Ray Finch and Functional Matthew Partington    

Functional & Useful


This section is prompted by Finch's dislike of the word 'functional' and preference for the English word 'useful', (nos.4-6). It looks at the implications of Finch's remark that 'functional' is not an English word and consequently makes the link between 'functional' as a word and Modernism as a concept suggested by it.

Functional & Useful: 'Function'
Ray Finch insists in the interview that he is a simple, 'uneducated ' man. However, he is knowledgeable enough to know that 'function' is not an English word in terms of how it is understood in the art world. Function is a word inescapably equated with Modernism and in particular with the Bauhaus, Gropius and Le Corbusier.

In Britain, architectural critics dismissed the Modernism of Le Corbusier et al as functionalist, whereas Tim Benton argues that 'what they really objected to was the spectre of communism, cosmopolitanism, social purpose and the stripping away of traditional detailing.'23 This is a particularly telling comment in the light of the prevalence in the first half of the century of pottery inspired by antique Far-Eastern Ceramics, (of the sort Bernard Leach espoused). Apart from the work of Staite-Murray, pottery was still looking backwards and consequently failing to fully engage with the contemporary.

In the years leading up to the Second World War the applied arts in England were embracing European Modernism, whilst English studio pottery largely failed to make these links.24 When we look at the attitude of Cardew and Leach towards mass-production, it is not surprising that studio pottery remained apart from the involvement of the other decorative art's, with industry.

On a language level, 'functional' implies that an object has a function and can be used. 'Useful' states unequivocally that an object is meant to be used, is helpful and is therefore normal and commonplace. Function and useful are both Latin words, útilis meaning 'useful, fit, profitable, serviceable or beneficial.' Furthermore, it could be interpreted from Finch's preference for 'useful', that he simply feels the word itself, (ignoring its' Modernist overtones), better expresses his understanding of Cardew's work as English.

The very use of the word 'English' suggests its current binary opposite: European,25 (a link that wouldn't necessarily have been made in the period Finch is referring back to). In his article, 'The Englishness of British Art', William Vaughan discusses the cultural and racial connotations of the terms English and Englishness. He argues persuasively that Englishness, 'has become a defensive concept, which tends to be evoked most strongly when traditional dominance is being challenged'.26 Philip Dodd, writing about the Englishness of English art, outlines various examples of writers in the early part of the century defending English art against the 'onslaught' of Europeans:

The definition of the Englishness of English art is always attended - or at least was then - by the definition of what was seen to be 'unenglish' and alien. Englishness is, then, not so much a category as a relationship - and one which may thrive on abuse of the 'Other'.27

There is a sense of safety and defence in Finch's use of the word English. If function is non-English, and therefore European, useful is English and therefore reassuring.

By saying that he hates the word functional, Finch is being more definitive than in any other part of this interview and we are therefore drawn to it as a significant utterance. The question that immediately arises is 'what does he understand the word functional to mean?' There are several obvious umbrellas beneath which one can put Finch's understanding of the word functional:

  • He equates the word with Europe and Modernism.
  • He equates it with art.
  • He sees 'function' as an upper class or 'posh' word and that 'useful' is a simple, honest, working class word.28

'Useful' is a word common in day to day speech, whilst 'functional' would only be used within the rarefied atmosphere of the worlds of art and design.

Cardew's own annoyance with the word function is nowhere more evident than in Pioneer Pottery:

When once the safe ground of common consensus has been left and the links of tradition have been broken, it is hard to see what remains, now that functionalism, that sterile exercise of aesthetic puritanism which invaded the world of design like a blight in the early decades of this century, it is at last seen to be absurd.29

The danger in discussing Modernism in terms of Cardew and Finch is that it offers a one-dimensional view of Modernism. In English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, Charles Harrison argues that there was English Modernism, German Modernism and French Modernism, all resulting from the distinct situations in each country. In his article, 'Maelstrom of Modernism', Paul Greenhalgh quotes Jurgen Habermas in calling Modernism 'an incomplete project'.30 He describes 'modernisms' rather than Modernism and describes Leach as meeting almost all his criteria for being a Modernist, (including function). He sees the move from Leach towards Hans Coper and Lucie Rie as a move from one modernism to another, rather than as a move from tradition to Modernism. In Cardew and Finch there is the desire to maintain craft traditions, which sets them in opposition to industrialisation. However, if we accept that Modernism is an 'incomplete project' we can only say that Finch objected to the word 'functional's' Modernist associations.

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23. Tim Benton, 'The Myth of Function', in Paul Greenhalgh, Modernism in Design, London, Reaktion books, 1990, p.44. back to article

24. See: Mary Schoeser, Influential Europeans in British Craft and Design, (a booklet accompanying an exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery, 16 April - 14 June 1992), London, Crafts Council, 1992. back to article

25. Conversation with Mike Hughes, 1 June 2000: 'A passage can have coherence because it is the site of a discourse. Discourses generally betray themselves by the presence of binary opposites.' back to article

26. William Vaughan, 'The Englishness of British Art', The Oxford Art Journal, 13:2, 1990, p.11. back to article

27. Philip Dodd, 'Art, History and Englishness: An Open Letter from Philip Dodd', Modern Painters, vol.1, no.4, Winter 1988/9, pp.40-41. back to article

28. The problem is that the crafts are no longer a working-class occupation but a 'middle-class, art-like activity.' See: Peter Dormer, The Meanings of Modern Design - Towards the Twenty first Century, London, Thames and Hudson, 1990, p.150. back to article

29. Michael Cardew, Pioneer Pottery, London, Longmans, 1969, p.239. back to article

30. Paul Greenhalgh, 'Maelstrom of Modernism', Crafts, May/June 1992, p.17. back to article

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Functional and Useful




Ray Finch and Functional • Issue 1