Wednesday, 7 June 2017

#katagami in practice: hands on

How do museum objects directly inspire and inform creative studio-based students? 


That is the question at the heart of MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese Stencils in the Art School, funded by the Arts Council.  Katagami stencils are a traditional tool for applying pattern to cloth: but how can we encourage today’s artists and design practitioners to use them in a critically engaged way – beyond simply seeing them as examples of interesting motifs?  

K1.1, Katagami stencil from the collection at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

One of the practitioners working with us on the project is Sarah Desmarais, whose research is around themes of slow-making and the relationship of craft to wellbeing.  As part of her contribution to MoDA’s project she recently ran a three day workshop with a group of Middlesex students from BA and MA Crafts.

Part of Sarah’s method is to ask participants to slow down and take their time to really look at the katagami stencils.  It’s easy to be over-awed by how intricate and delicate they are, but taking time to engage with them through close observation and drawing makes it possible to understand them on an entirely different level.  Students started the session by making drawings of some of the katagami from MoDA’s collections; then over the course of the three days they cut their own stencils, mixed a traditional rice paste to act as a ‘resist’, and dyed their fabrics using indigo.


applying rice paste through a stencil onto fabric 


an example of the finished product, hanging out to dry after indigo dying


The students found the experience extremely rewarding; it was an opportunity to learn new skills and also to reflect on the process of making and the ways in which the materials and techniques inform that process.  


a full washing line of newly dyed fabric, and a group of happy makers
By the end of the three days everyone had made something they could be proud of.  Luckily the weather was good so the indigo dying could be done outside the Grove building, so as not to get blue dye all over the workshop space!   

Sarah's workshop demonstrated the intimate relationship between the materials, the skill of the maker, and the appearance of the end product.  She'll be writing up her reflections and findings in more detail soon. 




Monday, 5 June 2017

Drawing Inspiration from the Silver Studio katagami collection

Sarah Desmarais is a participant in MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese stencils in the Art School.  Her research focuses on the practice of making, and how it can be used to approach the katagami reflectively, critically and creatively.  Such a response potentially goes beyond simply noting the stencils as examples of interesting motifs, technical virtuosity or traditional stencilling technique.  Her research combines her professional experience as a textile maker using slow, traditional processes, and as a crafts researcher experienced in applying ethnographic and autoethnographic methods of data collection to amateur and professional making. 

In this post she describes her experience of drawing from the katagami. 

My research concerns the distinctive kinds of learning and reflection possible through the process of making.  I’m getting to know the katagami through practical engagement.  Whilst a good part of this practical work involves printing and dyeing textiles using traditionally made stencils and rice paste, I started off by drawing from the katagami at MoDA.  Every drawing is a new exercise in learning to see, as valuable in terms of process as end product.  I know from experience that making a drawing is a good way of assimilating visual material; the process of capture through mark making is slow in comparison to taking a photograph, and spacious enough for the metabolization of visual information.  This is particularly useful when dazzled by spectacularly complex and finely executed designs and large numbers of items exhibiting a similar form but an array of variations, as with the four hundred or so katagami in the collection. 

My methodology also involves the equivalent of field notes as a way of documenting both practical process and the fleeting subjective dimensions of making activities.  While drawing, I write down thoughts as they occur.  These notes are fragmentary, reflecting the quality of thinking while doing.  I allow them to emerge in a spontaneous, free-associative way, but I’m also careful to record things that are apparently irrelevant or so mundane that they hardly seem worth writing down – the experience of boredom, frustration or resistance in drawing or slow making processes is one example of an interesting phenomenon that would disappear from the record if I were only to capture insights, experiences of aesthetic pleasure, or creative excitement.  This writing contains a number of interesting themes concerning what drawing contributes as a way of exploring the katagami, as in the following extracts:

I'm immediately aware that the full beauty and complexity of the pattern don't register until I start to draw.  Drawing forces a process of sorting and categorisation - mentally dividing areas up to produce a schematic representation - it obliges an initial consideration of how the design is constructed.  The strong features that separate one part of the design from another are pattern, tone and directionality.  To draw a design you have to understand something about it, reduce it to its component elements.  Having done that, you have a kind of algorithm that becomes available to your own design imagination.
 I find myself thinking in the case of each stencil about the repeat and how it would have been created - in some cases quite simply, as for instance where a central diagonal meander dictates, as it leaves the frame at the top, where a line must appear to continue it at the bottom of the stencil.
 I'm really interested in how much more I'm noticing through drawing - such as how a blossom motif in one place is made through a positive, dark image on a light ground, whereas elsewhere on the same stencil, it appears as a negative, light image on a dark ground - and how the designer has played with the contrast between these strategies, often in relation to whether the blossom motif is in the background, or overlapping another form.  I also notice, for instance, the irregular, meandering line created by the bridges in the same pattern (K1.3) - and how these form a subtle counterpoint to the diagonals of the main meander, which run in the other direction.  None of this has really registered until I start drawing.  Drawing seems to be a way in which one can build hypotheses about designerly intentions.  One enters into the same frame of mind, which seems to be a playful one.  Play is perhaps the creative response that counterbalances processes that are arduously slow and repetitive.


I’m building up a body of such notes in relation to my katagami drawing and textile printmaking activities.  These will be part of the ‘raw data’ that I draw on in analysing my findings and thinking further about how artefacts in museum collections can be approached and ultimately better understood through practical making activities.  

In the meantime, my experience of documenting the katagami in this way has forcefully underlined the role that drawing plays in the assimilation and transformation of design languages. As Glen Adamson (2009) points out in relation to the work of Owen Jones and his Grammar of Ornament, ‘sketches and published patterns based on them act as points of translation’ (my italics).  These observations are conducive to reflection on the processes of cultural influence evident in the Silver Studio collection, where features of Japanese design are translated into the languages of late 19th and early 20th century British textile and wallpaper design.  More broadly, drawing and writing stimulate reflection on how artists and designers assimilate and transform the design influences that circulate around them, the conscious and unconscious processes involved, and about the focused uses of collections and archives.

We'll hear more from Sarah about her work as the project progresses.

Reference
Adamson, G., 2009. Out on the tiles.  Victoria and Albert Museum blog, [blog] 30 May. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/sketch-product/out-tiles [Accessed 13 February 2009].




Friday, 19 May 2017

What does this wallpaper sound like?

There are some people in life who have the ability to make you stop and really think about things differently. For me, FelicityFord is one of those people, so it is both a privilege and a delight to be working with her on the Sonic Wallpapers project. I first met Felicity when she came to MoDA a few years ago to do some of the research for her PhD. So when I was thinking about how to develop an exhibition idea that would fit with our new way of working (Online, On Tour and On Request), I commissioned her to work with us again. My hunch was that she would bring an exciting and fresh perspective to our collections, and also to the means by which we exhibit them (for example by taking advantage of social media), and she is proving me right on both counts.
Felicity Ford, sound artist extraordinaire

MoDA's exhibitions have always been interested in the place of wallpaper as part of our shared memories of home; of spaces both remembered and imagined. So this project is in a sense a continuation of that same approach, combined with the fact that we are increasingly talking about the collections as a starting point for creative practice. The Sonic Wallpapers project is picking up this theme brilliantly, asking "What does this wallpaper sound like to you?". Felicity is now at the stage of collecting field recordings to accompany the interviews she did with participants, and documenting the whole process on her blog. She writes really well and her posts are both thoughtful and thought provoking. It's also great to see the interesting comments that readers are leaving in response. Visit the blog yourself and tell us what you think.

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

For me, working with Felicity is enormously inspiring because she reminds me what a richness of thought can be associated with even the most apparently ordinary things. As curator of these collections I sometimes get bogged down in all the practical and administrative aspects of my job. In the past year, especially, I have been concerned with solving problems to do with moving and storing boxes of stuff, rather than with the potential of the objects to inspire creativity, or to prompt memory or day dreams So I'm really pleased to see Felicity engaging with our collections in such an inspiring way: it's a reminder that - after all- our role as a university museum is to provide inspiration for creative practice, and to offer opportunities for public engagement that are both innovative and founded on excellent research. It's what we're really here for.

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Why not tell us about the sounds you associate with wallpapers you remember, or that you have seen here?

Sonic Wallpapers Update Feb 2012

We're really enjoying working with sound artist Felicity Ford on our Sonic Wallpapers project. Felicity has blogged about the process quite a bit already, but we decided it was time for an update here too. She had so much to say about the project that we couldn't fit it all in one post. This the first part of the interview:

RL: You were interviewing people for a week at the end of last year; how did that go and what did you make of interviewees' responses?
FF: How people feel about wallpaper is quite personal, and I wanted the interviews to have that informal nature of discussions about decorating which people have in their own homes. For this reason we decided that I would interview people already known to me so that they would feel relaxed enough to share their real views on the wallpapers. We also decided that some people would come in pairs so that I could try and capture the specific dynamics of two people arguing about a wallpaper design! One fear I had was that some of the wallpaper samples would be so outside of what people are used to looking at that they wouldn't be able to say much about them, but in fact this didn't happen at all. Instead, everyone went into a lot of depth about what I showed them from the MoDA collection, and everyone commented on how inspiring it was to look through such a varied and unusual selection.

RL:You spent most of January listening through and editing guest responses to MoDA wallpapers; was that straightforward? Were there many surprises?
FF: I had over 9 hours of interview material in the end, and these long, rambling conversations had to be pulled into some kind of order, so it was a time-consuming process and it took a while to listen through to everything. I decided the most efficient thing would be to match up all the comments relating to individual designs, and - through that process - to start understanding which wallpaper samples contained the most interesting potential for making sound pieces. I now have a massive audio file which has twenty sections in it, each one relating to one of the samples which has made it into the final shortlist!

The most surprising aspect of the interviews is which wallpaper samples evoke the richest responses. Some designs which seem at first glance to be quite unremarkable stimulate very interesting conversations, whereas some of the more outlandish designs which catch your eye have almost the opposite effect. Listening through to the audio, I realised we all have a tendency to look at a piece of wallpaper and build a narrative around it; very rarely did anyone discuss paper purely in terms of its design or formal qualities. I was also surprised by how evocative everyone found the smaller samples - particularly the ones with a faded, vintage appearance. Nearly everyone commented that such wallpaper pieces were hard to think of as samples for a room, because they seem a bit like an artefact - or a trace - from someone else's life, and not at all like a page in a fresh sample book.

RL: Shortlisting MoDA wallpapers – what was thinking behind reducing the number of wallpapers from 50 to 20?
FF: This was entirely led by the sound-editing process. Wallpaper pieces which only generated a couple of comments were culled because I want the sound pieces to offer several perspectives on each design. I also culled wallpaper samples which hadn't really provoked discussions which I could imagine recording sounds for. It's very important to me that there is a strong relationship between the sounds and the wallpaper; where I couldn't see how to build this, I rejected a wallpaper.
This process was not straightforward, and some of the designs which I personally love from a visual perspective were reluctantly expelled from the shortlist, because there just wasn't enough usable interview material to work with. I was also sad that one design (see image below) featuring many nails printed on it didn't make it, as I had been looking forward to recording the sounds of scattering nails on the floor after one interviewee commented that the design made him think of this! On the other hand, some of the wallpaper samples which I wasn't initially thrilled about working with have become much more interesting to me, because of the things people have said about them.

Tacks designed by Alan Shillingford
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (BADDA 4755, 4756, 4757)

This project is all about exploring the MoDA wallpaper collection through sound, and what people said about the wallpaper samples really had to lead the selection process. Listening to other people's perspectives on the wallpaper samples made me see them differently, and I hope that this will be true for people who hear the Sonic Wallpaper pieces at the end of this project.

RL: Once you had edited the responses and culled the papers the next stage was to match everyday sounds – have you started this process?
FF: At the moment I am making lists of sounds which need to be recorded to best animate the things said in interviews. I love lists of sounds; I think they are very evocative, and the more I reflect on a list of sounds, the clearer I become about where I need to go to actually record what I can hear in my head. One sound-list associated with a wallpaper design so far reads:
  • thorns - perhaps the sound of teasels? "sparkly" "spiny"
  • twigs snapping underfoot
  • the sound of wind in pine trees
  • the specific dead air of a closely-planted wood
  • peeling bark off a birch tree - just that very thin layer
  • air, the slight tinkle of a dog-collar jangling

...so you'll see it's quite specific, and I need to consider quite carefully what sorts of places might yield up some of these sounds, and to look at maps so that I don't end up going to a woodland area which is right beside a motorway, for instance, because in that case the sound of cars would dominate and not conjure up the imaginary world inspired by this particular wallpaper design at all! All the interviews refer to earlier periods in history in one way or another - because of the historic quality of MoDA's wallpaper collection. I think the process of recording sounds needs to be in accord with this. If someone talks about a wallpaper reminding them of an old, Victorian house, the sounds which follow should evoke that period, and the acoustics of a space which is not kitted out with 21st century technology (photocopiers, electric kettles, mobile phones etc.).

As you can see Felicity has been very busy. Catch the second half of the interview with Felicity next week. For more info about the project go to Felicity's Sonic Wallpapers blog.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Signs of the spring

Watercolour study of a tulip, 1909, Winifred Mold. (SD26505)
This naturalistic study of a tulip forms part of the Silver Studio’s collection of Winifred Mold’s sketches and designs, for dress and interior fabrics between 1910 and 1940. 

Winifred Mold was one of a small number of female designers employed by the Silver Studio during that period. Many of her finished designs were worked up from such naturalistic studies:

Winifred Mold printed textile design 1927. (SD8824)

(For further information on Winifred Mold, please refer to:Protheroe, Keren. Bloom and Blotch: The Floral  Print and Modernity in the Textile  Designs of  Winifred Mold and Minnie McLeish 1910-1930 ,  unpublished PhD thesis, Kingston University,  2013.  Also: The Silver Studio and Women Designers - Keren Protheroe at MoDA).

Tulips figure as a popular flower throughout the history of Silver Studio design, often used as a highly stylized floral motif:


l-r:  Design in crayon  and charcoal c. 1895 (SD11198); The Tulip Garden Frieze, 1902 (SW649); Art Nouveau design, c. 1905 (SD26789); Design for a printed furnishing by Lewis Jones for the Silver Studio, 1932 (SD447). 

The flower’s perceived six petal symmetry makes it particularly useful for adaptation into many repetitive pattern design formats, and its elegant simplicity works well in popular ornate Art Nouveaux designs, as well as for pared down 1930s imagery.

The tulip itself gained legendary status as a commodity in Europe during the 17th century, when it was imported from Turkey to Holland. This formed the background of the popular novel  Tulip Fever (Deborah Moggach, London: Vintage Books, 1999) and is a featured subject of Anna Pavord’s study of the flower and its origins: The Tulip (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

So, the growing and marketing of the cut flowers and bulbs has long been synonymous with Amsterdam, and the tulip has become a public park staple – an emblem marking the first bloom of spring for many European towns and cities. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Women’s Advertising and Mid-century Magazines at MoDA

It is currently Women’s History Month (March 1st - 31st 2017), so MoDA’s Collections Assistant Dorian Knight has been researching the history of women as portrayed in the museum’s collection of mid-century magazines.

Looking backwards through the magazine and advice literature of the era, the late 1940s and 1950s can seem both enchanting and glamorous times to be a woman. Publications such as Good Housekeeping and Modern Woman show women invariably smiling, posing in colourful frocks with immaculate hairstyles in front of cakes, custard and jellies and with children who are often groomed to within an inch of their lives. 

Take Time To Be Young (produced by Good Housekeeping in association with Hoover Ltd), circa 1955, front cover
Object number: badda4149

Furnishing with Formica (produced by Good Housekeeping in association with Thomas de la Rue & Co), circa 1955, front cover
Object number: badda4144

However, as the design historian Grace Lees-Maffei writes in her book Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA Since 1945 (p.2),  'advice literature needs careful handling. It cannot be taken as direct evidence of  past experiences.' Instead these magazines and publications can be seen as tools used for social conditioning. Indeed, looking through these types of magazines at MoDA an uncomfortable subtext emerges. In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge wrote an influential report outlining improvements for the living conditions of Britain’s citizens under the new Welfare State. Enshrined in this report were two assumptions that have shaped women’s lives into the present day. The first of these was the importance of marriage, and the second was the importance and role of housework. Both of these concepts are explicit in the literature of the era.

In the magazine Woman’s Own, columnist Monica Dickens wrote; ‘marriage is the goal of every female who seeks happiness . . . It was not intended by Nature that a woman should have to fend for herself. The instinctive desire of woman is to attach herself to a man who will be her provider.’ It is no surprise considering those remarks that qualities considered feminine, such as beauty, sex appeal and the ability to cook were heavily deployed in contemporary marketing and advertising within the pages of magazines. 

Good Housekeeping, October 1949, issue 4, volume 56, p. 113
Object number: MJC/63/119

Good Housekeeping, May 1959, issue 5, volume 75, p. 27
Object number: MJC/63/205

This view was endorsed by the widely available 1951 publication ‘HOW TO GET YOUR MAN! For women only.’ Strategies outlined in this booklet include; ‘it is often necessary to lose in order to win. Men do not take kindly to being beaten by women at games’; ‘Don’t talk cleverly to him . . . Men are terrified of brainy women’; ‘be childlike and feminine at all times.’ In this highly gendered world-view, a woman who didn’t try her utmost to find a man for marriage was risking great unhappiness and likely future destitution.

The second theme implied in Beveridge’s report was the importance and role of housework. The decline of domestic servants after the Victorian period put new pressures on middle class housewives. In 1951, 22 per cent of married women had jobs, but being a stay-at-home mother was very much the norm, and it was very hard work. Mass Observation reports from that same year indicate the average amount of time suburban housewives spent on housework was 15 hours a day, often on a rigorous timetable. All evidence suggests that many women took their cleaning and cooking duties extremely seriously, as a sense of righteousness and morality was bound up in housework. Beneath the gleaming veneer of perfect homes was this punishing and isolating schedule. It is perhaps no surprise that the politician Edith Summerskill described the housewife as ‘one of the loneliest people in the country.’

Good Housekeeping, May 1959, issue 5, volume 75, p. 166
Object number: MJC/63/205
These magazines and pamphlets can now seem antiquated and ridiculously old fashioned in their portrayal of women and stereotyping of gender.  However 2017 is still a world where the gender pay gap exists, women from all walks of life are repeatedly judged on appearance rather than merit and the recently elected American president can publicly boast about sexually harassing women. It is therefore worthwhile using historic collections such as MoDA's magazines as a benchmark to reflect on gender equality, how far this cause has come since the 1950s and how far it has yet to go.

If you are interested in our magazine collections then follow us on Facebook (@MuseumofDomesticDesignandArchitecture) and Twitter (@MoDAMuseum) to see more. 

Alternatively, book an appointment at MoDA by emailing modastudyrm@mdx.ac.uk and come and see these magazines for yourselves. 

If you want to read more on the topic of women, magazines and the 1950s, we highly recommend Virginia Nicholson’s recently published ‘Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes (London: Penguin Books, 2015) as an accessible introduction to the topic.


Monday, 20 February 2017

Uncovering the secrets of MoDA's katagami collection

Mamiko Markham is one of the participants in MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese stencils in the Art School.  Her research uses both ordinary and infrared photography to examine the katagami stencils in MoDA’s Silver Studio Collection to determine geographical origins, dates and makers.

Here she describes her technique and some of her findings so far. 

The katagami stencils at MoDA date from the late nineteenth century, and were orginaly used for printing kimono fabric.  They are marked with stamps and calligraphic marks which tell us who made them, and where and when.  But these marks are not always visible to the naked eye, which is why infrared photography can help.  But even when we have a clear image of a mark, it requires careful analysis to understand exactly what they mean. 
  
I feel it necessary to draw attention to the difficulties faced in recognizing the stamps and writings on the Katagami.  The Japanese language has three alphabets, Kanji – the ornate script, plus the two phonetic 51 character alphabets, Hirogana and Katagana. Hirogana and Katagana have a number of characters which are similar in appearance, but present no problem when in context in prose; but could be confused in brief markings. The number of Kanji taught in school and required to read most of a newspaper is around two thousand.  A well-read person (such as a professor) may know in excess of five thousand. Unicode fonts contain in excess of 76,000 kanji, many of which are considered obsolete.

marks on one of the katagami stencils in MoDA's collection, revealed by means of infrared photography


Unfortunately a lot of the kanji in the Katagami stamps are now obsolete. This is further compounded by the stylised nature (font) of some of the stamps. All kanji is derived from script described by brush strokes and even when printed in a non brush-like style, the number of “strokes” in a kanji can be counted. The stroke count can be used to help narrow down a kanji search, but at times, it is still necessary to search through several hundred to several thousand kanji.

The calligraphy (hand painted script) is very problematic. Like hand-writing it will be stylised; coupled with not knowing whether one is trying to understand current or obsolete characters. If these obstacles were not enough, deciphering kanji is further complicated due to the “readings”.  Almost all Kanji have many different ways of being pronounced. My name for example, having three syllables ma-mi-ko, has more than 52 different ways of being written!



Mamiko will tell us more about what she has discovered from her research in a later blogpost.