Category: archives

The Archive of Willy de Majo Pt. II

After the initial sort out of the de Majo archive in our external storage unit, the next step in the process was for all of the materials to be transported to The Keep for conservation. We have a good, collaborative working relationship with The Keep’s conservation department, which is an invaluable resource for us. Personally, after I finished my PgDip at Camberwell in 2011, I volunteered for quite a while in the conservation studio with The Keep’s Paper Conservator Melissa Williams when her conservation studio was housed at The Maltings in Lewes. But I digress.

After transportation, the first step was to place all of the materials in the quarantine room. This is to ensure any possible mould and other issues materials may have are contained within one enclosed space. From here, fellow paper conservator Kristy Woodruffe and I began the process by taking one box at a time as we tried our best to not become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of materials.

We went through the materials in this manner, sorting them in an order discussed with our Archivist Sue Breakell as we went along. Every single item was surface cleaned using a museum vacuum – I dread to think how many individual pieces we ended up vacuuming in the end! Documentation records listing contents of the boxes and bundles were filled in for all batches of materials to ensure we were keeping tabs on everything at all times.

During this initial sorting and cleaning process, we also had to make sure we were thorough in separating photographic materias, foils, paper with fugitive inks and other ‘non-standard’ materials unsuitable for the freezer from everything else. Items falling under those categories were packaged separately with clear labels to enable them to be reunited with the packets from which they were originally taken. I thought I would show you some of the delightful/strange/beautiful things that could not be put through the freezer as we found some treasures! Like these beautiful pieces with watercolour vegetables on the left and fugitive inks on the right:

And these wonderful pieces from materials relating to Letts. They are a company responsible for inventing the world’s first commercial diary over 200 years ago. We came across, amongst many other materials, a watercolour skater for their Skateboard Diary 1980 and sheets of transfer images which originally came with a diary.

One of my favourite pieces has got to be this simple piece on the left of Willy de Majo practising his signature. We also came across a signed card from the movers and shakers of Icograda from the 1980s within the wealth of Icograda material also present in de Majo’s archive. He was, after all, a founding member of the organisation, which we hold the archive of here in the Design Archives. Both of these items had fugitive inks present and were therefore not suitable for freezing.

There were also some other more unusual materials we had to keep an eye out, like these mirrored squares and a strip of metallized Mylar within the stacks of correspondence materials.

Amongst the correspondence we also have letters from Saul Bass to Willy de Majo, which have Bass’ rather brilliant signature stamp – this also popped up as an embossed version on his letter-headed papers. I personally adore it!

In the client papers, there are various beautiful original pieces of artwork for the various commercial clients de Majo had, like this one for Ronson. It is drawn with ink and painted with watercolours with various collage elements adhered on. Again, not one for the freezer, this!

I could show you an endless stream of visually striking items from the archive, but I will stop here! There is obviously a lot more depth to these materials than just ‘beautiful things’, but I simply couldn’t stop myself from taking some photographs along the way of the most scrumptious pieces.

Once all the materials unsuitable for the freezer were separated and packaged, the freezer-friendly paper-based and bound materials were placed in vacuum-bags in clearly labelled batches.

The freezing process takes place in special conservation freezers which take the temperature down to -35c very quickly – I have mentioned the Keep’s freezers ‘Jen’ and ‘Brian’ in a previous post about Gardner’s rolled up plans. The purpose of this process is to dry the materials and prevent mould growth, which it does very efficiently. Mould growth can already occur within 2 to 3 days of being exposed to moisture, which is a terrifying thought when dealing with big volumes of materials. The papers were left in the freezer for seven days, after which the packs were opened, materials were taken out and laid out vertically to air-thaw for a week.

After this, we were able to lay the materials out in the conservation studio, as opposed to working within the quarantine area. We were able to perform a further sort for the materials that needed to be together for boxing purposes. The boxes were clearly labelled and numbered for transportation back to the Design Archives HQ, where we made space for the large volumes of materials descending upon us.

To get to this point, the process for the de Majo archive already took several months of hard work with a work-schedule of two days a week. Sometimes it amazes me what you can achieve when a team of people works together like a well-oiled machine – makes everything so much more enjoyable despite it looking like a daunting task when you start!

I will be adding to this story as and when time allows, so do keep your eyes peeled for Part III…

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.