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Posted 30.10.18

Working with LEGO & one-way trips to Mars – Introducing Peter Barker

By Phillip Buchan
Peter Barker - Head of School, Design and Communication at Plymouth College of Art - Photo by Katrine Worsoe
Peter Barker, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, MA in Industrial Design graduate from the Royal College of Art and former Head of Industrial & Communication Design at Design School Kolding, has been appointed as our Head of School, Design + Communication.

Peter brings to the college over thirty years of international experience in design practice and teaching. He is returning to England after three years in Denmark at Design School Kolding, which is regularly ranked as one of Europe’s top 50 design schools. During his time there he created opportunities for students to work with global brands such as NASA and provided design consultancy for brands including LEGO Group.

We sat down with Peter to find out more about him, covering everything from his early career as a designer at the Moulton Bicycle Company and helping three students create a capsule for a one-way trip to Mars, to the importance of traditional design skills and which European historic car rallies he has and hasn’t won.

LEGO is a brand that’s recognised around the world. What can you tell us about your work with them?

The LEGO Foundation charity provided a grant of around €4 million to establish a new MA Design for Play programme at Design School Kolding. Working as part of the team that wrote and developed that programme was one of the most exciting projects that I participated in during my time in Denmark.

"Plymouth College of Art’s clarity of vision for the future was attractive to me, and speaking to the staff there felt like a meeting of minds."

– Peter Barker

I also provided design consultancy for the LEGO Group, which was an incredible experience. Part of the consultancy was to suggest improvements in the way that engineers visualised new products, with a view to reducing lead times and making the manufacturing process more efficient. At the time it was taking their engineers up to two years to bring out each new playset, which is ridiculous for such simple concepts, so I demonstrated alternative visualisation techniques that they could be using.

I showed them how to use traditional visualisation techniques to explore new products much more rapidly than building digital models in CAD. Many engineers have lost the art of making sketches and drawings to visualise new ideas, something that used to be taught in engineering schools but that has become a casualty of the digital age. In my opinion, it’s true that some old skills have had their day, but skills that are still relevant can also be forgotten in the rush for grabbing whatever’s new. By abandoning traditional skills, sometimes we can lose simple things of enormous value.

Is it true that while you were in Denmark you sent three students on a mission to Mars?

Not quite, but another highlight of my time at Design School Kolding was creating an opportunity with NASA that led to three students, Iga Slowik, Claudia Naval and Paul Lequay, winning a prestigious 2018 national Danish Design Award. During my time at Central Saint Martins I first met Patrick Farrell, who was part of the team that designed the interiors for the NASA Skylab space station in the 1970s. More recently I met up with Patrick again in London ,and he explained to me how much work has been done by NASA since in terms of habitability, making life in space more bearable.

This led to a live brief for my students where they were tasked by NASA to think about astronauts sent on a one-way journey to Mars, a journey that would last 221 days. The students were tasked with improving the habitability of the capsule that astronauts would travel in. I tried to get the students thinking about how it would be, living in that cramped, noisy environment, and they took the brief and really ran with it.

 Mars shuttle craft interior with with sleeping pod designed to improve habitability during the 221 day journey - Winner of a Danish Design Award 2018 by Iga Slowik, Paul Lequay and Claudia Naval

The students back to their shared apartment and tried to simulate the capsule in one room, living together there for 40 hours with the noise of a diesel engine running and very limited water or opportunities to wash. They filmed their own behaviour during that time, observing the irritability they developed and sensitivity to light and sound, then used that research to generate a series of designs to address the issues that they faced. It was an incredibly interesting project that won them a national design award and a trip to present their ideas to NASA in Houston, USA. I was proud to be a part of that process.

It sounds like you were involved in some really exciting projects at Design School Kolding. Did anything else stand out about your time there?

Almost every prospective undergraduate student that I interviewed in Denmark said that their motivation for studying design was to help other people. That is something I’ve heard from students in England, but not nearly as often. We can use design to do more to improve our social environments, and I believe that the renewed sense of social responsibility that I’ve developed during my time in Denmark will be right at home in Plymouth College of Art.

"As much fun as I’d had as a designer, I realised that what I really enjoyed was thinking about design and demystifying it for others."

– Peter Barker

What attracted me most to the new role is that the college has a very clear moral purpose, something that’s demonstrated in the college’s commitment to the transformative power of creative education and to social justice. I also love Plymouth School of Creative Arts, both the design of the Red House building and the fact that the college went ahead and created a school in response to a national educational need.

I’ve been employed in design education since the early 1990s and have worked in some excellent institutions that no longer seemed to know what their purpose was. Plymouth College of Art’s clarity of vision for the future was attractive to me, and speaking to the staff there felt like a meeting of minds.

How did you find your way into design education?

In the late 1980s, after completing my MA in Industrial Design from the Royal College of Art, I began my design career working for Alex Moulton. His iconic small-wheeled bicycle revolutionised the industry right from its launch in 1962. I worked on what I believe was the world’s first separatable mountain bike frame at the Moulton Bicycle Company in Bradford on Avon, which gave me my first taste of South West England.

Peter Barker with the the 1987 AM ATB (Alex Moulton All Terrain Bicycle) at the Design Museum in 2015 - the 1987 AM ATB was designed by Alex Moulton with assistance by Peter Barker

I then moved on to work as a design consultant at a number of agencies in London, designing toys, technical machinery and focusing predominantly on industrial design. It was 1992 when I took up my first part-time education post at Coventry University. In 1999 I went full-time as Programme Manager for their Industrial Design courses and I never looked back.

I think I made the move because, as much fun as I’d had as a designer, I realised that what I really enjoyed was thinking about design and demystifying it for others. I found that my experience enables me to explain complex concepts in an accessible way, helping people to visualise ideas that might otherwise have been difficult to understand.

Peter Barker and navigator Peter Scott in Peter's 1963 Triumph TR4 on the 2018 Rallye Monte Carlo Historique - They finished 125th overall (from 340 starters) and 3rd British national team car on the event - Image by Retrospeed

Were you always passionate about design and if so where did that come from?

A lot of my love for design can be traced back to the first time that I saw a Mini car, when I was very young. When I first saw a Mini it struck me as a unique object that hadn’t obviously come from anywhere and I couldn’t see how it had evolved from all the other motor vehicles on the road. As I found out more about the man that invented the Mini, he fascinated me because it transpired that he had essentially developed this new car in his mind, not drawing it until it was absolutely necessary to do so. The Mini absolutely hit the needs of its time spot on and was a roaring success. That was my introduction at an early age to industrial design and the power of the imagination to construct something brand new that has never existed before.

My love of Minis became a lifelong passion, and as a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers I used to write about classic cars for print media for several years. I had to sell my own Mini years ago when I moved to the US, but I do still have a 1960s Triumph sports car that I use to compete in historic car rallies across Europe. In 2003 and 2010 I won the Rallye International des Alpes, which is a difficult race to win! I’ve also competed 13 times in the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique, and although I’ve won categories and classes within it, haven’t won the overall race... yet.

Obviously I have a competitive instinct that makes me keep coming back, but there’s also a love of old cars and the pleasure that they bring that drives me. In part I think it’s because they’re very physical, with no electronics or driving assistance. You drive them with your mind and your body. Driving an old car fast on mountain roads takes skill and forces you to really concentrate on the moment.

Peter Barker with Willy Cave on the stage at Cricket St Thomas - Photo (C) Rally Sport Media

Since completing this interview, Peter Barker competed in the Lombard Bath Rally 2018, in his 1963 Triumph TR4 sportscar with veteran navigator Willy Cave on the maps. Willy was a member of the Standard-Triumph factory rally team when these classic cars were new.

Willy Cave reading pacenotes for the hillclimb at Porlock Toll Road - Photo (C) Rally Sport Media

125 classic rally cars left Great Pulteney Street, Bath on a 190-mile tour of Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon to raise money for charity Action on Addiction. The event also celebrated the history of the annual Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain which started from Bath four times between 1976 and 1986. £5300 was raised for Action on Addiction by the end of the day.

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