his talent from either of us because we’re both totally talentless” – clearly this is rubbish).

And now I’m continuing to unleash what talent I have in that direction on my allotment. My shed plans have taken off in a big way.  I’ve waited until there was something I really wanted as my 60th birthday present from Malcolm, and it came to me yesterday that this is it.

I’ve (almost; maybe??) decided to buy a new shed and make it just how I’ve been dreaming. It will be small, it will be black, there will be yellow trim, and there will be flowers and stones.  There will be a place to sit and be.  It will be beautiful.

(Though since I wrote this I’ve been researching new sheds, and I’ve realised that the old one I’ve inherited is/was/could be much better quality than I could buy new.  So now I’ve started to revise my plans, and want to revive the original plan of repairing rather than buying new.  Let’s see if I can persuade those whose help I’d need to be able to make it happen….)


About deborah @ the magic jug

Now I've passed 60 I'm still doing all sorts of things I haven't done before, as well as carrying on with the things I already love. I live a happy life with my long term love Malcolm. In my blog I explore local and low tech ideas, food, growing, making, reading, thinking, walking, and lots of other words ending in 'ing'.
This entry was posted in Craft, Frugal, Inspirations, Seeing differently, Travels, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My designer life

  1. Penny L says:

    Sorry to be so inarticulate, but all I can say is I LOVE this post. Penny L in Dorsetxx


  2. Marian says:

    I love this post, Deborah. (And think it’s so lovely that your youngest son is willing and able to help you with your upcycling projects.)

    I too have an eye for design, and for the beauty (or lack thereof) in all things (human-made as well as in nature). I can’t remember ever NOT seeing things this way, and I wonder if this comes from my very early immersion into needlework, as well as the fact that my parents were always busy making things. I think this “seeing all things” trait is the thing that makes it so easy for me to take care of the environment — when I look at a bottle of water, for example, I don’t just see a bottle of water; I see design there too. I see each and every facet that went into making that bottle (from the raw materials to the manufacturing process to the transportation) as well as to the end result — where will that bottle — and its lid! — those physical things that were designed and created — go after their useful lives? I think humans have been designing things (moulding their surroundings, their shelters, their tools, their clothing), sometimes incorporating beauty and sometimes not, from time immemorial. It’s unfortunate (which is an understatement!) that so much of what has been designed and created over the past 50 years or so has been done expressly for planned obsolescence and with no thought as to the long-term cost of those creations.


    • Yes you’re so right about ‘planned obsolescence’ – an obscenity if ever there was one. You’re fortunate to have grown up with makers, I’m sure that makes a difference to your perspective on things. (My son is very willing to help me out and enjoys it, but unfortunately for me rarely available – he’s self-employed and works long and often unsocial hours. But when he’s around he’a a real ‘can do’ person.)


I love to read your comments. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, and I don't mind if you don't. However, I ask you to respect the 'circle time' rules made by my son's primary school teacher: make a comment, ask a question or say something nice. Thank you!

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