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Cigarettes, strangeness and the opposite sex.

1960sA little over an hour after completing the administrative formalities we found ourselves in the St Phillip’s annex, a Victorian school building three quarters of a mile from the main college. This was the home to the foundation year students, together with the first year of product design. At the time, design courses were usually of three year’s duration with a one year foundation course. This first year was not focused on any particular discipline but was structured to allow students to get to grips with general design principles in an experimental manner. Students could then move on to full diploma courses – DipAD, DA or NDD. In a few years the DipAD was to become a BA degree and Diploma students who so wished could have their qualification upgraded retrospectively.

There were about perhaps fifty of us; slightly more boys than girls. For the most part we were dressed in the supposedly smart clothes common to sixth-formers of the time, and now removed from the other established students we found some comfort in numbers. As we milled around and made ourselves comfortable on plastic chairs and the corners of tables, we were watched with amusement by two older men occupying the authority positions by a large rollover blackboard.

‘Good morning,’ the taller of the two spoke and the shuffling and whispering died away as we listened in anticipation.  He could not have been more than thirty, with reddish hair and a close-cropped beard, clad in a brown corduroy suit and plaid shirt. He introduced himself as our course tutor.

‘And this is Mr Richards..’ he turned to the second man, slow eyed, dressed all in black with a dark Dylan cap: he was about 25, but the cap hid a prematurely thinning pate. He exuded studied coolness which I noted had the intended effect, especially among our new female companions. This sexual frisson was another new dimension for boys who had spent the last few years at an all-male grammar school.

Mr Trace (call me Gordon), was running through the timetable that had been drafted on the blackboard, copies of which were distributed, still heavy with the scent of Gestetner fluid. In addition to the expected subjects, topics such as psychology, design theory, history of art, life drawing, sculpture and photography all were components of the foundation year.

After the timetable, general housekeeping matters were covered including the fact that, as all the floors were wooden, smoking was only allowed in the stone stairwells. We were told that as the refectory was back in the main building, Mr Styles, the caretaker, had developed a nice little business selling tea, coffee and Kit Kats from a small cupboard leading from one of the staircases. We all turned to see Mr Styles, a dark, rotund man in a navy blue boiler suit with a filter-tip clasped in the corner of his mouth from which 3 inches of ash hung precariously.

Having finished with the general information, Trace scanned our faces with an amused half-smile.

‘Okay,’ he spun the blackboard over. ‘This is your first project.’ We looked at the board and the neat chalk writing:

Create visual analogies for the  primary and secondary colours, in line, tone, form and texture’

We copied this down in uncomprehending silence as the tutors exchanged smiles, having savoured this moment many times before.

‘Any questions?’

There was an awkward silence as the students looked around wondering who would be first to admit our collective incomprehension.

‘Well,’ it was a blonde girl, slightly older than the rest of us who had already shown rather more mature self-confidence. ‘Well,’ she repeated. ‘Just what…?  I mean, what does it mean?’

The younger tutor stood up and with a world-weary smile began to explain fully what was required of us, while we made frantic notes. When he had finished Mr Trace stepped forward again, eyes still twinkling, he looked pointedly at our apparel with practised amusement – boys in suits, shirts and ties and girls in skirts, blouses and cardigans.

‘You will be in three groups; you’ll find a list on the noticeboard. Now I suggest you all go home and come back tomorrow dressed ready to do some work’.