Designer and Silversmith, Don Porritt, studied and taught at Leeds College of Art, now Leeds Arts University, between 1949 and 1970. 

Born in Pudsey, Leeds, in 1933, Don attended the institution in the 1950s and 60s. This was a time of radical change in teaching with the incorporation of the Basic Design Course.  This new method of teaching was founded at Leeds by Head of Art Harry Thubron and his contemporaries in Leeds. Their ideas revolutionised art school education in the UK and abroad.   

We met up with Don during the installation of his Curator's Choice exhibition at the University to learn more about his work and how his time here influenced his work.

Header Image: Flowing Water, Silver, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Did you did you immediately know that you wanted to become a silversmith?

Initially I started work as a cabinet maker. At school woodworking and metalwork were my main interests, however woodwork dominated towards the end of my studies. This probably dictated my decision to become a cabinet maker on leaving in 1948.  

Don Porritt work 2Image: Curvilinear jugs, 2000-2004. Taller version – height 150mm.capacity 250ml. shorter version – height 120mm, capacity 275ml. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Shortly after this I switched to employment in the jewellery trade, which ultimately led to a formal five year apprenticeship. It was from this that my interest in silversmithing evolved. I took evening classes at the University in jewellery, silversmithing and engraving, one of my tutors was the silversmith Alann Fisher. He was a consummate and inspiring teacher and he formed the main influence on my career from that point onwards, both as an evening class student and finally as a full time student. In 1954 my studies were interrupted by two years National Service.

After National Service I returned to Leeds and entered the City and Guilds of London Institute Examinations, resulting in an award of a Bronze Medal in Diamond Mounting and Jewellery in 1958. 

Don Porritt studioImage: Don Porritt at work in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

You arrived at Leeds Arts University during a revolutionary time in art education. What was it like studying at the University during this time?

In 1959 I returned to the University and enrolled as a full time student on a four year course, two years Intermediate Certificate of Art and two years National Design Diploma (NDD). Leeds, along with other designated Universitys were in the process of dropping NDD Silversmithing and replacing it with Industrial Design. I was totally unaware of this situation at the time, however the transition did not appear to create any significant educational difficulty.

The Basic Design Course was the bedrock of the two year Intermediate Certificate of Art stage. We were all extended by the experience and from a personal viewpoint, this was the period which shaped my future artistic career, even if, at this time, I was not fully aware of the influence being exerted. The combined four years at the University in the early 60’s were a life changing experience. The ‘pressure cooker’ environment generated during this period continues to sustain my creative development. Leeds led the way in art and design at the time, figures such as Victor Passmore, Harry Thubron and Tom Hudson dominated the scene with their Constructivist theories and the adoption of a ‘Basic Course’ based on Bauhaus ideas. The intensity and intellectual rigour of this formative two-year experience was absorbed to great effect by design focused students – and I feel this aspect of the Leeds educational ‘experiment’ has not been sufficiently recognised. 

We were exposed to a comprehensive range of disciplines, painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic and industrial design, plus a healthy mixture of theory, argument and practice. Tommy Watt developed our life drawing skills and was a constant presence in the studios. Crits were a critical part of our studies!  I also remember Gavin Stuart – a stimulating interpreter of colour theory, with an added ‘quirky’ and expressive attitude to teaching. Art History was taught by the art historian and critic Norbert Lynton and we were also influenced by the Gregory Fellows from Leeds University, working alongside the sculptors, designers and architects of the main teaching body.

Before your appointment as Assistant Lecturer in Design at the University in 1965 and then at Leeds Polytechnic from 1970, you worked in industry, can you tell us a little about your experience?

Initially I moved into a trainee designer position with a company manufacturing commercial and industrial lighting fittings. This involved the experience of working in a mass production factory, moving between various metal working activities, paint shop processes and assembly line procedures and finally into the drawing office facility.

During this period I entered the Royal Society of Arts Industrial Arts Bursary Competition, winning two bursaries in 1963. These awards subsequently allowed me to visit Holland and Finland on two separate study tours.

The year spent in industry generated a surge of creative activity and significantly widened my design horizons. It encouraged me to start a freelance design practice which combined both industrial design and silversmithing interests.

The exhibition includes several designs for commissioned work including awards for the Baftas and Film Four.  Could you talk about some of the commercial projects that you have worked on over the years?

I left teaching in 1992 and began work on a series of commissions for special achievement awards. Many of those commissions came from fellow professionals – graphic designers, architects and art directors. The design briefs were quite varied and also very demanding, with high levels of collaboration across different design disciplines.

Graphic corporate imagery, a significant element in many of the designs, had to be converted from the flat two dimensional version, into a dynamic three dimensional form, which also had to recognise the importance of the lighting used in film and television presentation.

You have been based at your studio in Menston in Yorkshire for much of your career, would you say that the landscape has influenced your work?

The atmosphere of the northern landscape is a constant inspiration. Fast flowing local river systems influence current projects, strong curvilinear metal formations contrast areas of reflected light, tone and texture to visualise the sensation of a waterborne experience. I’m currently working on developing the flowing water theme into larger linked constructions and experimenting with the concept as a curved vertical surface form.

Were there challenges to overcome to being based in the North?

There are fewer modern design galleries sited in the North, so there are less opportunities to exhibit ones work than, for example, in London. On a practical point, access to materials is also more difficult. It’s often challenging to source metal stockists, foundries, tool and equipment suppliers and supporting services which are essential for a sustainable workshop/studio enterprise.

Curators Choice: Don Porritt is on display at Leeds Arts University, Blenheim Walk Building, Leeds Arts University (by appointment only) from June 2017. Find out more HERE