The archive of Willy de Majo Pt I

I’ve decided to take a trip back in time. This time last year I was in the middle of an undertaking to start planning the long term care of the Willy de Majo archive. Up to that point, some the materials were kept in our external store, making this rich collection inaccessible for researchers. Because the materials had been stored externally, they could not be brought back to us here at Grand Parade without going through a strict quarantine process in order to prevent any contamination issues. Since we don’t have those facilities here, this project was a natural continuation of our collaboration with the conservation department at The Keep, after we had finished with James Gardner’s plans.

I thought the process of sorting and cataloguing a large collection of duplicate materials would make an interesting three-or-four -part blog post. Being able to show and talk about a collection of materials and the journey it takes from its original state to one which is more structured and clear for researchers is something that forces us to take an overview. Conserving individual items in collections requires me to look at the detail this was a fantastic opportunity to gain an understanding of a larger picture and I have (secretly) loved the process – well, most of the time anyway! The project gave me a chance to work in close collaboration and pick the brains of our Archivist Sue Breakell. It has been a great learning curve for me by being an eye-opener into ‘the other side’ of archives – seeing them as entities instead of as individual items.

So… I am going to start the story with a Part I of this blog ‘series’!

In the beginning, there was the order in which things were placed by Mr de Majo himself in, what I believe to have been his London office. I found two colour photographs (below) amongst his archive as I was sorting through it, and couldn’t help scanning them right away!

The archive was transferred to us in 2009 by the de Majo family after our Curatorial Director Catherine Moriarty had worked in collaboration with them for some time. It comprises Willy de Majo’s work with design organisations (for example, he was the founder of ICOGRADA), design materials and related papers, as well as photographs, in connection with his various clients. The materials date from the late 1930s all the way up to the early 1990s.

The process of getting the materials in store in an order which made some kind of sense meant Catherine Moriarty, Sue Breakell and I spent several days in our external store to begin the process of getting the materials ready for the next step of taking them through the quarantine process. This started with a plan for disposal of duplicate materials. Willy de Majo was a man of meticulous record keeping which often meant he kept multiple copies of everything. Even though work with the de Majo family had identified extensive duplication and material for disposal, this next step required further sorting – the decision was made that we were to keep three copies of items we had various copies of. And so it began!

Above you can see the way in which the archive was housed for some time. Items were kept in various boxes but they were in no particular order. The volume of the materials felt overwhelming at first glance, but we soon adopted a mind-set of ‘one box at a time’. I know archivists go through these emotions all the time, but bear with me!

The process ended up being very satisfying to go through once I had personally gotten over the nervousness about throwing items away, repeating the mantra of ‘we have multiples, we have multiples’ as I went through. We marked for disposal through confidential waste whole stacks of duplicate materials and the load started to slowly but surely feel lighter and much more manageable.

Below is a good example of the extent to which the materials were duplicated. These labels were also found in several locations within various boxes of miscellaneous materials, which made the process of matching and making sure you had enough of everything very, very complex at times – especially with limited space to spread things out in.

My absolute favourite things from the process were the Millar jar seals (below). There were several designs and the text on all of them reads ‘This seal should be unbroken’. Genius.

The collection also has various photographic formats within it. Some of these were in the form of 35mm colour slides stored in slide ‘canisters’, others black and white photographic prints in various files and folders. We also had this mini chest of drawers (below), which housed boxes of loose slides and hundreds of stereo slides. Obviously this kind of housing for photographic materials is not ideal, so the chest of drawers had to be disposed of while the slides were organised in their original groupings and boxed separately, ready for the next stage.

It was fantastic to be given the opportunity to go through this initial process with Sue. It was fascinating to already note at this stage how differently we can view things: Sue looks at the content of the materials, reading pieces of paper while sorting, when I have been wired to mainly focus on their condition. Opening my mind to an archivists’ way of seeing has been massively valued and helped me immensely as I continued with the project.

To be continued… Look out for Part II coming soon.

Archives and Exhibitions Pt. II

Where has all the time gone (she said for the 100th time since starting to write this blog)? Autumn is here, and what a beautiful autumn it has been so far too! I would go as far as saying that this is easily my favourite time of year… But this is completely beside the point, so I will crack on.

We are (again!) involved with an exhibition of some of our materials. Often with exhibitions, people do not always think about all of the processes and challenges taking place behind the scenes to enable a display of archival materials to take place safely. To bust the myth a little, I thought I would write a post the steps involved to get to the ‘end product’.

For this particular ‘case’, the wheels started turning when designer Margaret Howell visited the Design Archives over the summer with a desire to put up an exhibition in Howell’s Wigmore Street shop in London. Margaret and her colleague Jo Barber spent a day or two with us and became very excited about the posters in the Design Council Archive. There are 228 of these in total, and I must mention at this point that the selection process was done by going through the original posters and not by means of electronic selection – there is still nothing that beats looking at the originals! After ironing out some ideas, the end product was to publish a 2017 wall calendar and to exhibit 25 of the posters. It has been wonderful to see some of these gems coming out from a spell of hibernation and creating an opportunity for other audiences to see the real thing.

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All of the Design Council posters were digitised back in 2008, are fully catalogued and can be found on the Archives Hub. Providing the 12 images requested for the calendar was therefore straightforward, which meant I could concentrate on getting the 25 posters ready for framing.

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In these instances, the very first thing to do is to take time to assess the condition of the original materials requested for loan. There is always the possibility of an item not being in good enough condition to go on loan, in which case the whole ‘deal’ would have to be completely reconsidered. In regards to the Design Council posters selected, the condition was generally good, with only a few minor and easily-dealt-with issues.

The next step in the process was to fill in condition reports for each individual poster. This involves checking them to make note any tears and/or other issues which will require attention to make them ready for exhibiting. Procedures like surface cleaning and repairing tears are very time-consuming at the best of times, but due to the size of the posters, this took even longer.

When it comes to individual tear repairs, one always tries to mend tears from the verso of an item to make the repair as ‘invisible’ as possible. As an example of an exception to this rule, one of the posters had this rather large tear starting from its edge.

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The way the paper had ripped made it an awkward tear to mend. After making a repair on the verso, the tear was still very much an issue when the poster was handled.

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This meant that mending the poster on the recto was also necessary. The repair tissue gets shaped over a lightbox to follow along as close to the edges of the tear as possible. The aim of this is to minimise its visibility.

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The edges of the heat-set tissue repair get cut by feathering them with a scalpel. This maximises the repair’s ‘staying power’ by allowing the fibres to attach themselves onto the surface of the paper much more efficiently than they would if this was done by cutting a straight line. This increases the longevity of the repair and looks less intrusive.

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For entire missing areas – like ripped corners – I created infills, again using heat-set tissue. Because of the nature of heat-set repair tissue, it has to be doubled up and fixed on both sides of the poster so as to not have any sticky areas exposed. This is the process we have adapted for the mid 20th-century collections here the Design Archives, but infills can also be done by matching and/or dyeing existing repair papers to the colour on the recto of an original piece, fixing it in place by an entirely different method.

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Once the posters were conserved, notes on their condition on departure and loan status are made on our internal database. When they return, they will be taken out of their frames and their condition will be re-checked and compared with the notes taken before they left the Design Archives. Once this has been done, the loan status gets changed to showing the item is back in the collection.

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We happen to have a healthy stock of frames from past exhibitions belonging to the Design Archives. For exhibiting the Design Council poster selection, we were happy to reduce the client’s cost of framing by lending them some of our existing frames. We negotiated the process with our local framers The Frame Factory, who are always very accommodating, friendly and helpful – and who had made the frames for us in the first place. Alongside the original posters, we organised a courier to take the frames to the shop for mounting.

The posters selected for the exhibition had very specific sizes of frames assigned from our existing frames. This was done in accordance with the number of identically sized frames we happen to have and where they were going to be hung in the shop. The posters were packed for transportation by wrapping them in acid-free tissue and placing them in our specially made transportation portfolio.

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The posters have their catalogue numbers written in pencil on the verso, and these numbers were matched up with the different sizes of the frame selection I packed up to make the mounting process run smoothly.

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We then organised the transportation of the 25 frames and the original posters from us to Frame Factory. An exit form gets filled and signed on departure from the Archives and signed again at the receiving end of the loan once delivered to the appropriate person. When materials get returned back to us after an exhibition finishes, it gets signed for the third time stating materials have returned back safely.

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The framers took about a week to mount and frame the posters for us, using conservation mounting methods and acid-free, archival quality mount board. We then organised the art movers to pick the materials up, delivering them to their final destination on Wigmore Street. A day was then reserved for hanging the exhibition before it was officially advertised via the Design Archives’ and Margaret Howell’s website and social media.

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The exhibition is now open at 34 Wigmore Street, London, W1U 2RS and runs until the 20th November, 2016. The art movers will then deliver the posters in their frames back to their home here in the Design Archives, where they will be taken out of their mounts by yours truly, and put back to bed… Until the next outing!

PS. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, there is also an accompanying wall calendar for 2017 created from the digitised images of 12 of the posters. I wanted to test out putting a video on this blog, so here is a little ‘live’ taster of what the calendar looks like.

Archives and exhibitions

Now felt like a good time to write a little post about some very recent goings on. The Design Archives’ Deputy Curator Dr Lesley Whitworth has curated an exhibition at the University’s Grand Parade Gallery. The exhibition is entitled ‘Design Research & Its Participants’ and has been complied to sit alongside the fiftieth anniversary conference of the Design Reserach Society, taking place at Grand Parade next week. My colleague Barbara Taylor and I, as well as our brilliant volunteer and this year’s graduate Nika Narkeviciute, have helped Lesley to put together the exhibition, which runs until the 1st July.

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My main involvement in helping with the putting together of the exhibition, alongside digitising materials, was to do with how the materials for the exhibition were going to be displayed. They have been compiled from across six of the collections at the Design Archives, with some materials borrowed from Design Research Society members and the Royal College of Arts. When it comes to ‘hands on’ conservation and preservation, this has meant not only surface cleaning and mending, but sorting out the safest way for the items to be displayed. The selection of items in the exhibition vary from photographs to posters, volumes of books, audio and individual sheets of paper.

Lesley and I also had a fun trip to the Royal College of Arts to collect the loan of two posters and two Christmas cards for the exhibition. For the Icograda 50th Anniversary exhibition, we had a special poster transporting contraption made for us for two different sizes of posters. We have struggled to find the space to store them, but the smaller of the two came in very handy as we used public transport to get from the Design Archives to the RCA and back, with the posters completely unharmed and oblivious to the journey they had just made. We were told they had not ‘seen the light of day’ for a good while, so it is great that they are now being seen.

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From an eye-catching point-of-view, my favourite thing in the exhibition is the giant book standing at the entrance of the gallery. I absolutely love it – the execution of the idea is great, and it also serenades my current anything-in-lime-green -state-of-mind. But I digress.

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The original book consists of the papers presented at the conference around ‘systematic and intuitive mehods in engineering, industrial design, architecture and communications’, held at the Imperial College in London in September, 1962. There are two ‘normal-sized’ copies of the volume in the exhibition too – one of them is from the Design Archives (Design Council Collection), and the other borrowed from St Peter’s House Library. One copy is displayed open and the other closed.

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To create the magnificent giant replica of the book, it obviously needed to be digitised; the scanning was not done in-house in this instance. Prior to digitising anything, the condition of the original needs to be assessed. As the book is in relatively good condition, the only thing for me to do prior to its digitisation was to clean the covers with my trusted Mars Staedler in hand and wish her well!

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There are several factors that always need to be considered before an exhibition of archival (or any other, in fact) materials takes place. In a nutshell the light levels, humidity, temperature, VOC’s from paints and mounting – to name a few – have to be taken into account. This particular exhibition runs for a two-week period and consists of materials in robust condition, so these issues were not of grave concern. However, sheets of acid-free paper were placed underneath all items displayed in cases and books were given supports to protect their spines if displayed open. Pages were given polyester strip ‘holds’ to keep them in place where opened, and documents were cleaned and mended where needed. Photographs were mounted using acid free corners and posters hinge-mounted.

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James Gardner’s plans

Where do I start with this blog? Slightly nervous coming back to this after such a long absence… There have been several projects on the go after I last wrote anything, and there are always loose-ends-a-plenty hanging around to be tied up. In other words, it has all been a little on the hectic side!

To cut straight to the chase, an exciting new project finally properly got off the ground towards the end of 2015. Over a period of time, I have been going through the James Gardner Archive, trawling through the materials within it and making contents list after contents list while feeding the database with new information. The Gardner materials we have here in the Design Archives are also complemented by a vast collection of large format architectural plans and drawings on several types of paper – including transparent papers. These plans have so far been stored off-site where access and conditions were an issue.  To make the situation at hand a whole lot better, the Design Archives embarked on a project with The Keep. Working with Conservator Melissa Williams and Conservation Assistant Kristy Woodruffe, I have been kept busy dealing with these plans…

The rolled up materials were stored in ‘project bundles’. We started this rather daunting project by making a basic listing on their contents, going by what was written on the brown paper the plans were wrapped in.

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These bundles were transported, as they were, to the conservation quarantine room at The Keep, from where Kristy and I begun the somewhat painstaking process of going through them.

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The first stage was to unroll the plans a section and a bundle at a time. As opposed to assessing each plan individually, the materials were assessed as the groups they had been organised in. Each individual plan was then vacuumed with Hepavac vacuum cleaners (recto AND verso!) to remove dirt and possible mould particles – and I can reveal that this was no easy task considering the size and the rolled nature of them! It proved a challenge to have large enough table spaces to accommodate the handling of the plans and numerous weights were needed to stop the plans from pinging back to their rolled states during the vacuuming.

For ease of storage in terms of space, we made the decision to keep the plans rolled up at this stage. No conservation attention was paid to individual plans either, due to the sheer volume and workload of this project. After vacuuming, the plans were rolled back up in their original groupings and wrapped up tightly in plastic sheeting.

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These ‘parcels’ were then placed in the conservation blast freezer (there are two, called Jen and Brian – long story), which take the temperature down to -35c very quickly. Each of the five loads stayed in the freezer for 7 days. After this cold spell, the plans were taken out of their plastic wraps and placed on blotters in the drying room to thaw thoroughly.

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There were some interesting obstacles we came across during the vacuuming of the plans. Some of the plans were ‘stacked’ together with paperclips, staples or split pins.

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All metal additions (mostly very rusty) were removed prior to placing the materials in the freezer and replaced by brass paperclips (where able) or re-bound using thread. For this particular stack of plans we used thread to simply rebind it and keep the pages together as intended.

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One of the big issues with the plans was mould. All the plans were stored in the same space, which means they all needed to be treated – those mould particles get everywhere! Thankfully there was only a small percentage of the plans that had been visibly affected by mould where the paper had become pregnated with it. This made those items a lot more fragile, as the structure of the paper had become a lot softer.

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On the more light-hearted side, I spotted this little doodle on one of the architectural plans on transparent paper. It would be suffice to say that the facial expression portrayed in this reflected the way we felt on most days when battling on with the plans… It’s all in the eyes!

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We also came across a handful of plans with rather large shoeprints on them – Gardner’s perhaps?

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There was also one particularly nasty surprise which could have developed into a serious incident had we not spotted it in time. Inside one of the rolls there was an incredibly rusty scalpel blade in hiding…! It has now left a permanent mark on one of the plans but the offending article itself was disposed of in the suitable manner.

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There were also some amazing drawings amongst the plans and in some sense it is a real shame these materials haven’t been listed in detail at this point – this was just not a sensible use of resources and time. Below is an example of one of the stunning pencil drawings on tracing paper we found amongst the rather monotonous plans – this one is a drawing of the Delta Steamboat Company Mississippi Queen, which was one of the projects Gardner worked on in the early 1970s.

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The tally for the number of plans now labelled and stored neatly rolled up in archival Calico bags in one of the strong rooms at The Keep stands at an eye-watering 7,421. I am yet to amend our catalogue with the information that has come out of this project in connection to Gardner’s projects, but it is all coming together very nicely indeed!

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Unexpected discoveries Pt. II

After a somewhat frantic effort yesterday of trying to place the mystery glass plate negatives I found, with help from various individuals we have got some results! My colleague Lucy Hermann, Sally England from Hackney Archives, Dr Andrew Jackson from Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and Sara Hodson, the Museum Manager at Ilfracombe Museum have all massively helped to try and unravel the mystery. I thought I would share the findings with you while the topic was still hot!

We have all come to the conclusion that the image below is definitely from Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. I found a more modern image of the same place, and I am sure you will all agree, they look pretty much identical! The image below the glass plate negative is from a Telegraph article entitled Hiking on Lundy Island with Nicholas Crane and is a National Trust image.

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The Lundy connection was confirmed by Sally after an initial discovery by Lucy. Sally also then steered us towards Devon for the rest of the images, and Andrew chipped in saying the coastal town looked like Ilfracombe and suggested I got in touch with Sara at Ilfracombe Museum. She was very prompt in her reply and much to my joy, the locations started to unravel.

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The above image is of Ilfracombe Harbour, with St Nicholas’ Chapel to the left of the image. The chapel was constructed in 1857, so the glass plates will date from after that year – which means our guess of around 1910 may well be right.

The images below have been identified as Hele Beach, which is just outside of Ilfracombe. The bay looks very different now to what it did – though in some photographs from the 1940s and 50s still seem to have the row of houses which you can see in the distance in the mystery glass plate. The modern image below has been taken by Shaun Ferguson and was found on the Geograph website.

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The next image (see below) was identified as being Old Maids Cottage in Lee, just outside of Ilfracombe. This house is now rented out as a holiday cottage. There are a few photographs of it from the late 1800s on the Francis Firth website. The cottage itself dates from 1765 and was once home to three beautiful young ladies who were very picky about their perspective husbands. They ended up unmarried and were known as the Three Old Maids of Lee. There is a poem about them, written by Frederick Weatherly. You can read the poem on the Devon Heritage website.

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The two final images of the family sitting on the terrace have obviously been taken at the same house as image one, overlooking the now identified Ilfracombe Harbour. This has been given a possible location of Rupertswood Terrace in the town.

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The second, very blurry image of the boy on a beach in yesterday’s blog entry still remains a mystery – but one mystery out of seven is not bad going at all in such a short space of time! I am so happy and grateful to the aforementioned people who were willing to share their knowledge and help me out!

The family in these images must have taken a holiday around the Devon coast, with a visit to Lundy Island by boat. As Sara mentioned in one of her replies to my email, “it was quite a common past-time for tourists to take a horse-drawn coach to these destinations on the Devon coast”.

If only we had a way to find out who the people in the photographs are…