Traditional skills are being lost by designers relying on computers

Working digitally can be fast, low-cost and has endless scope for creativity and sharing content - but it's also a flat, two-dimensional medium.

The benefits of an ICT-based world have led to an inevitable switchover across all areas of people's lives, but particularly in work and education. And that means an essential change in skills, attitudes and capabilities that is a particular issue - and problem - for British creativity in art and design.

With the opportunity to cut costs by stripping out workshops and the pressure to focus on the English Baccalaureate or subjects that are felt more important than creative arts subjects, some secondary schools are phasing out any kind of hands-on craft and design from the curriculum. Universities have been busy closing departments like ceramics, glass and craft based material subjects for some time. Even art schools have been reducing the focus on the 'process of making' to chase the digital approach to design.

The UK has traditionally been very strong at making things, and working with real materials. The industrial revolution was made possible by capitalism - but perhaps equally by the stream of high-quality and practical craft and design ideas that were taught in the art and craft colleges found in virtually every town. ICT is a great tool, but that's all. The danger is that we let the tool become the main factor in shaping what's produced. Digital design is inevitably detached from any sense of the quality and characteristics of things and how they work, and is much the poorer for it. 

More and more products on the shelves have been purely designed via an IT screen, and you can tell - they possess no inherent material qualities. They might look well-finished but they are often unsympathetic to the materials used. For employers or universities looking at a portfolio from a candidate you can see almost immediately if they've actually spent any time working with real materials. This is why our university is sticking to its guns on keeping craft workshops open, for glass, ceramics, metals and wood, and balancing this appropriately with the use digital technology which is a great tool.

Beyond the loss of important skills, purely using digital media leads to a different mindset among students. ICT allows for instant 'cut and paste' results, easy changes and easy delivery. Consequently that can be what young people expect from everything they do. Making real things takes patience, physical skills, co-ordination and the maturity to cope with failure and difficult challenges.

Digital technology is a great leveller. That's good for access and participation, for opening up design to larger communities. Not so great for business and for the UK's position as a world-leader in art and design. The UK has traditionally had an influence entirely out of proportion with its size. A reputation for quality and consistency of new talent has kept us in the premier league. But for how much longer? The BRIC economies have caught on to the value of creative arts, not just in themselves, but underpinning many other industries, and are putting major investment into art and design education.

What's needed is digital understanding combined with craft and making skills and a sensibility rooted in the real world of things. We need it in schools and colleges and in HE if we're not to end up with generations of people incapable of 'making', and quality design becomes synonymous only with the industry for antiques.

Professor Mark Hunt is deputy vice chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts.

Students using lathes at a technical college in Bolton, 1966. (Photo: Getty)
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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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