Swapping the grey, mean streets of London for the wide open spaces of the Cotswolds back in the 1970s was a shot in the dark if you wanted your graphic design career to thrive. OK, Broadway, Stow in the Wold and Bourton on the Water are more inspirational and beautiful than Hackney or Brixton, no question, but the reality was design technologies then were still in the dark age with the industry still locked in a craft-based production cycle and business communications that hadn’t changed for an eternity. Landlines, the good old Royal Mail and unreliable couriers such as Dithery Dave were the only available options for your business to keep in touch with the outside world. Consequently, almost all of the major design studios were city or town-based owing to the need for almost continual third-party support and the logistics of client liaison.
The list of suppliers needed to facilitate the business was endless. You needed a reliable photosetter, (prepared to deliver three or four times daily if required), access to a decent photographic studio or two (at that time still mainly located in urban areas), printers, regular supplies of art materials (a studio without cow gum or artboard was like a car without petrol), a repro house and Uncle Tom Cobley and all to keep a studio running. To add to the problem clients almost always chose a studio as much for its location as its creative abilities so business opportunities were few and far between (unless the Nell Gwynne Tearooms needed a new logo or menu designing). Consequently attracting new clients was a major problem once it was known that you were located in the back of beyond.
However, there were a few hardy pioneering design souls (or idiots) prepared to sacrifice career progression and the city-based easy life for the creative inspiration of living and working in one of the most beautiful places in the country. A few determined and committed trailblazers prepared to trade in opportunity, financial reward and recognition for the thrill of driving their knackered Renault 4’s through enormous snowdrifts (the weather and the cars were a lot worse back then — fact!) for a meeting or to get the visuals, artboards or the print there on time. And I was one of them.
But the truth is this had all been tried long before, albeit with a chequered outcome, by a true design and craft pathfinder. In 1888 the architect and designer Charles Robert Ashbee had established a successful craft workshop called the Guild of Handicraft in East London but, in 1902, he moved the workshops to Chipping Campden, a small medieval wool town in the heart of the Cotswolds, presumably for pretty much the same reasons as I was to make the move some 80 years later. Although the Guild itself went into liquidation in 1908, Ashbee’s innovative gesture transformed the history of craft and design in the Cotswolds, for it brought the Arts and Crafts movement to the area.
No doubt Charles would have considered our design world in the 1970s a cakewalk compared to the logistical and business problems he faced in his time, but the truth is he had sown a seed that was to germinate, grow and flourish. Katharine Adams, bookbinder, Charles Blakeman, stained-glass artist, Arthur Cameron, metalworker, Frederick Griggs, illustrator, Eileen Baker and Ethel Mairet, weavers are just a few of the many notable individuals inspired by the movement, whilst businesses such as Pyments Cabinetmakers and The Winchcombe Pottery, with their roots in the Guild of Handicraft, flourish in the area to this day.
Fast forward another 40 years and, although the beauty and inspirational qualities of the Cotswolds remain as undimmed as back in the Guild’s heyday, it’s relevance as a centre for the creative industries has been transformed. No longer a creative backwater, digital technologies have empowered a designer to work wherever she or he chooses. Similarly for clients, as SME’s and start-ups have flooded the area in recent times, making the area a hotbed of commerce for a variety of business sectors. Proof that you can have your cake and eat it. You can live and work in an area of outstanding natural beauty, do the job you love and still thrive. And, all the time, with a grateful and appreciative nod to Charles Robert Ashbee and his creative and pioneering band of brothers and sisters at the Guild of Handicaft.
Having made that career choice all those years ago there are definitely no regrets. It has not always been easy, in fact directly the opposite (the terror of a panicky night-drive over icy roads to Stratford-upon-Avon with a hand-drawn visual destroyed by snow splatters and blotches on the back seat is still fresh in my mind). Now we work for blue-chip clients from a home-based studio and can clear the mental cobwebs and refresh the creative flow with a lunchtime walk over Ilmington Hill or by the side of the River Windrush.
Today, the photosetting, rapidographs and cow gum have been consigned to the waste bin of design history, along with the Guild’s stained glass studios and weaving looms. Such is progress, but I still have a little bit of nostalgia for my early days as a designer in the Cotswolds as I am sure would Charles Robert Ashbee if he was with us today. An in-depth history of the Guild can be found here: www.utopia-britannica.org.uk/pages/Ashbee.htm
This article was written by Paul Dibbens at Mustard Design – Please feel free to get in contact