Bowie, the Blogosphere and Bright Young People: Textual Fashion Conference 2015

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The breadth of topics at the University of Brighton’s international conference on Textual Fashion impressed and inspired Alice Hudson (BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History)

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Textual Fashion: Representing fashion and clothing in word and image’ conference which took place over three days at the Grand Parade campus and which was organized by the University of Brighton’s Charlotte Nicklas and Paul Jobling.

Having never been to a conference before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be an invaluable source of information and education, opening up new discourses that I had never previously encountered or even considered. Due to the sheer number of speakers over the course of the conference, the papers were split into strands containing three papers each, connected by a general theme, and three strands would be on at the same time, making deciding where to go a challenge. The number of papers that attendees had the chance to listen to over the duration of the conference was a little overwhelming. Although sitting down all day listening to other people speak doesn’t sound like it would be physically draining, it really is – it’s a good job there was plenty of tea and coffee!

There was a large variety in terms of speakers, including every career level from MA students (a couple of whom came from Brighton’s History of Design and Material Culture MA) to well-known academic researchers who are paving the way in their chosen field. It was wonderful to see papers from Brighton tutors, including Charlotte Nicklas’ paper on the appearance of the ‘Bright Young People’ in interwar novels and Jane Hattrick’s on fashion designer Norman Hartnell’s appearances in women’s magazines.

On top of the twenty-minute papers and discussions we also had truly fascinating talks from keynote speakers Jonathon Faiers and Stephen Matterson, but it was Agnès Rocamora’s paper “Making It Up As you Go Along: Labour and Leisure in the Fashion Blogosphere” that really struck me. As someone who follows a lot of fashion blogs on various digital platforms and social media sites, it was interesting to have an insight into the work of those bloggers and how they negotiate their work in what is still a relatively new platform/form of labour (hence the title). She discussed ideas such as Lazzarato’s ‘Immaterial Labour’ and Terranova’s ‘Free Labour,’ the latter of which seems all the more relevant in the current fashion industry which so heavily relies on unpaid internships.

Mairi MacKenzie speaking about 'The Man Who Fell to Earth: Bowie, Football & Fashion in Liverpool 1976-1979'. Photo by Alice Hudson

Mairi MacKenzie speaking about ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth: Bowie, Football & Fashion in Liverpool 1976-1979’

With such a huge range of subjects covered within the title Textual Fashion, including cinema, literature, magazines and more, the conference was undoubtedly a success in providing food for thought. Other highlights of the conference for me were hearing Mairi MacKenzie’s insights into the sartorial influence of David Bowie on football fans, or “casuals” in Liverpool in the late ‘70s, and Janet Aspley’s research on Nudie Suits, specifically the one belonging to Gram Parsons as she explored the relationship between country music and counterculture.

Janet Aspley giving a paper on Gram's Gilded Palace suit. Photo by Alice Hudson

Janet Aspley giving a paper on Gram’s Gilded Palace suit

I would urge anyone currently studying on any of the History of Art and Design pathways to make an attempt to attend at least one conference before the end of their course (and preferably early on). The experience was helpful not only in terms of learning new things and opening up discussion, but also because it gives you an idea of how to present an academic paper (something we all could do with knowing for seminar presentations). It was also a good networking opportunity: you’d be surprised how many interesting people you get to talk to in what was a truly welcoming atmosphere. Plus, you should make the most of student prices before it’s too late!

 

Love, Luxury and Revolution: Paris in art and design

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Iona Farrell, a second year student in BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, explored Paris on a recent study visit…

Tuileries Garden

View from the lake in the Tuileries Garden, looking towards the Place de la Concorde. Personal photograph by the author.

On the 4th to 8th of November this year, ten of us from the seminar group ‘A Trip to Paris’ visited the City of Lights. We were graced with beautiful blue skies and sunshine which was the perfect accompaniment to the elegant boulevards of Paris on this highly enjoyable visit.

Before the trip we split into three groups and each group was given a theme, either Love, Luxury or Revolution in Paris, with the task of planning a complete day in the city. Key readings were given to inspire our plans, from Walter Benjamin’s account of the historical passages of Paris to the student riots of the 1960’s. My group’s theme was Love and the book we based our day on was the fascinating novel The Hare with the Amber Eyes by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal. The book traces the provenance of an inherited collection of Japanese netsuke (small hand carved ivory figurines) back to a certain Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and collector in Belle Époque Paris.

Study in the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

Study in the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Built in 1911, with 18th century furniture and decoration. Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.

Inspired by the book, we decided to base our day on different forms of love, starting from the love of collecting, as seen by Charles Ephrussi and also the sensual side of love seen through the sculptor Rodin’s evocative works. Our first visit was to Musée Nissim de Camondo, which houses a collection of 18th century French furniture and decorative arts collected by Moïse de Camondo. The house is located on the distinguished Rue de Monceau, the same street Charles Ephrussi had lived on. Charles and Moïse were both passionate collectors and stepping into the Nissim de Camondo felt more like a home than a museum. It was filled with the most opulent rooms including a room solely dedicated to displaying porcelain dinner sets and tea services!

Auguste Rodin. Monument to Victor Hugo. 1890. Bronze. (Musée Rodin, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.)

Auguste Rodin. Monument to Victor Hugo. 1890. Bronze. Musée Rodin, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.

From there we went to the Musée Rodin, in which sculptures were interspersed amongst the grounds. I really enjoyed how they were placed outside: you could come close to the sculptures and see the expressive way Rodin rendered figures. We ended the day in the Musée d’Orsay, the grand converted railway station, which houses an extensive collection of Impressionist works. It was amazing to walk through the museum and recognise so many paintings that we had looked at in our lectures.

View of the interior of the Panthéon, Paris.

View of the interior of the Panthéon, Paris. Built between 1757-1791. Personal photograph by the author.

The diverse themes meant that each day was a completely different experience. Days were not just spent wandering around museums but actively exploring the city and its many facades. The Revolution day was spent walking around the Sorbonne area in Paris, the ‘University’ district where the 1968 student riots had taken place. During the tour we came across the Panthéon and made an unplanned but extremely worthwhile visit, exploring the endless labyrinth of underground tombs that house France’s leading citizens. Afterwards we crossed over the Seine and visited the Centre Pompidou. Built in the aftermath of the Student Riots, it houses a permanent collection of Modern art as well as a public library and music centre. We all had differing opinions on the museum, its industrial design was a real anomaly amongst the uniformity of the boulevards. Although I think its unconventional appearance was suited to its interior, housing challenging and experimental Modern artworks.

View of the Galerie Vivienne , Paris.

View of the Galerie Vivienne , Paris. Built in 1823. Personal photograph by the author.

For the Luxury themed day we traversed through Paris from our hotel in Montmartre, in the North, down to the Seine and the beautiful Tuileries Garden. The route took us through the historic passages of Paris, beautiful arcades dating back to the 18th century, dedicated to the luxurious pastime of shopping. The most elegant passage was the Galerie Vivienne, with mosaic floors and a glass ceiling, it was filled with quirky boutiques and fashion stores. The French designer Jean Paul Gaultier also has his flagship store here, and we peeped through the window at his eclectic designs. From there we walked along the Seine to the Musée d’Art Moderne and visited the Sonia Delaunay exhibition, which was bursting with endless samples of her bold, colourful textiles, as well as her earlier portraits which I admired.

Visiting Paris really brought the History of Art and Design course to life. Walking through the arcades where fashionable 19th century Parisians had browsed boutiques, or strolling through the streets which had seen numerous Revolutions; the streets all seemed to have their own narrative and I can’t wait to return and discover even more.

A Geordie in Oxford: Recounting my first Conference

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What happens at an academic conference? Current MA student Jenna Allsopp found out when she attended the Design History Society Conference 2014

In July of this year, I graduated from the University of Brighton with a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Dress History and I am now a History of Design and Material Culture MA student, also at Brighton. My BA dissertation, entitled, Negotiating Female Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century: the Case of Vera ‘Jack’ Holme (1881-1969) won the Design History Society 2014 undergraduate essay prize.

The Design History Society (DHS) is an international organisation that promotes the study of global design histories, bringing together and supporting all those engaged in the subject. Each year the DHS awards one undergraduate and one postgraduate the annual essay prize. As winner of the undergraduate prize, I was awarded a bursary of £300, one year’s membership of the DHS, £100 worth of Oxford University Press publications, 5 Paperbacks in the Oxford History of Art series, one free place to the DHS conference and gala dinner, and a £200 travel bursary to enable my attendance. DHS conferences are often held overseas; last year’s was held in Ahmedabad, India, and next year’s in San Francisco, so I was thrilled that this year’s was held in Oxford meaning, with the help of the travel bursary, I was able to attend.

Along with Annebella Pollen, Nicola Ashmore, Megha Rajguru and Louise Purbrick from the University of Brighton, who were all presenting at the conference, we stayed in the temporarily-vacant University of Oxford student accommodation in Keble College. Breakfast was held every morning in the very grand, Hogwarts-esque dining hall where we were unnervingly watched, alongside numerous American tourists, by the patriarchal portraits of past college Masters.

Breakfast at Keble College

(clockwise from left) Megha, Annebella, Nicola, Louise and myself having breakfast at Keble College

In commemoration of the 1914/1944 anniversary, the theme of this year’s conference was Design for War and Peace, exploring the relationship between design, war, peace and protest, which, as conference organiser Claire O’Mahony highlights, usually falls outside the frameworks of design history. Graphic design, textiles and fashion, industrial and transport design, craft and exhibition design were all explored over the sixty-plus papers across three days.

Having never been to a conference before, it’s hard to describe what I expected as I really didn’t know. I knew I felt out of my depth, and lacked initial confidence in the thought of keeping up with the intellectual content of the papers then engaging in post-discussion with other attendees. Despite this, I was also very excited to have a glimpse into the world that I ultimately want to be involved in, and this gave me a great introduction. I found some of the academic jargon quite alien, such as ‘keynote speaker’ (an invited speaker rather than a proposed paper), and the concept of a ‘panel’ (small group of thematic papers) but luckily had Brighton staff close by to enlighten me.

Due to the short time-scale of the conference, and the volume of papers being given, it was impossible to attend all the papers of interest. As panels ran simultaneously, I had to make some tough decisions on which I thought sounded the most interesting so I usually opted for papers which aligned with my own academic interests in dress and textiles history.A stand-out paper I attended was presented by Jane Tynan of Central Saint Martins entitled, A Bad Fit: Race, Ethnicity and the Uniforms of Colonial Soldiers in the First World War. This paper examined WWI uniform designs to see whether clothing was used to signal racial difference between British and colonial soldiers, and also highlighted the ethnic division of labour. The impassioned subject matter of this paper sparked a heated debate during the following Q&A section, which was interesting to listen to opposing views and interpretations of the evidence and arguments presented.

The paper of keynote speaker Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, entitled Designed to Kill: The Social Life of Weapons in Twentieth Century Britain also stands out as it was an area I had never considered as ‘design’ before. Using the case studies of full and semi-metal jacketed bullets, Bourke investigated the design of weapons whose aim was to cause the most ‘debilitating wounds.’ Although the paper included some harrowing accounts, and shocking images, of ballistic wounds, it was nevertheless fascinating when discussed in the context of the bullet as designed and used object.

As mentioned previously, the University of Brighton was represented at the conference. Nicola Ashmore and Megha Rajguru displayed the protest banner created by Brighton artists and activists which depicts a re-making of Picasso’s Guernica. Annebella Pollen discussed the symbolic resistance embodied in the textiles, tents and totems of inter-war pacifist organisation the Kibbo Kift Kindred, and Louise Purbrick examined the political and protest handkerchiefs decorated by jailed prisoners during the 1970s Northern Ireland conflict.

On the first evening of the conference, the prize winners were announced at a drinks reception at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. All speakers and delegates were present and it was a great opportunity to meet academics and fellow students. As a shy person. the prize announcement was a good ice-breaker for me as it meant people then approached me to say congratulations. I met a PhD student who suggested I submit an abstract to speak at her student-focussed ‘research in progress’ conference next year, and I had the opportunity to discuss my dissertation with aprize judge who gave me great feedback and advice on continuing my studies in the area.

Annebella and myself post-prize-giving at the Ashmolean Museum

Annebella and myself post-prize-giving at the Ashmolean Museum

Research from my BA dissertation has been selected for inclusion in the Lesbian Lives Conference 2015, held at the University of Brighton, so attending the DHS conference has given me a lot more confidence to speak and network. It was an excellent opportunity to see how a conference is structured and how a wide-range of subjects, which I had never previously thought of in terms of design history, can be effectively discussed and linked under a general theme. It was a very enriching experience, and I now look forward to my next conference.

 

Volunteering in a Living Museum’s Costume Department

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Sarah-Mary Geissler, currently studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, shares her experiences behind the scenes at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North.

Before embarking upon the Fashion and Dress History course at Brighton I wanted to seek out relevant experience in the field. I came to Brighton as a direct-entry second year student and had previously completed a year of a Fashion Design degree but was concerned it may be difficult to transition from making clothes to analysing them, so for 8 months I volunteered once a week at the Living Museum of the North; Beamish.

Beamish costume clothing label

Beamish costume clothing label. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

I had visited Beamish often before, the open air museum is a school-trip staple of every north-eastern child. Visiting as an adult I still felt totally absorbed by the experience: the exhibits aren’t restricted behind glass panels in temperature controlled rooms, rather everything is laid out awaiting interaction. The grounds are divided into 7 distinct period areas, the earliest an 1820s farmer’s house and most recent the 1940s wartime home farm, all linked by restored trams and buses. I was elated when my volunteer application was accepted!

Public transport depot, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Based upon my sewing experience, they started me off working in the Costume Department. An onsite sewing room is an absolute necessity in such huge attraction; Beamish has around 400 costumed staff and volunteers, most of whom work between different areas and so require 3-4 period costumes each. On top of this there were always different projects popping up, from making oilcloth table covers and floral curtains to Boy Scout neckerchiefs or nurse’s aprons; we were certainly never short of work.

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Inside the sewing room were photocopied images pinned to every wall, a large bookcase stood in one corner filled with texts on costume and period fashion and another corner housed large filing cabinets of dress patterns, a mix of store-bought contemporary clothing patterns and specialty costume patterns sourced online, all to keep a strong sense of each era’s shapes and silhouettes. Reproducing the periods accurately is a key priority of the museum as the visitors range from young children using Beamish as an educational resource to history buffs who are all too eager to point out historical inaccuracies.

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

When the curatorial team gave me the opportunity to explore the clothing archives I was thrilled! There is an expansive collection of period clothing hidden in the archives, mostly accredited to a previous curator with a personal interest in textiles. Due to the fragility of the garments and the nature of the museum, there is no way to wear these garments or display them effectively, which is a shame as there are some remarkable pieces. For a living museum it is important to collect pieces reflecting various walks of life, so within the archives was a 1980s coal miner donkey-jacket as well a fascinating 1940s wedding dress with matching gas mask. Also stored were many pieces of 19th century servants’ uniforms and other examples of workwear, garments that rarely survive past their original usage.

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

The earliest items of clothing are late 18th century while the earliest shoes dated back to around the 17th. A large number of gowns from Victorian society women were kept, worn fairly little and preserved very well. Certain pieces came with a full biography of the previous owner whereas others remained a mystery. Interestingly, it was possible to discern when gowns had been altered or re-made according to trends, we actually found two dresses which had been cut from one original gown. There were various wedding dresses and mourning clothes dating throughout the Victorian era up to WWII Utility wear. The collection becomes sparse from 1950s items onwards, mainly because these more recent items now have value in the vintage clothing market and are no longer donated freely; however, there was a delightful 1960s Biba minidress hiding behind the gowns.

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Beamish has a sentimental value to many and often people will bequeath their possessions to the museum, leaving them to someday represent their era to future generations. Currently the museum is preparing a 1950s Pit Village area, so towards the end of my time at the museum there was an influx of 1950s items and furniture. It falls to the curatorial team to decide what is kept for future use within the museum and what is archived, one difficult decision I witnessed revolved around 3 packs of genuine 1990s Safeway brand toilet rolls.

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Volunteering at the Beamish museum was an enlightening look behind the scenes at how a museum operates, not only did it strengthen my dressmaking skills but I had the opportunity to learn about period clothing, how garments were made and how people would have valued their clothes. The experience has led me to rethink what I thought defines an era, the importance of living memory in the understanding of history, and to consider what we would choose now to represent the present to future generations.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

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Paul Beard, a graduate of Brighton’s BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society, describes how the degree sparked an interest in capturing other people’s stories – and led to an exciting opportunity…

Oral history is not necessarily an instrument for change; it depends upon the spirit in which it is used […] it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words. – Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past, 1978

Recently I have taken a position as an Oral Historian and Heritage Trainee at Eastside Community Heritage. As a part of a Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) project called Skills for the Future, Eastside Community Heritage and other partner organisations are working together to develop historical and heritage skills. Focusing on East London histories from 1900, the position is geared towards training a new generation of oral historians.

Eastside Community Heritage, based in Ilford, is a community history charity funded by HLF. Run by director Judith Garfield, Eastside work collaboratively alongside a number of local community groups, charities and historical societies to document and exhibit the experience of everyday life in East London. Some of the current projects being developed include: Little German, Stratford and East London (focusing on the lives of German immigrants in and around Newham during the First World War) and Jewish Migration Routes: From East End to Essex tracing the stories of Jewish families who have moved from county to county.

'Peace Tea Party' Barking and Dagenham, 1918,

‘Peace Tea Party’ Barking and Dagenham, 1918, image courtesy of LBBD Archives, Valence House

As a part of my role, I am working on a number of different projects. One is an exhibition on display from 11th August 2014 at Barking Learning Centre, entitled The Great War in Pictures and Words. The exhibition curated, researched and developed by myself and a colleague explores the stories and day-to-day experience of soldiers and families through oral history and images found in the archive from an on going project. The exhibition is a part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War and uncovers the stories of those that would otherwise be lost.

Another project that I am contributing to is Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aimed at engaging the community in one of the largest housing estate in Europe with their own heritage. Woodberry Down is located in Manor House in Stoke Newington, Hackney and is currently under redevelopment by Genesis Housing Association. Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aims to document and record the experiences of living in Woodberry Down in light of the redevelopments that are happening. By using reminiscence sessions, oral history interviews and vox-pops, Eastside are working alongside the old and new communities to facilitate cohesion in the community.

Woodberry Down is an interesting case study for a number of reasons. As one of the pioneering new council estates to be built in post-war Britain, various buildings received awards at 1951 Festival of Britain for architecture. Fast-forward forty years, the same estate that represented utopian ideologies, it was then used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as the setting for the Jewish ghettos. These contentious issues of race, religion and class still remain contentious issues and are causing tension in the local area. With plans of redevelopment, Genesis and other organisations view it as crucial to ensure that the potential two-tier community in Woodberry Down are brought together to re-establish the old community atmosphere.

The importance of documenting oral history and life stories is become more and more prominent in cultural history. In areas such as Newham, Redbridge and Hackney it is becoming a key tool in re-engaging communities with their heritage. By putting on a range of different events, Eastside Community Heritage bring history back to the people and allow those who do not necessarily have the option to participate in heritage to have the opportunity to do so.

Studying at Brighton on the BA History of Design course gave me a solid understanding of life in the cultural heritage sector. Oral history was a method that I was eager to explore at undergraduate level. The degree gave me a good grounding in oral history as a method. Being introduced to it in the second year module entitled Constructing Historical Research, it was something I wanted to explore in my research; after completing my first interview for my dissertation research I was hooked. Curating has also formed a key part in this position; as skill that I only briefly explored in my studies. From a first year Interpreting Objects module to the final year exhibition (and a couple of small projects I had volunteered on) I had little experience curating an exhibition. This role has allowed me to build upon the skills that I had developed on the course.

There is something special about listening documenting the stories of those who are not ordinarily heard in history. After gaining a strong background in memory as a method, it was something I was eager to take on further in my career.

For more information on Eastside Community Heritage please visit the website: www.hidden-histories.org.uk.

Touching, smelling, seeing, tasting and hearing history

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MA student Ellen Martin (History of Design and Material Culture) spent a day at ‘Home Atmospheres: Sensing and Feeling at Home’,  the 6th Annual conference of the Histories of the Home at the Geffrye Museum in London.

Last month I indulged in a bit of extra-curricular activity by attending the 6th annual conference of the Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network. The group describes itself as “an interdisciplinary network bringing together academics, archivists, museum professionals and postgraduate students to promote the study of the home,” and was founded by the lovely Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton. As an MA student in the History of Design currently researching interwar home interiors, the event naturally appealed to me – and an excuse to spend a spring day at the Geffrye was more than welcomed.

This year the focus of the conference was the senses and the home (devised in collaboration with the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network at the University of Nottingham). By merging these two areas of study, a space was created for researchers from a range of fields to come forward and present their work on home histories in a new and interdisciplinary way. Specific as it may sound, you got the impression that this is in fact a field rich with research possibilities, and the ten speakers proved just that. From anthropologists to historians, cultural geographers to curators, unique ideas were presented from many disciplines, each exploring some notion of sound, touch, sight, taste or smell within the home. Nestled between the Geffrye Museum’s leafy gardens and 20th century room exhibits, the museum’s conference room was a perfect place to house such an event.

The day was introduced by keynote speaker Ben Highmore, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Author of Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, he set the tone for the day with a wonderful talk celebrating the diverse and the domestic. Particularly interesting was his bizarre fascination with… radiators. More specifically, the effects of central heating on 20th century home life (for example, the way we would once gather around a glowing fireplace, now replaced by a glowing TV screen).

Other talks ranged from the advertising techniques of 1950s air fresheners, to home-making in the 19th century American West. Many drew on unusual archive collections; one progressive historian even used TripAdvisor.com to gather museum visitor feedback! Particularly insightful (and applicable to some of our studies on the MA) were talks from Barbara Wood, curator for the National Trust, and Rhiannon Goddard, exhibition manager for Historic Royal Palaces in London. Both raised issues around the challenge of creating ‘authenticity’ in historic houses today. In these times of financial difficulty for such arts and heritage institutions, it is the curator’s job to maintain visitor numbers by creating enticing exhibitions. This is often done, Rhiannon said, by engaging the senses through use of interactive media, theatrical reconstructions and even conjuring up nostalgic smells. The full conference programme  and podcasts of the presentations are here.

Geffrye Museum almshouse room, 1780s

1780s room within restored Almshouse at the Geffrye Museum. Photo by Eleanor Black, courtesy of the Geffrye Museum. 28 March 2014.

The day ended with a drinks reception and a curator-led candlelit tour around the Geffrye’s restored almshouse. A fascinating day, which offered a glimpse into sensory elements of home life rarely touched upon in academic contexts. I would encourage anyone interested in home studies to join the Histories of Home mailing list.

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

 

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.