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.

CS: Can you tell me a bit about System Research – was that a company?


SW: Yes, it was a company formed by Gordon Pask and there might have been other directors, I don’t know, but principally it revolved around him. System Research was developing cybernetic models and work in artificial intelligence, early artificial intelligence. It was a kind of think tank, which had practical engineering outcomes, and certainly it was a seminal catalyst worldwide. It was a famous place, although I didn’t know that at the time.


CS:  Did you seek it out? How did you come to some of your ideas through it?

SW: Well, I knew of its existence because Gordon Pask had come to give a lecture at Ealing College of Art. But then I used to hang out in Richmond with musicians and all sorts of people. And through this buzz I heard that System Research wanted people to go and work, and you’d get paid. So I just went and knocked on the door. But I was already interested in cybernetics. And especially this idea of breaking down specialisations of knowledge, and in developing new paradigms for practice which engaged with society – I was interested in this right from the start really – ideas about mutuality and self-organisation and self-responsibility. Cybernetics seemed to be a key tool, a key place for speculation and System Research was an exciting place to be. And so I didn’t exactly barge in there but I sort of wheedled my way in. And really the work itself was pretty simple, alright it was machine-minding and the like. It was the people I met there, and very importantly for me, the actual reports and papers that I could get my hands on, that looked at these different models.

At that time I was also going to private views and giving out these little manifestos, generally making a nuisance of myself. And I was already going to the ICA quite a lot, and there was an artist, Mark Boyle, he was organising an event there, and I got myself involved. I developed a bigger kind of mapping of the event, a sort of cybernetic map, a flow diagram of events...

I didn’t make a solo presentation of my works in that period, except for an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Research Institute. this was a cancer research hospital on the Fulham Road, and the young doctors there organised a gallery, and invited various artists that were around then. I was living in Chelsea around the corner and they asked me to make an exhibition. And they published it as a catalogue. So really that was my first exhibition. And it was interesting it didn’t come from the art world, it came from these doctors and scientists, who were interested in what was going on. The exhibition presented a series of works that were about the ‘democratic surface’, about engaging the audience in making relationships between different things.

I also began to get interested in the idea of advertising. Advertising was really just starting up in those days, but it was also quite advanced in terms of thinking, models of communication and so on. And while the art world was stuck on the idea of a picture on a wall, advertising was thinking about time-based multi-channel feedforward programmes and in developing new consciousnesses, or at least changing attitudes. They were looking at the effects of communication on the consciousness of the individual or communities and societies, whilst the artist was still trying to manipulate a heritage of language and traditional modus operandi, which all seemed completely redundant – not bullshit, but just out of step with the world we were moving into.

Then I went to an opening at the Hamilton Gallery of Roy Ascott [who had run the Groundcourse at Ealing College of Art where Stephen had studied the previous year], and I was giving out these manifestos. And Roy Ascott came up, and got talking, and he asked me what I would do if I had a group of students, and I said I had all these ideas. Because I saw education not really as a means of making a living but as an experimental kind of model. So I was very enthusiastic and Roy Ascott there and then said that I could go and teach up at Ipswich.

I remember very clearly the first day I went to Ipswich. It was a very cold January day. I came into this room and there was a little group of students huddled round this fire, and as I came up they said, ‘Oh, he’ll be here in a moment.’ I said, ‘Who?’ and they said, ‘Oh, the new master’ [laughs]. So I said, ‘I am the one!’ Because I was the same age as them, so they thought I was another student! So that immediately meant we got on really well because we were all on the same level, almost ... I initiated this course, where there was no difference between any person. And there was no individual work done. It was all collaborative, there were no portfolios of individual artists.

... And each week we set up a different project, which examined a particular idea, and the group of students collectively sought solutions or made proposals or developed practices as a group. And this came out of a relationship with System Research. And the other place I should mention is the National Physical laboratory in Teddington, which was examining ideas behind alpha rhythms, learning theory and feedback, for instance. And also as the course developed we began to look at advertising ... I was beginning to live in a social world with these advertising people and scientists as well as artists. It was a funny old mix, you see ... And De Bono’s ideas were around. He was talking about lateral thought, and the idea of thinking forwards and sideways, making connections with other areas of information. So it was very much in the air what I was looking at, trying to set up a functionality of art.

One of the things coming up was that a work of art was really not a product of any one person but a social phenomenon. And also that creativity wasn’t the preserve of the artist, that other people created. The advertising people said, ‘Well look, man; what’s the difference between you and me? I’m creative. Perhaps I’m more creative than you lot ... because you’re just carrying on with these historic traditions, you know, and most of art is media-based and in a way perhaps it’s a craft ... just about the dexterity of handling the medium rather than about the concepts that are projected through that medium.’ And then scientists that I was having conversations, heavy conversations with, people from System Research, were saying, ‘We’re creative, there’s no real difference between art and what we’re doing.’ And so that caused me to have a doubt about my own position as an artist. It was a funny moment. I think now I wouldn’t have that doubt. I would be able to answer people, but at that time I wasn’t quite so confident, so I thought, yeah, maybe, what is the difference? We’re all creative.

So I felt at that time that I would completely stop making works, as such. I’d been making these ‘Visual Automatics’. Although they were vehicles for creating a state of consciousness and were tools rather than icons in themselves, they were still individual, discrete works. But then, I began to think that art really would be social phenomena, and that it would exist within the fabric of the world we lived in. So there was a sort of hiatus of thought about traditional practices and ... an opening up of a completely new vision of how I might operate in a cultural way. It was clear that the work of artists was no longer useful in this new way, so I called myself a ‘conceptual designer’. I thought this was the new person. And actually I even changed the way I looked. I always wore a white coat. Following the idea that I would not look like an artist but like a scientist or somebody else [laughs].

CS: I think this was all in ‘65? Didn’t you take desk space at an advertising agency then?

SW: Well, you know how it is when you are quite young, you meet people quite easily and move through people, have fun exploring things. I’d been introduced to a graphic designer Dean Bradley, who had a little agency – a little practice – of his own. He was Canadian but he was joining a group that was coming over, I think from New York, to set up an agency. I think some of them had been at the Push Pin in New York, and they set up a thing here called Design Communications, and they got this beautiful studio at the top of Bond Street. It was a fabulous place, quite high up, looking over that part of West London, and I managed to get myself a desk in there. That was quite common sometimes, with freelancers, who would pay a rent for a desk. And suddenly I was in this environment with graphic designers and copywriters and different types, that was cool. And that gave me an entrance into getting papers. Because I was trying to get papers, research papers, from different agencies, for instance JWT [advertising agency J. Walter thompson].

CS: How much access was there to scientific papers or ideas in visual communications, if you weren’t within these kinds of companies?

SW: Well, I think I was persuasive. I don’t think it was that easy, but I was persuasive, and also JWT at that time was interested in setting up research units about conceptual models of advertising, in bringing in expertise and people from different places. Apparently it gave their clients a feeling of confidence when they could produce research papers, although I didn’t realise that at the time. A bit later on, in ‘66 or ‘67, when I was very interested in the relationship between my role as conceptual designer and advertising, I proposed a research unit for JWT. I remember I went along for an interview and there was this man in a pinstripe suit with a big carnation saying ‘Hello Stephen’, you know, like he’d known me all my life. He said, ‘Well, what are your ideas for JWT?’ I said, ‘Well, what JWT needs is an EC.’ he said, ‘EC, what’s that?’ I said ‘an Energetic Core’. ‘Wow, what’s that?’ I said an energetic core brought together scientists and mathematicians and you know psychologists. And they thought it was just terrific ... and I wrote a research paper which I’ve got, which is about tolerance levels in advertising. But their client was Wall’s Pork Pies, who wanted to know how much product diversity they could get away with, basically. ‘What a con’, I thought. So I couldn’t handle that. I thought this is not what I got into this for. So nothing really materialised.

CS: Was there any precedent for the term ‘conceptual designer’?


SW: Well, it was very much my own invention. I was trying to find a word that would sum up this new person, you know. ‘Designer’ was too pragmatic, and practical, and I didn’t want to use the word ‘artist’, and what we were dealing with was concept. The idea of conceptualism was very much in the air even in ‘64–‘65.

CS: You renamed yourself ‘conceptual designer’, but how could you communicate this, or was it more a kind of personal status?

SW: I announced it in the editorial of Control magazine. And again this was in connection to the idea that a work of art is beyond any one person. So none of the work had the name Stephen Willats on it.
From this moment I began to explore different facets of a new kind of practice. On the one hand I set up Control magazine, which was originally conceived of as a work. I remember I was teaching at Ipswich at the time, and at lunch time we’d go out to a pub and there’d be other members of staff there, and you know I remember conversations where people were saying, well, there were no magazines available which would embody this new kind of ethos that we were developing. People would say, ‘Oh yeah, there should be a magazine’ and I’m thinking ‘Bingo!, this is something that could be done’.

Issue number one, in itself, was a manifestation of this new kind of work. As such, it had a function, and the function was to propose and introduce people to the new functionalities of art practice, and to propose a territory, I mean a creative frame of reference, which people might operate in. And if you look at it, it’s anonymous. There wasn’t even an address on it, which we didn’t realise at the time was illegal. So we had to put one on later. We printed 500 of those and distributed them as best we could, mainly in London, in different bookshops, especially Better Books on Charing Cross Road, which was a wonderful place. It was a moment of high energy.

And the other activity we did was developing ‘Multiple Clothing’. For that there were three things. We did the helmet, the dress (the piece like the V&A has got) which is the most advanced, really, and the other thing, that did sell, was a bag. the bag was about the idea of a practical thing, shopping. It was a clear, transparent thick plastic bag with edging. The idea was that everybody could see what you had inside. there was a clear version and a transparent blue version that would turn everything blue, and a version that would turn everything red. And then there was a big text which you inserted inside which would just say one word.

And part of ‘Multiple Clothing’ were also these vacuum-formed helmets [p. 52]. Vacuum-forming was very new then. We were trying to get ‘Multiple Clothing’ beyond London, and there was a boutique I think in Leicester, so we went all the way to Leicester and got them to take ‘Multiple Clothing’. And while we were there we somehow met somebody from this company who had just imported these vacuum-forming machines, and we persuaded them that we wanted to create this helmet, and that it would sell and they would do great business. I don’t know how we managed to persuade them, but they made these vacuum-formed helmets for us. They had a visor, which you could insert different coloured acetate sections into, that would cause you to see things in different ways. And the helmet had a lamp on the top that would light up the path in front of you. the idea was that it would change the way people related to you and the way that you would relate to them.

So the idea behind ‘Multiple Clothing’ was in wearing the piece, or taking a bag, or putting a helmet on or whatever, you became the work. That was the work, it was like an event that you put on. The idea was that you walked into the infrastructure of society. It wasn’t that you were putting it on in your own room, it was to engage with other people when you walked out in the street. So to facilitate all this we got various boutiques interested in selling it from their normal clothes racks.

CS: What would you actually buy from one of the shops?


SW: A clothing kit with sixteen square panels and the top part. You assembled it and it could be different things. That was important. You could have it as a long coat, or as a short dress or a jacket. there were red, blue, green and yellow panels, and for instance you could have all the red on the back and all yellow on the front, or whatever you wanted. And it wasn’t just for a woman, it could be a man wearing it. It was explained to the boutique owners that this was a kit, and they understood this and explained it, person to person.

So the idea was that somebody would come into Countdown and they would see the ‘Multiple Clothing’ piece on the rack, which looked different, but not so different that it was impossible to accept, and as I say there were some instructions and in putting this on, you would become the work. the fabric came from a wholesaler run by two guys who also sold offcuts cheaply. I knew we wanted plastic as I was into the idea that materials contained an ideology through reading Marshall Mcluhan.
The idea was very much to work within the infrastructure of existing society, and to propose models for transforming the way people viewed this. Interpersonal relationships were fundamental to society, and clothing was fundamental to these. ‘Multiple Clothing’ was never conceived as a work of fashion. It was connected to the idea of intervening in the interpersonal fabric of relationships between people, and to introducing the concept of self-organisation.

And the other activity was designing some furniture, which was similar to ‘Multiple Clothing’ in the sense that we took something that had an existing function and transformed the way it operated for people.

CS: And the furniture is similar to ‘Multiple Clothing’ in that there are different elements that the user can reconfigure.

SW: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

I was actually working with my partner then [Felicity Oliver], in the sculpture department of Chelsea College where she was a student. And there we made this furniture, which was really great but, well, we didn’t sell anything. There was no taker for it [laughs]. So with ‘Multiple Clothing’, unfortunately it was taken off the racks and returned, because it was all on sale or return. And a lot of it was destroyed, but fortunately some of it was saved, and just lay in storage. Well, we did sell some of the bags.

So I became a bit disillusioned. But the one thing that was going quite well was Control magazine, which sold well, really, right from the start. Maybe we only published 500 copies at first, but that was enough for me to get involved in a second issue.

CS: Once the period when you were pushing these projects out into shops came to an end, did you rethink the approach to conceptual design?

SW: I went on to develop these interactive simulation works, the ‘homeostats’, and my connection with the world of System Research extended and developed. But generally speaking this moment you’re concentrating on lasted about nine months, something like that. Then things really moved on.


[1] Stephen Willats, The Old Artists, self-published manifesto statement, 1961.

[2] Stephen Willats is quoted throughout from conversations with Christabel Stewart.