Roger Dean’s new exhibition ‘Islands and Bridges, the Art of Roger Dean’ opened at the Manx Museum on Friday 19th August with a stunning preview of 26 of his art works and 2 of his architectural models. To coincide with the exhibition the Isle of Man Post Office launched a set a six stamps, one of which, ‘Meeting Place’ has been inspired by Niarbyl here on the Island.

Perhaps we were all of a certain age at the Preview, but it seemed that the majority of those attending the opening had grown up with Roger’s work either on record sleeves or posters on their walls; some admitted to buying the records for the sleeves alone without knowing the music. Some learned to love the music later, others never managed to.

I remember seeing Roger’s artwork on record sleeves of Yes in my brother’s record collection. What struck me, seeing the paintings in real life, was just how vibrant they are – and how big!  Neither had I expected so much detail nor the amount of energy that they give off. Having done some internet research before our meeting to see which images I recognised, the contrast between viewing them online and seeing them for myself was remarkable. The internet somehow ‘flattens’ them making it difficult to appreciate their depth and vigour.

I arrived at the Museum shortly before 12 noon, my slot for meeting Roger. With the Preview scheduled for early evening there were still a lot of areas cordoned off and work in progress. The idea was that we would have some lunch and a chat in the Bay Room, but after our initial introduction and heading in that general direction, Roger thought it might be too busy and noisy in there so we retreated back to the gallery to the comfort of a couple of sofas. Using the lift for fixing the lights as an impromptu table we had tea and sandwiches in relative quiet.

I read everything on Roger’s website before our meeting, and knowing that the newspapers would be reporting on the exhibition and his artwork, I decided I would take a different tack and ask him about his design work and buildings…..

Roger starts by telling me that back in 1961 there was a revolution in how art was taught; the very crucial formal and traditional skills were dropped and were not replaced with anything else and to this day he feels that art students are seriously let down by a system that cannot teach the craft skills or creativity. Roger says that he was lucky that he was taken out of the fine art course because he had maths and physics ‘O’ levels and was told he had to do industrial design, which suited him fine. It was a childhood ambition of his to design the future.

The industrial design course was, fortunately for Roger, very focused on teaching drawing skills. Besides life drawing and constant sketching he was taught perspective, measured perspective, shadow perspective, one, two and three point perspective, aerial perspective, machine drawing, lettering and much else besides.  

Ultimately he was very disappointed about how design was taught. It seemed that the future was all about boxes and everything he and his fellow students designed was supposed to look like a box. Roger didn’t like that and outside of the design faculty he met very few people who did like the idea of living in boxes. When he questioned why buildings were basically boxes and why everyone had to live in box-shaped homes he was directed to read Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer, who was one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture. Roger did not subscribe to his principles of building modules without reference to the humanity of people, what made people feel good within the built environment and what made them feel uncomfortable and why. With his incredible desire to design the future, Roger challenged the ideal of ‘form follows function’ to find out why ‘function’ meant that people had to live in boxes.

As Roger came to the end of his course at Canterbury (the same art school his mother went to) he wanted to switch to Architecture or to apply to the Royal College of Art to do industrial design under Misha Black. He had a very helpful tutor who advised him that he wouldn’t like either course and advised him to try and get into David Pye’s course at the Royal College. He told Roger that although David Pye’s department was the furniture school, he himself was not only a great philosopher of art, design and craftsmanship but he was also an architect who may well be willing to let him explore the psychology of the built environment.  He was, and although Roger’s first year’s research was essentially a washout he enlisted the help of a friend who was teaching 8 year olds and got them to answer a questionnaire which became fundamental to his revolutionary, organic housing designs.

The children were great subjects and were totally focussed on what he wanted to know. The information they fed back was primarily about their fears. As you might expect, it was things like spaces under the bed, full length cupboards where someone (or something) could hide and clothes on the back of doors – all of which could be easily fixed.

One child, in his own way, described a ‘defendable space’ with an entrance that could be controlled at eye level which led to the design of a children’s bed built into a hole in the wall – not the most practical design he concedes and having tried to make bunk beds up over the years I have to agree. Roger’s design for the adult bedroom was to keep the quality of the defendable space but to make it more practical, the key to it being steps to the bed rising clockwise.

I’d read about this on Roger’s website and ask him about this as I don’t understand how anyone attacking with a sword would be off balance; with the aid of an umbrella and instruction from Roger on sword-holding, it quickly becomes apparent that it is the curve of the staircase that is key.

We go on to talk about the living room, dining room and kitchen and particularly the ‘function’ of each room. I ask Roger about the practicalities of building his womb-like dwellings as all traditional building is straight. I am curious as to how much of the materials (pipes etc) would be bespoke and how much would be regular building materials?

The prototype building which was on show at venues including the NEC in the early ‘80s, could be kept at a constant 60 degrees in winter just from the lighting alone. The shape, being curved, is not only stronger but as warm air rises the curved shape helps the air to circulate and overall, has around 60% less volume than a traditional box shaped ceiling. For this reason the spaces are easier to cool as well and in one of his designs there is a 50 gallon, unglazed water tank in the highest point in the house; passive evaporation takes place from the rising warm air and the evaporated cool air sinks. Another benefit of the curved shape is that, because the surfaces are non-contiguous there is significantly less noise transfer which can be further enhanced by using insulation.

The building itself is formed around a series of moulds using rebar for strength and sprayed concrete (gunnite); the whole thing has to be made in one go to avoid dry lines, so the construction of the shell is built very quickly, within 24 hours. A gunniting team consists of 3 people and they can build the equivalent of a house a day; for more complex structures such as a holiday village you would add more teams of 3. The interiors are finished in plaster.

It all sounds very expensive to me, as anything which is not ‘standard’ generally costs more, however, building quotes have been sought from two major firms and remarkably, for a 100 bedroom hotel, their numbers were within 5% of each other and only 5% more expensive than building a traditional box-shaped version.

Thinking about the shape and something else I have read on Roger’s website, I ask him if he has applied Feng Shui principles into his design. He confirms that it is a consideration and we talk a bit about his youth when he lived in Hong Kong until he was 14 and he says that he was ‘aware’ of Feng Shui at that age.

Roger points to the painting on the wall behind me saying ‘the trees in the background of that picture are pure Chinese’ and he agrees that being surrounded with Chinese imagery has certainly had a subliminal influence on his style, noting that those early years are profoundly influential for most young people. The number of dragon-like creatures appearing in his pictures are a bit of a clue too I think.

His memories of England up until his final return to the UK were influenced by Dan Dare and Rupert Bear comics and he laughs as he says that he was ‘astonished to find it wasn’t at all like that’!

I wonder if he meditates to help with the creative process and he says that he does meditate but informally – he’s not religious but he does believe in the spiritual nature of human beings. He doesn’t sit down to meditate but prefers to be out in the country and feels quieting the mind is absolutely critical to encouraging the flow of ideas. Quieting the mind, avoiding over-thinking and becoming anxious about a project is essential, ‘ideas are like chasing wild animals –they are much more likely to come to you if you’re still’.

We’re out of time and Roger has to get back to his hotel and I have to get back to the day job. After the Preview he has to go home to the UK and then fly back for a meeting on Monday and then the following weekend he’s celebrating his birthday a few days early with his family – his mother is in her 90’s and he has two sisters so they are all getting together.

If you haven’t been to see the exhibition yet I do urge you to go. You won’t be disappointed! Entry is free and it runs until 19 November. There are also three editions of Roger’s books available to buy from the Museum shop: Views, Magnetic Storm and Dragon’s Dream.

The exhibition is generously supported by 3FM Isle of Man, Isle of Man Steam Packet and Claremont Hotel Douglas.

Photographs by John Caley are published with kind permission of Manx National Heritage.

Lunch with Roger Dean
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