Jeremy Till of Central Saint Martins on the virtues of an education in the arts

CSM is one of the world’s greatest schools of art and design, and the institution’s Head says it is looking forward to its new venture with HKU

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 12:00pm

“No culture, no society.” It’s a strong message and one you’d expect from Jeremy Till, the head of London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins art school. The British-born architect and academic, who took the helm of CSM in 2012, is a vocal advocate of design and the arts, and the vital roles they play in society.

“I’m from a research-oriented background and CSM has always had fashion and textiles people as heads. I didn’t come from an art school but a more traditional university, so I sort of came in from the sides. That took some getting used to, but I think it’s worked out. I think it’s helped being an architect – architects look at every detail from the ground up, the big picture. So it enabled me to look at things differently.”

Sitting on a sunny terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel in Central, harbour views to the left, pool vistas to the right, Till looks calm considering his crammed afternoon schedule that includes the official reception for British sculptor Antony Gormley, an alumnus of Saint Martin’s School of Art, which merged in 1989 with the Central School of Art and Design to form CSM. Tongues were wagging for various reasons about Gormley’s Event Horizon installation, 31 life-size statues strategically placed around the city.

Till says having the works of Gormley on show not only showcases the artist’s talents, but speaks volumes about the city’s rising reputation as an arts hub. Further bolstering this reputation, CSM is now collaborating with the University of Hong Kong to offer a two-year MA in arts and cultural enterprise starting from January, the first time the college has offered courses abroad.

“These courses will address the huge explosion of arts and cultural events that is taking place globally, … providing people with information on how to manage these events, whether it’s festivals, public art. There’s no course in the world that gives a critical cultural perspective with an entrepreneurial and business perspective. And that’s what this is trying to do – we’re not just about arts management.”

Hong Kong, he says, was an obvious choice, not just because Hongkongers make up a large percentage of foreign students at CSM, but because of the city’s expanding cultural landscape. “It was evident to me that there was a huge pent-up demand for courses around the creative industries.

“And Hong Kong is an obvious gateway to Asia – it’s the centre of Asian creativity with very strong government policies supporting creative industries,” he says, citing the West Kowloon Cultural District project and PMQ.

But he says he was against the idea of CSM having a physical presence in the city. “We had discussions at a very high level as to whether we [CSM] should set up here and I was, in the end, resistant because arts schools are dependent on individuals and not just on the curriculum. It’s about the students and the teachers … If you take what we are most famous for, which is fashion – we were voted by a long way the world’s leading fashion course in the December survey by Business of Fashion – then that course is absolutely dependent on about six people – six brilliant people – and you can’t export them. It would be damaging to duplicate ourselves without due diligence.

“What we have with the HKU is different – it’s not studio based so you don’t have to have an intense ongoing relationship with a tutor on a daily basis. We have six units that will be delivered both through online and face-to-face teaching from three-day intense weekends in the middle of the unit. This way, students will benefit from teachers from London as well as a longer-term relationship online. It means you don’t have to give up your job.”

In a recent poll of China’s leading fashion designers, seven of the top 10 were CSM graduates. That is amazing considering the course is quite small
Jeremy Till, CSM

Till says CSM is also offering a course through HKU that focuses on collecting. “It’s been incredibly successful. We had to turn people away – there were 60 applicants and we only took 30. This is specifically about collecting and it takes a very cultural view of it by stressing that you should only collect if you personally engage with collecting and not just regard it as just another form of investment.”

In Britain, Till made a name for himself through his work with Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, including the much publicised house and office at 9/10 Stock Orchard Street in north London, known as the Straw Bale House, which won prizes for sustainability. He has also released a series of books examining the social and political aspects of architecture and design. His other hats include curator of the British Pavilion at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale and co-curator of the UK Pavilion at the 2013 Shenzhen Biennale.

But now his time and energy is devoted to the college, and its 4,500 students and 400 staff, as he takes steps to build on its enviable global reputation, a reputation that has evolved over the past 150 years “through experimentation, innovation and risk-taking”. But while he’s aware of the college’s reputation, Till says he is still surprised by how revered the college is and says this is most evident when he’s in China. “When I visit China with the dean of fashion we’re almost mobbed,” he laughs. “And it’s a very specific part of CSM that has a huge following on the mainland – BA fashion women’s wear. That’s the course people will die to get into.

“In a recent poll of China’s leading fashion designers, seven of the top 10 were CSM graduates. That is amazing considering the course is quite small – about 100 students a year – but it dominates China’s fashion scene. It really is an amazing phenomenon.”

But the results of the poll are not surprising given CSM’s famous alumni reads like a who’s who of fashion: Phoebe Philo, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, Riccardo Tisci, Christopher Kane, Masha Ma … the list goes.

But while the college is most known for fashion (more than half of London Fashion Week designers in 2015 were CSM graduates), it also has an impressive list of alumni from other creative industries, ranging from musicians (Jarvis Cocker, MIA, PJ Harvey) and famous faces from film (actors Colin Firth and Jessica Brown Findlay; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos). Artists including painter Lucian Freud and Sir James Dyson, the industrial designer, have also walked the college’s coveted halls.

But while keen to continue its tradition, Till says he’s also keen to turn the college outwards.

“Art schools traditionally are quite introverted, and get obsessed about themselves and their internal politics. Arts and design schools do more than make lovely stuff. It’s how that stuff fits into society and engages designers and artists.”