Volunteering at Fabrica: contemporary visual arts in Brighton

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Fancy volunteering in the visual arts? Student Rosie Clarke (BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society) gives a taste of her experiences a
t Brighton’s Fabrica.

Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with some of the events and exhibitions which happen behind closed doors in the cool, quiet atmosphere of an old church on Duke Street. You may have been inside Fabrica, or you may have walked straight past like I had countless times before, but now I urge you to stop and have a look.

It’s a wonderful building, with walls so thick that even the busiest Saturday Brighton tourists are muffled, and a roof that vaults high into shafts of sunlight. Fabrica hosts contemporary visual art exhibitions and holds all manner of events, from films to workshops to talks. It’s an organisation which commissions art works in relation to the building itself, creating a feeling that is unique to Fabrica.

My role as a volunteer means helping out during exhibitions: I talk to the public about the current artists on display and the work that Fabrica does elsewhere. So far I’ve been involved with The Blue Route (by Kaarina Kaikkonen), Resonance (Susie Macmurray), and A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (Jordan Baseman). When I applied to become a volunteer at Fabrica I wanted to learn how a gallery functions, meet some new people, and perhaps be inspired in my own creativity. However there is so much more to being a Fabrica volunteer than just standing in a gallery.

One great opportunity was being able to contribute to The Response, a magazine put together by Fabrica volunteers alongside each exhibition, featuring our own artwork or writing. It was great to be a part of the editing team and have the chance to get my work read by hundreds of visitors. We responded to Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route, which used reclaimed shirts to project ideas about loss and longing. You may have seen some of Kaarina’s work wrapped around the clock tower in Churchill Square. We used the shirt as a starting point, and the magazine content grew from there.

During the set-up of Resonance I found out how to put together an installation, by spending a few days stitching reams of sheet-music into cones for the final piece – getting to know many interesting people along the way. It felt like time had stopped, if not for the fact that every time I glanced up there would be another huge new limb of the paper sculpture suspended above, the product of our labour. This photo was taken halfway through…

Installation of Resonance by Susie Macmurray. Fabrica, 2013. Photograph by Rosie Clarke.

There are also plenty of evening events that are held in conjunction with the current exhibitions, such as panel discussions and film screenings. In October I invigilated for “Nothing Lasts Forever (Nor Should It)”, a frank and heartening discussion about death and dying to compliment A Cold Hand on a Cold Day. The series looked at ways of dying (inevitable as it is) and raised the question, why are we so averse to talking about death? I remember one of the speakers describing pain, as “a vessel of grief.” Its moments such as this that I appreciate the depth and essence of Fabrica’s work, which goes so much further than the visual arts.

So within all these experiences, I’ve learnt that by engaging with unfamiliar things there’s a lot to be discovered. The best aspect of Fabrica is their willingness to encourage new ideas, and allow volunteers such as myself to take on more responsibility. If you’d like to get involved too, you can download an application form from Fabrica’s website, or come along to one of their events to find out more. Fabrica’s next exhibition features Jacob Dahlgren’s On Balance and it runs from 5 April to 26 May 2014.

Mirrors and rainbows: Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio

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MA History of Design and Material Culture
student E-J Scott was spellbound on a field trip to Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio in London.

“The idea was to have a window on the world.” Andrew Logan.

Entering Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio, one is literally tripping the light fantastic.  As our MA group climbed the stairs to his crystal palace of creativity, we were visually bombarded by a menagerie of flying horses, queer medusa statues and warped, plastic toy landscapes.  We had stepped inside a diorama of his imagination, where the kaleidoscopic colours crashed and banged loudly enough to make audible our group’s shared delight.

Sally Reynolds smiles in Logan’s sunlit studio. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Out trip to Logan’s studio followed our morning at Zhandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textile Museum.  A six foot high photograph of him in a dress designed by Rhodes depicted the friendship they have shared since the early seventies. Rhodes still designs half his frocks (the dresses are split down the middle, representing transformation) for his Alternative Miss World appearances, the outrageous drag pageant he launched in all its fabulousness in 1972.  The sculpture he made of her is housed in the National Portrait Gallery.  Zandra describes herself and Logan as “blood brothers”.

Logan (pink t-shirt) explains his curiosities to the curious! Photograph by Professor Lou Taylor.

A sculptor, painter, performance artist, jeweller, qualified architect and flamboyant London queen, Logan is the only living artist in Europe to have a museum dedicated to his work (The Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture, Berriew, Mid Wales, est. 1991).  His work has been shown everywhere from the Hayward Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to Somerset House and the Royal Academy of Arts.

Louisa Carpenter next to a mannequin dressed in Logan accessories. Logan’s jewellery has been used for catwalk shows by designers ranging from Zhandra Rhodes to Ungaro to Comme des Garcons. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Logan’s studio was cluttered with portraits of Britain’s most eccentric queer characters. They are devotedly pieced together from smashed up mirrors, plastic toys, beads and the odd Swarovski crystal.  Derek Jarman is there, and as Logan ran through the artistic career he formed in London’s underground scene, he nonchalantly contextualised the portrait, divulging that he introduced Jarman to Super8 film-making at his Butler’s Wharf studios in the ‘70’s.   His sprightly, sexy and curious creations are steeped in personal history.  The noticeably rough finish on many works- splotches of glue here, drips of colour there- are left over touches indicative of an artist having fun at play.

Surreal sculpture by Andrew Logan. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Logan’s public art projects litter the UK landscape, reflecting his belief that art can be found everywhere and in everything. His Millennium Pegasus on Scots Green Island – a larger-than-life bronze horse with gold and silver glass inlaid wings and a bejewelled mane – depicts hope for a new era.  Logan says, ‘It is about where we come from, and where we are going to’.  Legend has it that wherever the hoof of Pegasus struck the ground, an eternal spring appeared.  Like Pegasus, when describing his artistic vision, Logan himself can appear to be bred from the love of Poseidon, and the carrier of Zeus’ thunderbolts.

E-J Scott in front of a winged Pegasus (a signature piece of Logan’s). Photograph by Professor Lou Taylor.

Little rainbows refract throughout the studio, as if they somehow shone straight from the glimmer in the craftsman’s eye.  As energetic as it is inventive, Logan’s works reflect his dreamy optimism, his colourful nature and his extraordinary warmth.  He not only welcomed our MA History of Design and Material Culture group into his creative space, he welcomed us into his world. My guess is Dr Annebella Pollen did not want to leave… at least, not without the  frog brooch in his Emporium gripped tightly in her clutches.  Speaking for myself, the visit to Logan’s studio – a self-created space, funded by the success of his lifelong dedication to his artistic pursuits – was a source of unequivocal inspiration.  Believing it is possible to live another kind of life – an enchanted life of art, whimsy and make-believe – is one thing; being brave and clever enough to make it happen is altogether another.   Just as Logan’s work resides in a boisterous space somewhere between fine art on the one side, and craft on the other, so too, Logan’s faery-like attitude toward the art of living is protected and crystallized in his castle: a chrysalis that dangles on the increasingly dirty, corporate, capitalist London skyline, home to a rare butterfly of a man.  This visit made the value of my study ring true, and I caught the train back to Brighton full of shiny ambition.

A pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus

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BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society
student Stan Portus takes a trip to Germany and considers the relationship between a Modernist heritage and a Postmodern present

This year marks the 20th anniversary of architect Zaha Hadid’s first commission, the Fire Station at the Vitra Campus, located just outside Basel in Will-am-Rhein, Germany.  A new installation outside the building, entitled Prima, was commissioned from Hadid by Swarovski to mark the anniversary. Her original drawings for the Fire Station were used to create the five angular components of the sculpture, embodying ideas of action and speed. Hadid believes buildings should float: observing the juxtaposition of these structures, it is difficult to deny that this had been achieved.

Vitra is a company with quality and ‘good design’ at the forefront of its ethos. Entering the Campus as an architecture and furniture fan, it was hard to be disappointed. Since the site largely burnt down in 1981, Rolf Fehlbaum, son of Willi Fehlbaum the founder of Vitra, has transformed the site into a ‘playing field’ committed to ‘experimentation and artistic excellence’. The architect Philip Johnson described Vitra Campus as the first place since Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927 to bring together the most distinguished architects in the western world.

VitraHaus, Herzog & de Meuron, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, 2010.

VitraHaus, Herzog & de Meuron, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, 2010. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

Rolf Fehlbaum’s personal collection of furniture forms the basis of the Vitra Design Museum, housed on the Campus in the building of another Pritzker winning architect, Frank Gehry. Opened in 1989, the same year as London’s Design Museum, Gehry’s first building outside America took a radically different approach to its British counterpart. Unlike the London structure, a re-clad warehouse on Shad Thames that harks back to the Modernist style of Le Corbusier, Gehry’s building represents the contemporary Postmodern deconstructivist style he would explore further in his later work, notably the Guggenheim museums. Ron Arad, when asked what the best and worst things of 1989 were by Design magazine (December, 1989), praised Vitra’s Museum and complained that at the ‘safe’ London building ‘visitors don’t see anything they haven’t seen before’.

The pedigree of the architecture and design represented at Vitra sustain the company’s image as the home of ’design classics’. Vitra recently acquired Artek, the Finnish design company co-founded by Alvar Aalto in 1935. At its core Artek is comprised of Aalto’s work, including his Armchair 41 and birch wood furniture. This acquisition is an example of Vitra ensuring their position as holders of a strong canon of 20th century designers. Vitra arguably became synonymous with the Eames since acquiring the rights to manufacture their work in 1957; in another 60 or so years they will likely be synonymous with Aalto and Artek as well. However, there are arguably some issues relating to Vitra in regards to their ideas on what constitutes classic design, what they choose to manufacture and their outlook on what design should be.

In his book Project Vitra, Luis Fernández-Galiano, explains how Rolf Fehlbaum wrote a doctoral thesis on Saint-Simon before taking over the family business. The interest in a utopian socialist from Napoleonic times, who believed in the new religion of industry, left a lasting impact on Vitra’s design canon. Industrial production of furniture was the aim of designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Aalto, which was seen as a means to supply many with ‘good design’.

The Campus contains other buildings from architectural history such as Jean Prouvé’s petrol station from 1953 (acquired in 2003) and a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome (1975), formerly used as a car showroom in America and brought to the campus in 2000. Fuller’s dome adheres to Modernist ideas of utopianism and Prouvé’s Petrol Station is also a strong example of rationalised design, a fundamental tenet of Modernism. It was one of the first serially manufactured petrol stations and could be assembled easily by two people, thus reducing labour time.

Petrol Station, Jean Prouvé, Vitra Campus, built ca. 1953 and brought to Vitra Campus in 2003

Petrol Station, Jean Prouvé, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, built ca. 1953 and brought to Vitra Campus in 2003. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

It is strange to see Modernist ideas of ‘good design’ so strongly expressed at Vitra, a company also engaged with contemporary designers and architects. Postmodernism acted as a reactionary movement against such ideas. How we understand the role of the designer and material culture has changed dramatically since 1950s Modernism, where the designer was seen as able to dictate taste and often had societal aims at the centre of their work. Revealed is a complex relationship between the heritage and the contemporary work of Vitra. Walking around Vitra Haus, Vitra’s onsite show room and shop designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, one is left with the feeling that the Modernist history of design Vitra represents and manufactures will always be present, regardless of how dated the ideas of ‘good design’ apparent in some of the products are. Yet one also has to consider that Vitra has always provided a space for the new and exciting and continues to do so.

Eames wire chair seating outside factory building on Vitra Campus

Eames wire chair seating outside factory building on Vitra Campus. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

 http://www.vitra.com/en-gb/campus

 

Design History in India: Brighton students and staff take their research overseas

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History of Design PhD
student Denise Gonyo reports back from India, where she presented her research at a ground-breaking conference.

It was an honour to be part of the Design History Society’s first-ever conference held outside of Europe, ‘Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives’, held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, 5-8 September 2013.  I was able to attend by receiving the competitive Design History Society bursary and generous support from the School of Humanities. Tanishka Kachru and Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, the conference organisers, provided a fantastic and historic experience for all who participated.

Everyone was buzzing when we awoke on the first day of papers to find that the conference was featured in the Times of India.  Proceedings began with a keynote speech from Sujata Keshavan, the first Indian woman to receive a postgraduate degree in design and founder of the most influential design firm in India, Ray + Keshavan. Sujata’s talk traced her experiences of modern design in terms of economic, social, and political contexts from Independence to the present day.

There was a strong University of Brighton contingent at the conference. I was part of a panel entitled ‘Exhibiting South Asia’, which featured papers from myself and University of Brighton lecturers in the History of Art and Design, Claire Wintle, Megha Rajguru, and Nicola Ashmore. I was thrilled when one of my academic heroes, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, attended our panel and provided us with fantastic feedback we can use to further our research. In another panel, Brighton MA student Pallavi Patke offered fascinating insight into the European adaptation of Indian embroideries in the late nineteenth century. Tom Wilson, a collaborative doctoral student based at Brighton and the Design Museum (and British Council Curator-in-Residence at the NID) installed a fascinating exhibition trail through the school entitled ‘NID Traces’. Tom’s paper on the Commonwealth Institute was well-attended and insightful, especially as the Institute will be the new home of the British Design Museum in 2014. Annebella Pollen and Cheryl Buckley, faculty in the History of Art and Design at Brighton and executive committee members of the Design History Society, chaired sessions on Postcolonial Textiles, Cultural Colonialism, and Fashion and National Identity. Megha and Nicola also staged a public sewing event from their ‘Remaking Picasso’s Guernica’ project.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Fascinating papers were given on a wide range of topics over the three days of the conference. Professor Alison Clarke, Director of the Victor Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, spoke on the subject of design for development, focusing on the design reforms of Victor Papanek and the legacy of the Ahmedabad declaration. Sheena Calvert gave a thought-provoking and provocative paper suggesting that the international export of EuroAmerican design education could be understood as a form of re-colonization. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s passionate keynote speech examined the extraordinary Durga Puja goddess festivals in contemporary Kolkata, exploring concepts of design branding as well as the changing face of artistic identities fostered by these increasingly spectacular events.

Ahmedabad is also home to the Calico Museum of Textiles, a world-class collection of textiles from the Mughal era to the twentieth century.  It houses, among other treasures, examples of the extraordinary double ikat or patola textile technique that is unique to Gujarat, where each of the 100,000 threads is dyed separately before weaving into a complex patterned cloth. Nicola, Megha and I travelled a couple of hours outside Ahmedabad to Patan to see these textiles in production, all made by hand. Weavers told us the waiting list for one of their pieces is anywhere from 18 months to 4 years. I was directed to a photograph of the weavers meeting former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, presumably because I’m American, although I was more excited to see a photograph of the famous Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan paying a visit.

We have a definite cluster of scholarship on India in our department at Brighton, with at least five academics all working on different periods and topics. It was amazing to be part of such a historic conference and to witness first-hand the NID students who are the new vanguard of design in India, and to see how our university played a role in bringing this forward.

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things: Writing the gallery guide

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Second year BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies student, Sandy Jones, explains the process by which she came to assist on a show described as a ‘mash-up menagerie’.

Installation view of the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. 2013. Photography courtesy of the De la Warr Pavilion.

What do a ten metre high inflatable Felix the cat, William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, a replica Sputnik satellite and a singing gargoyle have in common? They are all part of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an exhibition at Bexhill’s De la Warr Pavilion curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey. The exhibition is part of the Hayward Touring programme that brings exhibitions to over 100 museums and publicly funded venues in Britain every year. This summer, I was fortunate to work with the DLWP on the gallery guide for this thought provoking exhibition.

The De la Warr Pavilion is a contemporary art gallery and live performance venue situated on the seafront at Bexhill. Designed in 1935 by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the Grade One listed historical building remains an icon of Modernist architecture and a celebration of the International Style. Described by Mendelsohn as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’, the building was restored and redeveloped between 2003-2005 with funding from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Rather than house a permanent collection, the DLWP flexes its spaces to support a dynamic programme of art and performance, showcasing experimental and inter-disciplinary works from emerging artists and big names like Andy Warhol and Antony Gormley.

The gallery guide project came about after I wrote to the DLWP to ask whether they had any volunteering opportunities over the summer. They wrote back saying they needed some support with the guide and as I’d worked in design before, they thought my experience would be helpful. Before I met their curator, David Rhodes, I carried out some research and discovered that the exhibition was inspired by the concept of techno-animism, the idea that everything that is in (and of) this earth is being animated from within. The show is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where non-living things are brought to life. Paradoxically, these advances in technology reconnect us with our ancient past where objects and environments were thought to possess magical and divine powers. This was quite a concept to get my head around and it took a fair bit of reading to understand it. The method of curation was also alternative, approached by Leckey as ‘an aggregation of things’ and ‘a network of objects’, rather than a display of personal taste. Using the internet as a digital archive to research and select works over a period of two years, Leckey meticulously sourced and filed words, images, sounds and video into a conceptual matrix of humans, animals and machines to create a hybrid; an exhibition where the objects are – as he describes it – ‘in the physical realm but come from the digital realm’. His concept for the show can be seen on You Tube, in his trailer-like film, Proposal for a Show. Watch it and think about the challenge that faced the curator, finding all those things for what critic Erik Davies has described as ‘a post modern cabinet of curiosities’.

Leckey is often described as a pop cultural anthropologist, and I can see why; he samples across cultures, eras and media. Fortunately, David (the DLWP curator) and Chelsea Pettit (the curator from the South Bank) brought clarity to my task by advising on the most important themes. We agreed that I would research and write about 12 selected works and that the design would be simple because the subject matter was so complex. David also suggested that I join the team on a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary (another great gallery, by the way) to see the exhibition before it arrived at Bexhill. This helped enormously although when it came to writing the copy it was challenging because there was so much I wanted to say, but no space for it.

I visited the DLWP during the installation process and observed the curators as they worked with the artist to agree where and how the works would be displayed. One highlight was watching the courier, responsible for transporting an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpack and examine each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and testing the environmental conditions. Another highlight was watching the team inflate Felix’s giant head and position it within the stairwell at the front of the building. For a gallery that last summer had rigged a bus to be half on and half off the roof, in homage to the closing scene in cult film, The Italian Job, this was a breeze.

The team at DLWP were extremely generous with their time and were great to work with; I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can: it’s on until 20 October 2013. www.dlwp.com

Felix the Cat at the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Personal photograph by Sandy Jones. 13 July 2013.

Strike an Iconic Pose: Exhibiting a dissertation

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Graduating BA (hons) Visual Culture student, Kate Wildblood, reflects on the ways in which her personal, professional and academic interests intertwined in her dissertation, soon to be exhibited as part of Brighton Pride 2013.

Collages of gay club flyers constructed by Kate Wildblood

Having spent most of my professional career either DJing within or writing about LGBT cultural and social life, when I became a mature student at Brighton University in 2010 it was perhaps destined that I would bring something queer to my Visual Culture degree. As they say, you can take the girl out of the disco, but you can’t take the disco out of the girl. My dissertation topic, Strike A Pose, There’s Something To It: Imagery in gay clubbing 1989-2013 examined the event flyer designs of Club Shame, Trade and Wild Fruit, showing how they reflected the 1970s Gay Liberation movement along with the challenges of the 1980s and early 1990s when HIV and AIDS dominated the public, political and media perceptions and portrayals of gay men.

By exploring Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of myth, my research revealed how the flyer designers Mark Wardel (a.k.a. Trademark), B_Art, Pete Hayward and Paul Kemp created new meanings by reappropriating cultural iconography and signifiers, gay or straight – be they Oscar Wilde, Grace Jones, Aubrey Beardsley, Alice In Wonderland, Metropolis, Tom of Finland or Herb Ritts – to deliver images that challenge heterosexual ideals of masculinity.

In creating new images or subverting existing images for their own ends, gay flyer designers signified certain meanings, rooted in historical context, that connect the viewer to a particular aspect of gay culture, be they childhood memories, icons, subcultures or ideals of gay male beauty. By visually representing my research through the collages Trading Poses and Fruity Benders, I too reappropriated the images of gay clubbing to create further layers of meaning. Having spent so long surrounded by gay clubbing imagery I was keen to strike new poses with the material and to represent the rich queer history we have all played a part in developing. If you will excuse the puns, I wanted to Trade in the glorious Fruit-iness of it all.

I’m genuinely delighted that my two collages will feature in the Icons exhibition as part of Brighton’s new LGBT arts festival during the Pride events of 2013, and am honoured that my work will sit alongside artists including Keith Haring and Mark Vessey. The purpose of Pride, for me, has always been more than a party; it’s about celebrating the people of Brighton and our shared pride in our city. The Icons exhibition is a perfect reflection of that pride and a showcase for the artistic achievements of our seaside city. As so many of the images I used in Trading Poses and Fruity Benders originate from Brighton’s gay clubbing scene, it feels like they are coming home.

The Icons Exhibition is at Brighton Jubilee Library, Jubilee Square, Brighton until 1 August 2013. For further information on the event, please see the Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/events/153509038156320/

For more information about Kate Wildblood’s writing and research, see her blog:

http://www.perfectdistractions.com/strikeapose

The Fashion and Textiles Museum, Inside and Out

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Hannah Rumball, PhD candidate, documents an extraordinary day in Bermondsey, London.

Founded in 2003 by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, and still functioning as her London residence and studios, the Fashion and Textiles Museum presents a constantly changing series of design and jewellery exhibitions operated in association with Newham College. On 4 June 2013 the MA History of Design student group, joined by Professor Lou Taylor and Dr Annebella Pollen, were given unprecedented access to the museum’s current exhibition, Zandra’s cutting and print room, and even to her home. As Curator, our fellow Masters student Dennis Nothdruft was in a perfect position to provide an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of the site.

The day commenced with a visit to the hit show Kaffe Fassett: A Life in Colour. The gallery space had been skilfully curated as a unified flowing composition that also managed to represent the core themes of each of the craft practitioner’s creative phases through painting, knitting, textile design and quilting. The relatively modest size of the exhibition space and the overlapping arrangement of the exhibited pieces created an intimate and homely environment for the textiles, much as you may imagine Kaffe envisioned them in use. A heavy wool knitted handmade cardigan, for example, draped over the back of a chair, sat as if its owner had just abandoned it. A Wedgwood-inspired cabbage teapot stood as if ready for pouring amidst the vegetable and flower motifs of Kaffe’s Berlin wool work pillows and needlework furniture coverings. This compilation of recent and earlier pieces, featuring an example of the Victorian ceramics that inspired his earliest works and which he reinterpreted through his bold colour palette, was organised as a psychedelic garden tea party on the mezzanine floor in the space’s most striking curatorial composition. The exhibition perfectly reflected the life’s work of its subject yet also combined it effectively with the bold and distinctive aesthetic favoured by the gallery’s founder.

Widely recognised as one of the world’s most distinctive designers, Zandra Rhodes’ career has spanned more than forty years.  Rhodes originally studied printed textile design at the RCA, and this practice is still central to all of her creations. Her distinctive hand-printed fabrics formed the basis for her first fashion collections, with which she crossed the Atlantic to be featured in American Vogue in 1969. Her international profile among the new wave of British designers during the 1970s helped bring the London scene to the forefront of the fashion world. Renowned for her safety pin-adorned, torn and beaded punk-inspired creations, she later went on to dress Diana, HRH Princess of Wales and Freddie Mercury, amongst others. Her designs continue to adorn well-known figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Mirren, for both awards ceremonies and on-screen roles. In addition to her clothing brand, Zandra’s current output includes costume and set design commissions for opera performances around the world. Her tireless work in the field of fashion was honoured with a CBE in 2007. She has also received a spectacular nine Honorary Doctorates internationally and is Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts. Zandra’s bright pink hair, theatrical make-up and daring jewellery have also made the designer into an icon as recognisable as any of her gowns.

Such exhaustive creativity can be witnessed first-hand when entering the rabbit warren of studios, offices and private rooms that make up the behind-the-scenes of the Fashion and Textiles Museum. Steep, narrow stair cases, lushly carpeted in bold patterns and crammed with artworks, connect the myriad of functional quarters that operate as separate sites for each of the specific stages in her creative process. Wandering through, every wall positively groans under the weight of stored and displayed material; every nook and cranny houses a design, swathe of fabric, finished garment or magazine from any of the past 40 years of her career. Zandra is a meticulous collector and archivist of her own practice and nowhere is this more evident than in the textile design studio in the lowest sector of the complex. As a functional site, the uncharacteristic concrete floors and grey walls signal the dirty-hands nature of the artistic work undertaken in the area. An enormous print table, easily 10 feet long, is bordered by neatly arranged wooden markers and screens organised likes books in a library. While digital techniques have been latterly introduced into Zandra’s textile design practice, this screen printing area is still a hub of activity. The print room also houses all of her original screens dating back to the 1960s, featuring her most iconic patterns. As we huddled around the expansive work bench, like children at an oversized dinner table, Dennis Nothdruft explained the function and significance of the space as creative site of inception, realisation and archive.

For many, however, the highlight of the visit was lunch in Zandra’s private flat, with the designer herself joining us for an M&S sandwich and a chat. Zandra’s vocal opinions remain razor sharp, and she keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the international fashion and gallery scene. Perched on a leather lounger, surrounded by architectural plants, flamboyant artworks by the likes of Andrew Logan and a collection of her extraordinary dresses on rails in a corner, Zandra had the perfect backdrop as her private rooms reflect the kaleidoscopic aesthetic of her professional and personal style. With rainbow shades of blue, green, yellow and hot pink adorning every wall of the rooftop space, Zandra’s vision comes fully alive in the space she calls home. Venturing out onto the rooftop terrace, only the stunning views of a baking hot London skyline reminded us of the outside world.

Behind the Scenes at the Musee Galleria, Paris

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Second year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History students Amy Hodgson, Nicola Goodwin and Nicola Hayward describe their ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ insight into the historic dress collections of Paris.

As part of our second year option, A Trip to Paris, we were given the chance to go on a five-day study visit to the culturally and historically rich French capital over Easter 2013. As student dress historians it was unfortunate that many of the permanent fashion museums and exhibitions were closed during our time there. However, the Musee Galliera had exhibits in various locations and venues around Paris. One of these was the Paris Haute Couture show at the Hotel de Ville, an enlightening and informative experience which showed not only examples of couture garments but also gave an insight into their elaborate and innovative design techniques. This show included many designers who are not household names, and provided a broad selection showcasing fashion throughout the eras to enthusiastic crowds of visitors. After witnessing this exhibition by the Galliera we were curious to understand the work that takes place to create such a vision.

Luckily we were given the rare opportunity to visit the Musee Galliera costume stores. Despite the renovations that were taking place, our tutor Dr. Charlotte Nicklas was able to arrange the trip through a colleague and curator who was working there. Under heavy security we began our tour of one of the largest dress collections and restoration facilities in Europe, featuring thousands of garments, photographs and historically significant records. Needless to say we were overcome with excitement at the prospect of being allowed to witness this fine collection.

Figure 1.  View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 1. View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Firstly, entering the conservation room, we were faced with an early twentieth century dancing dress being restored by expertly trained seamstresses and members of the highly regarded team of conservators. Every item is meticulously studied, conserved and catalogued before it is considered for the collection. The store rooms even feature a room dedicated to garment cleaning; steamers, hoovers and washing implements are used to make sure all garments are immaculate and at no risk of insect infestation.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

As well as garments, the museum also acquires significant documents, photographs, and accessories. All of these elements are essential to creating an understanding of the fashion industry throughout history. One of the examples we were able to see was a Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear show invitation, which offered a glimpse into the post-modern, conceptual fashion world, where the invitation is the first insight into the illusion and theme of the fashion show. The numerous records and photographs that are gathered by the Musee Galliera are easily overlooked, but are equally as important in understanding the culture, images and innovative work that surrounds, and are sometimes created by, many of these designers.

The next stage of the tour was the storerooms, where we were asked to wear shoe protectors to prevent outside germs entering the controlled space. The room is kept at a consistent temperature and monitored constantly. We were faced with rails upon rails, as far as the eye could see, all holding historically significant garments from a range of eras, and each holding their own stories. We were guided through a maze of storage containers. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen or could have imagined, and was quite overwhelming in its scale.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

We were shown three garments that had been chosen to represent their particular era, from the 19th century and early 20th century to the 1950s. All were excellent examples, embodying the style and design of the their time. A late 19th century Worth opera coat, for example, acted as a potent symbol of bourgeois decadence and the luxurious lifestyle that this social standing entailed. The second example we were shown was a 1920s dancing dress, adorned with rhinestones and velvet fringing, by an unknown designer.  Again, this piece evocatively embodied the changing notions of femininity for which the 1920s are well known. It also exemplified the innovative design and skilled workmanship that is involved in creating such a heavily embellished garment. The third and final garment we were shown was a dress that was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior in 1957/58. The dress echoes Dior’s New Look style, with hidden corseting and a full skirt, creating the recognisable 1950s fashionable silhouette.  The monochrome floral print gave the dress a photomontage effect and the motif appeared quite modern because of these elements. This small selection provided a glimpse into the varied and impressive collection at Musee Galliera. The final room that we visited showcased the museum’s selection of mannequins and the workmanship that is put into displaying garments. Differing body shapes and changing attitudes towards the body must be taken into account, giving a historically authentic form for when the garments are exhibited.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

We were delighted to be offered the opportunity to have a once-in-a-lifetime insight into the inner workings of one of the most important and vast dress collections in Europe. Even though the garments that we saw were spectacular, to be given the chance to observe the conservation, organisation, display and management of the collection was truly insightful. All of these elements demonstrated the vast amount of work undertaken by the highly regarded team of specialists who understand the importance of building and maintaining this internationally important collection.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

 

Design and Culture in Spain, part III: Almudena Cathedral

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Alice Power, first year student on the BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies degree pathway, completes the short series of blog posts resulting from a recent study trip to Madrid by examining the distinctive traditions of Spanish Catholic art.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

As we stood outside the Almudena Cathedral in the heart of Madrid, I turned to my student colleagues and set them a challenge, asking: ‘How old do you think this building is?’ Here was a chance to put into practice what we’ve been learning in our first year History and of Art and Design lectures by looking at a building of which none of us had prior knowledge. The four of us looked carefully at the decoration that adorned the ornate exterior.  It didn’t seem to fit clearly into any style or movement that we were familiar with.  There were certainly Baroque influences, which complimented the neighbouring Palace nicely, but as a whole it looked too fresh to be from that period. Our collective brain power estimated that it probably dated from circa 1875. We weren’t far wrong. Construction started in 1879. However, due to despites over decor and the turbulent political conditions in Spain during the twentieth century, it wasn’t completed and consecrated until 1993.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

The interior was, somewhat unexpectedly, neo-gothic in style. Nevertheless, the bright whiteness of this still-young building gave it a very different atmosphere to the countless neo-gothic churches I’ve visited in the UK, Ireland and France. The ceiling decoration was very fluid and modern, marked with the bright colours that one often associates with Spanish imagery.  We visited on Ash Wednesday, so the space was active with worshippers as well as tourists. Despite this, the space felt somehow bare. Due to its age, it isn’t cluttered with tombs and monuments. One of my fellow students mentioned that it felt more like an art gallery than a place of worship.  With little uniformity in the scale and style of art displayed in each chapel, it was easy to view them as exhibits. As I had been educated in Catholic school, I’m fairly familiar with what each of the religious signs are meant to indicate, but here things weren’t so typical. Christian art, as a category, is vast and ever changing, yet within Catholicism, traditional styles and forms usually dominate.

Two years ago I visited a church called Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Marbella. It was situated down a rather unassuming alleyway in the old quarter of the town.  I found the style of the interior, however, to be completely overwhelming. Many of the statues were life-size, draped in velvet robes and featured real hair. Each one was richly decorated with gold. They were extreme examples of what I’d anticipated. The iconic, highly decorative images of Catholic saints produced in Spain and other Hispanic countries are globally recognised as distinct to their cultures. Hispanic-style images of the Virgin Mary are a staple of any tattooist’s repertoire and are also often recreated in kitsch novelty items.  Examining the chapel of Ave Maria Purisima sin Pecado Concebida  in Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, however, challenged all my preconceived ideas about Catholic art in Spain. The chapel was focused on an oil painting of the Madonna. Instead of highlighting her holiness by covering her in regalia, this Madonna was depicted in white with her head exposed, carrying a light. The most striking aspect to me was how clearly youthful she was. The gospels say that Mary was in her early teens at the birth of Christ, yet in most of the art created in her image she is more like a doll than a child. The painting did exactly what religious art is supposed to do. It made me think. Although I’d heard the gospel passages countless times, I don’t think I’d really ever connected the stories to the condition of a modern day young mother. Above the painting was a stained glass window made up of strikingly modern angular shapes. This is something I’d often seen in Protestant churches, but never in a Catholic cathedral.

In many Western cultures, the presence of a cathedral is still an unofficial sign of city status.  Yet, for centuries, Spain’s capital lacked an operational Catholic cathedral.  As an outsider I found this peculiar. I’d always assumed that there was something almost innately Catholic about Spanish national culture. In reality, Spain’s religious identity is a result of a long standing power struggle between Jewish, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic traditions, as well as the amalgamation of many strong regional identities. Nonetheless, 92% of people living in Spain consider themselves Catholic although many infrequently attend church. In some regions, parishes broadcast masses on local television networks. Perhaps this explains the diversity of the art in their churches. While in the UK, we’re predominantly interested in preserving the past, in Spain religion is much more connected to the present.  Not long after I returned from Madrid, a news story about a Catalan church that commissioned local graffiti artist to paint its dome was widely reported: www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21529832. This shows that modernising trends are evident in churches all over Spain.

Ultimately, Madrid’s Almudena cathedral is not just a place of worship and tradition. It is a boast that Catholicism survived attempts by other faiths to become dominant. As a site that incorporates elements of the past and the present, as well as local and universal iconography, it’s also a showcase for the diversity of Spanish national history and culture.

Design and Culture in Spain II: Museo del Traje

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Karen Scanlon, a first year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, continues a short series of blog posts on hispanic material culture by examining Spanish dress, past and present, at Madrid’s Museo del Traje.

Entrance to Museo Del Traje, Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Karen Scanlon

As part of a recent study trip to Madrid, I made a visit to the city’s fashion museum. Although not as conveniently located within the centre as most of the other museums, this shouldn’t put anyone off from visiting, as a short underground journey from the city centre to Moncloa station will get you there.

The city’s clothing collection began with an exhibition called ‘Regional and Historical Costume’ in 1925, held in the Palace of the Library and National Museums of Madrid. By 1934, this exhibition had merged with the Museum of the Spanish People and was arranged by the government of the Second Republic in the hope of creating a display that would reflect different Spanish traditions. The museum was open on and off between 1940-44 and again between 1971 -73. From then, the collection went into storage until 1987 when it was moved to its current location and site of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (MEAC) with a plan to reopen the collection to the public. Museo del Traje started as a project that would bring traditional, historical and contemporary fashions together as a site for reference and research.

Having never been to Spain before, my knowledge of Spanish dress was, I admit, very limited. Thoughts of flamenco dancers, boleros and other ideas of traditional dress were the only images that came to mind.  However, from the moment I entered the museum and began to look at the exhibits, I realized there was much more to Spanish dress than that. In fact, the museum’s permanent collection is arranged with an overview of the history of costume in Spain from as early as the 16th century right up to the 21st century. The purpose-built interior enjoys wide open spaces to move around comfortably and without the overuse of placards, displays appear to be less cluttered than in other museums. Although signage is limited, the use of interactive touch-screen terminals provides visitors with access to further information about a particular costume, designer, accessory, and so on. That said, although objects may appear better presented without labels, the terminals are a bit finicky and can be time-consuming to use.

Space has been well organized and items are chronologically arranged, including, for example, a section on the Neoclassicism style resulting from the French Revolution and its effects on dress in 18th century Europe as a whole, and a display showing a typical 19th century Spanish domestic interior. An in-depth view inside some garments is offered; a corset for example, is shown in an x-ray image, allowing a closer examination of its construction. Another display features a partly-cut garment to reveal how the bustle’s construction was used to define the desired 19th century silhouette. Each display is a feast for the eyes and each direction offers the viewer one beautiful arrangement of costume after another. As the museum guides the visitor through its historical chronology, there is also an offshoot from the main trail, which leads to a section on regional dress. At once I recognized these clothes as fitting my original impression of typical Spanish costume. This exhibit, covering the late 19th to early 20th century, features items of dress and accessories which represent historical ceremonial dress, typical work clothes indicating specialist trades, and dress used in festival or traditional dance (in fact, the latter styles can still be seen in Spanish dance performances today).

One example of dress that was particularly striking was from the region of Montehermoso, the north west province of Cáceres, Extremadura. The museum display shows a woman sitting in a chair with colourful, multi-layered underskirts, beautifully embroidered with motifs of birds, rosettes, carnations and other flowers. The woman also wears a particular gorra, a bonnet made from very colourful straw, adorned by ribbons, buttons and pompoms. The bonnet sits on top of a colourful kerchief, which is visible from a slight slit in the back of the bonnet. This flows downwards to cover the women to her shoulders. If worn traditionally, the bonnet would appear slightly tilted forward, a result of a type of regional hairstyle that has since been abandoned. The cuffs of her sleeves and her flat, ballet-style shoes are all richly embellished with embroidery. This elaborate use of embroidery also decorates the flamenco dancers’ manton de manila, the silk shawls and fans associated with Spanish culture and the typical matador’s costume.

Approaching the end of the permanent gallery there is a section covering haute couture, and most importantly, Spain’s own contributions, including the work of couturiers Mariano Fortuny and Cristobal Balenciaga,both enormously important to the trade in their own right. Fortuny, an accomplished designer who invented innovative processes for dying and pleating silk fabrics, is featured. Also highlighted is Cristobal Balenciaga, regarded as the most influential Spanish couturier of the 20th century. Balenciaga, from the Basque Country, used Spanish culture, art, and religious dress as inspirationfor many of his evening gown and coat designs, such as the colourful, extravagant robes of cardinals in the Catholic Church. Balenciaga’s creations suggest the grand sweeping movements of a flamenco dancer or matador. The use of sashes, tassels, embroidery, boleros, brocades and hats throughout his collections reinterpret traditional Spanish culture for 20th century European fashion tastes.  Moving on from haute couture are displays on the growth of Spanish ready-to-wear, marking the end of the museum’s historical journey.

Looking back, it appears to me that the art and craft of embroidery indigenous to Spanish culture is a key signature feature of Spanish dress. The preference for materials of rich colour also undoubtedly creates a vibrant museum display. After being treated to such fashion profusion, don’t expect any ordinary ‘exit through the gift shop’ at Museo del Traje. Visitors here are invited to leave in style via their very own catwalk. With loud music pumping in the background, a walk on the red carpet awaits, surrounded by bright lights and your very own (simulated) audience. What more could you ask of a fashion museum?

The catwalk front row: From left to right; Chaqueta y zapatos, Vivienne Westwood. 1985 – 1990; Vestido, Jean Paul Gaultier. ca. 1980; Capa, Roberto Capucci. ca. 1980. Photograph by Karen Scanlon.