Friday, 25 April 2014

Design advice from 1893: "caprice is not always art"

What does it mean to be a designer?  These days ‘designers’ are often seen as those who design high status, desirable objects, in contrast to the more everyday stuff purchased by the majority of consumers. 

But when you stop to think about it, even the most apparently ordinary objects have had to be designed by someone, even if that person is not a well known ‘designer’ name.  This was the focus of a book published in 1893, and edited by Joseph Gleeson White.  Practical Designing: a handbook on the preparation of working drawings, was aimed at designers who were producing their designs for large scale production.  Arthur Silver, founder of the Silver Studio, contributed chapters on design for woven fabrics, printed fabrics and floorcloths; other contributors included Alexander Millar on carpets, Selwyn Image on stained glass and George C Haite on wallpapers. 

Practical Designing ed Gleeson White,
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Badda969

The book was clearly seen as a useful reference by designers themselves, being reprinted in six further editions between 1893 and 1919.  But it is not generally discussed by historians of design, perhaps because of its emphasis on designing for mass production, rather than design as an expression of individual creative talent.  As the introductory paragraph states; “the aim [of the book] has been to qualify a student to produce workable and therefore commercially valuable designs”.  Its intention was to explain to the novice designer something of the technical limitations of the loom or the textile printing machine, or the kiln, in order that they would create designs which were workable, and which would therefore be profitable for the manufacturer.

In the chapter on printed fabrics, for example, Arthur Silver outlined the complex marriage of technical and aesthetic considerations at play within the context of textile design.  Firstly, the width of the pattern repeat, which is dictated by the width of the fabric itself:

“Cretonne [ie printed cotton] cloths are usually 30” in width, therefore the repeat must be a divisor of 30”; thus 5”, 6”, 7 ½”, 10” or 15” should be selected”.

Then the length of the pattern repeat, which is limited by the fact that the print is applied by means of wooden blocks, by hand:

“As regards the length, it is not advisable to exceed 21” or at most 24”, as the weight of the blocks would exhaust the strength of the workman…”

In other words, in order to make designs that were workable, a designer should, according to Arthur Silver, pay attention to the technical limitations imposed by the medium, in order to avoid “producing schemes that are too costly in their reproduction for the ordinary market”.  He had strong words for what he implied was the vanity of designers whose schemes were ridiculously costly to put into production:

"Where art is concerned, economy must not warp or cramp its expression; but caprice is not always art, and to employ recklessly all the resources of modern commerce for merely ephemeral work, is neither proof of genius, nor is it a habit likely to find favour with manufacturers.” 

Strong words, and the same must presumably hold true for today’s designers. Are similar considerations around the balance of cost and aesthetics still made today, and how are they expressed differently?

Friday, 11 April 2014

Kirsty's first steps in a museum career

Kirsty Bennell, MoDA's temporary cataloguer, tells us what she's been up to over the past few weeks:

Over the last few weeks we’ve been delighted to have Kirsty Bennell working with us at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) as a temporary cataloguer.  This was Kirsty's first paid job in a museum, and one which we are sure will lead on to greater things.  Her work at MoDA is nearly done, so we caught up with her before she leaves.

Q: Kirsty, you were at MoDA on a six week contract – can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?

I have been working on the Silver Studio collection, cataloguing original designs on paper for wallpaper and textile designs. This has involved locating paperwork in the collection store and checking this information against other records such as daybooks and the original Studio photographs, then entering this data onto a spreadsheet.  From there the information will be uploaded onto the collection database, MI+. I have also been responsible for accurately describing the designs, specifying what they depict and the artistic movement.

Q:  what has been the most interesting aspect of the work?
For me, the most interesting aspect of the work has been to study the original designs. My personal research interests focus on exploring the role of human figures in art and I have been fascinated to examine the manipulation, exploitation and decoration of the body and understand their application and aesthetic symbolism in domestic interiors.
Q: did anything about the work surprise you? what have you learnt?
Although I had previous experience cataloguing museum collections, I had limited knowledge of describing specific artistic motifs and themes that were required for recording the Silver Studio designs to an appropriate standard. Over the course of the project I became familiar with the patterns and was able to identify the designers through distinctive characteristics within the designs.  It surprised me to see the range of material that is held in the collection store at MoDA, and to learn how these can be used as a valuable resource by students and researchers.
Kirsty showing Middlesex University's new Chancellor, Dame Janet Ritterman
some designs from the Silver Studio Collection
Q: what’s next for you now? how will this experience help you get your next job?
For the next couple of weeks I am fortunate to be remaining at MoDA to work on another project to acquire copyright authorisation for images used in MoDA’s publications ‘Thirtiestyle’ and ‘Fiftiestyle’. These titles form part of a series of colourful guides to all aspects of decoration and design in the home and due to their popularity the museum is aiming to reprint them. This will require me to take on more of an administrative role, but  as a fairly recent graduate, I feel it is important to gain as much experience in different aspects of the museum and heritage industry as possible. Hopefully this will open up new opportunities for me in the future.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Student learning at MoDA: our findings so far

In my blog post of 13th January 2014 - New ways of working with students visiting the Study Room, I mentioned that I would get back to you about how our new way of working with students is progressing.  Here are the  findings so far of a MoDA project involving Year 1 BA Hons Fashion & BA Hons Fashion Textiles students at Middlesex University.

The aim of the project was to introduce the students to the idea of museum objects as potential sources of inspiration for their creative practice.  The students were asked to produce an Inspiring objects/Creative journeys blog.  This would comprise of a combination of images and reflective notes which together would document their creative journeys inspired by the objects they encountered during two sessions at MoDA. 

Those students that managed to do this successfully did more than just describe the objects and images featured in their posts. There was evidence that they were able to analyse the material i.e. say why they liked it or were interested in it, and to discuss how one object had then led to interest in another. In other words they were able to show how their journey and ideas had developed over the course of the project. This became particularly interesting when they were able to make connections between the objects they had looked at and their own work and/or experience.  The quote below illustrates how one student was able to do this successfully:
 “I chose to look at the screen printed curtain because I enjoy screen printing and the type of effect you can create using this technique. This led me on to looking at other examples of screen printed fabric and wallpapers I found on the V&A and Whitworth Art Gallery websites. I particularly liked these other designs from the 1960s, and their bold use of colour.” (extract from one of the student blog posts)
After the students analysed their chosen object in Session 1 we asked them to think about relating to that object on a personal level - did it remind them of a person or place? Did it connect to their own creative practice in terms of style or technique? One of the requirements for the finished blog was that it included a minimum of four images that related to the personal connection identified. Unfortunately it feels as if this aspect of the project was rather forgotten about by many which is a pity.  Exploring how one might connect with an object can often lead to the development of some really exciting ideas.

In the sessions some of the students discussed how the objects they encountered reminded them of particular relatives or houses they had visited in childhood. These connections can prove to be a rich seam as far as inspiration is concerned; it would have been great to have seen further exploration of this using photographs or other objects from their own personal collections as illustration. If we were to repeat the project, we would make more time to focus on the idea of identifying and exploring these personal connections.

The quote below is typical of how some students responded to ‘personal connections’:
“I imagined it (MoDA object) hanging in the hallway of a big wood-panelled house with a dark and heavy atmosphere.  Which is how I think about Art Nouveau in general.  It’s like a darker version of ‘swirly and feminine’.” (extract from one of the student blog posts)
This student connected with the Art Nouveau tapestry she looked at by imagining the type of interior in which it could be displayed. The description of this interior is incredibly evocative.  Perhaps the next step could have been to find images of this type of interior and include them as part of the blog.  Who might have lived in this type of house?  What sort of clothing might they have worn?  This could have taken the student's research on to the next level and showed their ideas developing.

In between the two MoDA sessions we set a homework task that required students to source more relevant images from a number of museum websites and archive databases identified by MoDA. We wanted to introduce these sites as they are great sources of imagery and inspiration for future work. We also wanted them to extend their research beyond MoDA’s textile collection and for the objects they found online to shape their second MoDA session. Many of them had been able to include a range of images they had found on some of these websites. This gets particularly interesting when students move beyond simply describing their findings and are able to discuss how it relates to their first MoDA object. Students who were then able to relate these images to their second MoDA session were particularly successful at conveying the idea of the ‘creative journey’ as mentioned above.

Overall, evidence from the student blogs seems to show that as a result of their encounters with objects all did embark on a 'creative journey'. Further anecdotal evidence indicates that some students were sufficiently inspired to have reached a point in their journeys where they were on the cusp of developing some form of creative output.  This of course is a very exciting development for us as MoDA staff working with the students, and gives us confidence to continue to use and develop our new way of working with objects.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Using objects to develop language skills

MoDA's collections are available to everyone, but as a university museum we are particularly interested in encouraging student engagement, and creating opportunities for learning through objects.  Most of our student visitors tend to be Middlesex University Art & Design undergraduates, seeking visual inspiration for their creative work. This might be as part of a group visit linked to a specific project, or an independent research visit they have organised themselves. But increasingly we are working with students from non-art & design courses, such as BA Hons Creative Writing and Journalism at Middlesex and BSc Hons Geography & Environmental Studies at the University of Hertfordshire.  

The visual nature of our collections means that they have a clear and obvious relevance for Art & Design students and those involved in the creative industries. But in developing a new approach to teaching and learning, based around object analysis and critical engagement, we are finding that the sessions we run
have the potential to support student learning across a range of different subjects and disciplines. 
The approach we now take is primarily concerned with helping students to learn from objects, rather than about the objects themselves.

We recently welcomed a group of Middlesex Presessional students to MoDA. These are students who do not speak English as their first language but would like to study at Middlesex.  The Object Analysis questionnaires we now use at MoDA provided a fantastic opportunity for the students to practice their descriptive language in particular, as they were asked to describe the visual appearance of the objects they encountered: what did they look like? how did they feel? how did they think the objects had been constructed? Working in small groups, the students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts with their peers, before writing down their answers on the form. They were then asked to think about what they thought the object was, what was it for? It is at this point that students need to look to their own experience and existing knowledge in order to try and understand the function of the object they have been confronted with. On the face of it this might seem particularly difficult for those not based in the UK. But talking to the students it soon became apparent that they were able to find connections between the MoDA objects and material they had encountered in their own countries and cultures.

As well as improving their English, Presessional students are also concerned with broadening their knowledge and understanding of British life, culture and history. We were able to help them achieve this by referring the students to related objects eg. photographs and retailers catalogues, allowing them to start to contextualise the objects they had analysed. For example one of the objects the students analysed was a tea cosy, which led us to talk about the significance of tea and tea drinking in British culture.

Having discussed their findings, the students then shared the results of their analysis with the rest of the group in the form of a short presentation.  It was great to see them working together on their presentations, using the answers from the questionnaires to construct sentences, and in doing so inform their peers about the objects they'd encountered.

The feedback from students and staff in response to the visits, has been very positive.  As a result we are already planning return visits for the Summer term.

If you work with students in Higher Education and are interested in knowing more about the sessions we run then please contact either Richard or Maggie.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Red Shoes, and other stories

Today is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, and thinking about his fairy stories got me thinking about the many kinds of stories that can be embodied in one copy of a book.  The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture holds a copy of Andersen's Red Shoes and other stories, a rather gruesome tale about a girl whose shoes force her to dance against her will:

"When she wanted to dance to the right, the shoes would dance to the left, and when she wanted to dance up the room, the shoes danced back again, down the steps, into the street and out of the city gate..."

Andersen's story has been retold many times, including in the 1948 film by Powell and Pressburger, and the wearing of red shoes continues to have powerful cultural connotations.

frontispiece illustration to The Red Shoes and other stories, by Hans Christian Andersen
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture ( CH5/5/19)

This book is part of MoDA's Charles Hasler Collection, and   features engravings by the renowned Brothers Dalziel. As a typographer and graphic designer, Hasler probably acquired the book because of his interest in nineteenth century printing and illustration.

But there are many other possible stories to tell about this copy of the book.  A bookplate in the front tells us that it was given as a prize for school attendance in 1879.  Who was the little boy, Frederick Eggleden who won this book?  And what did he make of the story of the red shoes?

Maybe that could be the starting point for a whole new story - what do you think?