Mass Observation: Objects in Everyday Life

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How can historians investigate what people wore in everyday life and what it meant to them? Hannah Smith (MA History of Design and Material Culture) explores some of the many micro-histories contained in the Mass Observation archive…

For my MA dissertation I have researched practices of dress in everyday life as presented within the Mass Observation Project Spring 1992 and Spring 2006 ‘One Day Diary’ directive responses. Housed within the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep near the South Downs in Sussex, it is made up of handwritten letters, typed emails, photographs and drawings, produced at the hands of the hundreds that make up the panel of writers known as ‘Mass Observers’. This material is divided into the Mass Observation Archive (1937 – early 1950s) and the Mass Observation Project (1981 – present). It is the latter Mass Observation Project (MOP) that I have been using in my research.

The MOP defines itself as a ‘national life writing project’. Former director of the project, Dorothy Sheridan described it as, “…ordinary people observing and reflecting on everyday life…” (Sheridan, 2000:10). The intent of both the Mass Observation Archive and Project was to give voice to the ‘ordinary’ everyday person, giving them “the authority over knowledge” (Sheridan, 2000:10). Mass Observers are sent up to three sets of ‘directives’ a year with the invitation to write about a wide range of themes and events. Examples have included “Gardening”, “The Refugee Crisis” and “Your Home”.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

My interest in the MOP came about during my first year on the MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton. We were encouraged to use the MOP as a primary resource for a group project entitled ‘Interior Lifestyles’. Using the directives ‘Objects about the House’ and ‘Collecting Things’ we explored the relationships between the Mass Observers and the objects they decorated their homes with. Aside from the aforementioned project, the ‘New Years Eve’ and ‘One Day Diary’ directives that I had had the opportunity to look through particularly inspired me. As a researcher of dress and fashion in everyday life, here was access to narratives of real experiences of living, breathing people interacting with dress and fashion, rather than a constructed representation or media ideal. I therefore initially assessed these diary-format directives and developed my own methodology for using the MOP within a material culture study, ultimately leading to my dissertation research in practices of dress.

As well as being able to track the Mass Observer’s use of dress as they weave amongst different contexts throughout the narrative of their day, it has given me rare insight into the ‘wardrobe’ moment – the moment when which the bricolage of the visual self we see in more public spaces is created. Through using Mass Observation, I have been allowed the opportunity to explore not only how people use dress in more public spaces, but also in move private spaces – whether that be their dressing gowns, pyjamas or nothing!

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Initially, I was overwhelmed due to the vast amount of material and its seemingly limitless capability for endless threads and tangents of research. By reading as much as possible about how other researchers had used the material, I was able to see that every Mass Observation researcher has shared the same struggles and frustrations. Through learning from their problem solving, I was able to tailor their theories to my research interest and develop my own methodology for using the material as well as providing a structure for sampling.

With its interdisciplinary appeal the material transcends boundaries, making it an exciting resource that can always be further explored. Whilst students, academics, media researchers and the public have taken advantage of the unique collection – it is ultimately a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in everyday life. For a researcher of design history and material culture, it provides a rare platform to witness the reality of objects interacting in everyday life. Since I’ve been working with the material, the Mass Observation staff, and the staff at The Keep, have been incredibly helpful and approachable. There is an openness towards anyone that is interested in engaging with the material.

As much as it may seem intimidating during an initial encounter, this should never prevent anyone that is interested from engaging with the material. Now more than ever Mass Observation provides an important platform for recording the reality of lived experience, giving voice to the micro-histories that grand-narratives have tendency to silence. It is inspiring to know as an individual in society, as well as a researcher, that there is a space for your voice to be heard and a space that seriously considers what you have to say. Working with a collection such as this is incredibly important if we are to understand the reality of how we negotiate lived experience and exist as a society and as individuals.

 

Perspectives on Fashion Curation

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What does it mean to exhibit fashion today? Student Jade Bailey-Dowling (BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History) visited the London College of Fashion event Perspectives on Fashion Curation to find out.

For a two week period, London College of Fashion (LCF) took over House of Vans in Waterloo with an exhibition and programme of events called Found In Translation, showcasing work from the School of Media and Communication postgraduate courses at LCF.  These include Master’s courses of interest to Brighton’s History of Art and Design BA programme students including Costume for Performance, Fashion Cultures, and perhaps most relevant for those studying Fashion and Dress History, Fashion Curation.

On Friday 17 February, I attended Perspectives on Fashion Curationa series of presentations by some of the leading figures who teach on LCF postgraduate programmes in Fashion and Dress History and Fashion Curation. The event was chaired by Ben Whyman, the manager for Centre of Fashion Curation, and began with presentations from several experts in the field talking about different areas of fashion curation and exhibition making.

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Susanna Cordner introduced the London College of Fashion Archive which is open by appointment only and has a vast array of fashion objects, literature and other artefacts. The collection includes 650 shoes from the Cordwainer College Archive dating back to the 18th century. Cordner has worked hard to create an immersive experience from the archive and organises events such as the Object Reading Group, where an object is presented and attendees discuss them, and Sartorial Stories, when a guest speaker from the industry, from designers to editors, bring in an object and discusses it in relation to their career and the fashion industry.

Jeff Horsley explored concepts of exhibition making, and spoke in great detail about the fashion displays in Antwerp that he has been researching for his PhD. Themes of his talk included the importance of exhibition entrances, concepts of what ‘objects’ are within a museum context and the use of mannequins for historical dress vs. contemporary haute couture that could be displayed on a live model. This is something Claire Wilcox  – curator of the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – has explored with Fashion in Motion at the V&A by presenting contemporary fashion on live models around the museum rather than confined to a glass cabinet. Wilcox, who began working at the V&A in 1979, also spoke about changes in fashion collecting and the shifting attitudes towards fashion exhibitions and contemporary designers in a museum collection.

The penultimate presentation was an overview of the Fashion Space Gallery that is at the campus just off Oxford Circus. The space relaunched in 2014 and was described by Ligaya Salazar, the gallery director, as an ‘interdisciplinary incubator of ideas about fashion” and a “think tank for curatorial ideas and experimentation.” Although it is a small space, there is arguably more freedom than at a larger establishment, leading to innovative use of space and creative curatorial decisions. The current exhibition, Museum of Transology, curated by E-J Scott, documents objects of importance to members of the trans community and runs until 22 April 2017.

Their work also goes outside of the gallery with the travelling Polyphonic Playground. This off-site project is a kind of playground apparatus that can be used to make sound art as all of the surfaces use touch technology or electrical conducting thread to create sound.  Similarly, Alison Moloney spoke about a traveling exhibition she worked on called Cabinet Stories in which 7 curators would use the small cabinet space to display objects in different venues, including a women’s prison, an NHS hospital ward for people with suffering with personality disorders, a charity shop in Poplar and an old peoples home. At all the venues, people were encouraged to then display objects that meant a lot to them. This meant that people could get involved from the community in curation, showing the diversity of fashion outside of the museum. Moloney also introduced the project 1914 – Now, a series of films and essays summarising the themes of this event, which was displayed in the exhibition space at House of Vans and also available on SHOWstudio. Fashion films explore initiative ways to present fashion using film, visuals and sound, much in line with the inovations presented at this talk related to new ways to exhibit fashion and dress.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

The final portion of the event was a panel discussion with Amy de la Haye, Alison Moloney, Jeffrey Horsely, Ligaya Salazar, and Claire Wilcox, where they discussed what curation meant for them, motivations when creating an exhibition and generally what it is like to curate a fashion exhibition. It was fascinating to hear differing approaches on the subject of fashion curation and to learn more about how experimental the field is.

 

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!

 

My MA Story: from India to Brighton and back again

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Pallavi Patke, a graduate of MA History of Design and Material Culture, reflects on her international study journey to date

I consider myself a curious mix of all spices. Born in Delhi, I was raised in a range of different places in India. Thanks to the constantly shifting nature of my father’s job I was able to witness and adapt to diverse Indian sub-cultures: Bengali, Bihari, Punjabi and Maharashtrian. History, politics and fine arts were the three major subjects in which I excelled in high school. Thereafter, during four years of undergraduate education, I was based in the historic coastal town of Cannanore, a quiet town and a hub for handlooms, located in the north of Kerala. Here I obtained first-hand experience of the rural handicraft industry of South India. Through various textile industry internships and college visits I was exposed to Keralite, Gujarati and Tamil cultures. Although I had had some experience of visiting foreign lands with my family, including Malaysia, Thailand and the US, an academic exchange trip to Switzerland gave me a valuable opportunity to understand the European perspective in fine textile manufacturing. This, together with all my previous cultural encounters, put me in a better position to determine my career path ahead.

Fascinated more by the way traditions and cultural histories shaped the art of designing objects than the commercial aspect of textile production, I took up my postgraduate studies in History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton in 2012-13. Initially, even more than the adjustment to British culture, I had to adapt to a new teaching methodology. For instance, in the beginning I was absolutely clueless about how to interpret readings and then express my ideas coherently while maintaining an objective stand. The tutors, however, had more faith in me than I had in myself at the time. I am particularly thankful to Professor Lou Taylor whose constant support and positive criticism drove me to keep pushing boundaries in research.

Possibly Chinai (Indo-Chinese) Embroidery- Black silk bustle-back dress embroidered in silk, around c.1875-78

Possibly Chinai (Indo-Chinese) Embroidery- Black silk bustle-back dress embroidered in silk, around c.1875-78; Author’s own photograph. 11th December 2012; Source: Lewes Little theatre; With Thanks to Gerry Cortese

At the university I encountered a whole new range of prospects which could be pursued in tandem with my MA. The silhouette research project, co-organised with the Regency Town House, introduced me for the first time to the British history of portraiture and silhouette artists. What was most exciting about this initiative was working with an eclectic group of tutors, undergraduate and postgraduate student researchers and non-academic professionals. In September 2013 the annual conference of the Design History Society provided me with an opportunity to present the subject matter of my thesis before a global audience at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. University of Brighton extended enormous generosity in funding my visit to India for the conference, and given the focus on my dissertation on Anglo-Indian exchange in textile design, this felt like a fitting setting to discuss my work.

By the end of the course I had learnt a huge amount and successfully overcome my earlier fears. Participation in academic seminars and conferences introduced me to international scholars in the field of fashion, art and design history and this inspired me to do something constructive to advance studies in the Indian context. On returning to India it took me a while to reconcile my British experience with the relatively impoverished academic research environment. The first few months of 2014 were especially challenging in identifying India-based connections in the field. While I began assisting with research on the evolution of design in traditional Indian textiles at Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya or CSMVS (formerly, the Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai for a Textile Gallery Project, I found myself grappling with the parochial attitudes of Indian curators in implementing creative learning strategies. Then in August 2014, Poonam Mishra, head of Fashion Business Management at Parsons ISDI (Indian School of Design and Innovation), who shares my aspiration to develop scholarship in fashion and textiles, invited me to develop a proposal for a new study programme. My first step towards introducing pedagogical reform has been to build content for a postgraduate diploma course, Cultural Histories of Fashion and Textiles.

With Poonam at the entrance of ISDI.

With Poonam at the entrance of ISDI. Author’s own photograph. 28/01/15

Following all these developments, I now wish to pursue further research in the field of design history. This will help me acquire a much greater depth of understanding in the subject. Thanks to the studies and opportunities offered by Brighton, any research work which I undertake will now certainly reflect a more sensitive handling of subject matter, acknowledging cultural idiosyncrasies while also covering a broad range of perspectives.

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.

 

From Art History to the Philosophy and Politics of Art: on the new BA (Hons) Philosophy, Politics, Art

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How do you choose the right degree course, and where might it lead you? Will Hughes, BA (hons) History of Design graduate, describes his intellectual journey at the University of Brighton and introduces a new undergraduate degree that combines study of philosophy, politics and art.

I am Will Hughes. I come from Sussex in the UK, and am now approaching the end of my year studying for an MA in Cultural and Critical Theory, specializing in Aesthetics and Cultural Theory.

Early in 2010, I applied, via UCAS, for five different undergraduate degrees. My criterion for choosing between them was simple – that the courses they offered should be interesting. I accepted a place to study the BA in History of Design, Culture, and Society (now BA History of Design) at the University of Brighton.

I’d had no prior experience with design, and I hadn’t studied history since secondary school, but it seemed to fit the criterion. I felt that it could sustain my interest for the duration. It is one of the few major decisions that I have made because it was something that I wanted to do, rather than because of some immediate or future practical concern. In hindsight, it qualifies as one of my better decisions. Your decision about your higher education is too important to be based on what job you might want to do (or end up doing) in the rest of your life.

From the beginning, the content of the course was expansive. The courses on the degree looked at art, craft, and design – but mostly the latter two – from around the mid-eighteenth century to the present. From within this degree, I was able to develop my interests, which included politics in the focused sense (the implicit stratification of the arts, art as social engineering, etc.), which I pursued with regard to the nature of Modernism. I also developed an interest in politics in the generally accepted sense, which led me to investigate the design, poetry and prose of William Morris, the art and designs of Constructivism, and aspects of fascist architecture.

Will Hughes' dissertation, on set design in 1930s Hollywood

Will Hughes’ dissertation, on set design in 1930s Hollywood

In my third year, I completed a compulsory module on the reading of objects in conjunction with texts from other subject areas (mostly sociology, critical theory, and anthropology). This led me to the writings of Walter Benjamin, which I opted to explore in relation to industrial design and the historical avant garde. It is as a result of having studied on this course that I discovered that I wanted to study aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

After graduating, I enrolled on the Cultural and Critical Theory MA at Brighton, choosing the Aesthetics and Cultural Theory pathway. Though daunting at first, this was the work that I really wanted to do. I also followed the first term module ‘Foundations of Critical Theory’, which introduced me to continental philosophy. Keeping up with the reading was difficult. At least one new philosopher was introduced in the lectures each week. Between each lecture was the preparation for the seminar the following week.

Going from a state of ignorance to having a workable understanding of thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, each within a week, is difficult but I was nevertheless able to croak something intelligible in most of the small-group seminar discussions. Though difficult, this work was necessary to prepare me for the dissertation on which I am currently engaged – an identification of the deficiencies of Arthur Danto’s and Hegel’s teleological theories of art and of history.

The skills that I learned in my undergrad work on Art History are still applicable in Philosophy. I learned how to read texts critically, and how to craft an essay, and I didn’t accumulate too many bad habits in these areas. Ultimately, I want to organise my thoughts into a coherent view of the world. This is going to take some more time, some considerably more time. Consequently, I’m now thinking of doing a PhD.

Now Brighton is to have an undergraduate degree in precisely the area of my interests – the BA (Hons) Philosophy, Politics, Art. This degree will connect all of the interests that I had and have developed – art and representation, politics and political activism, philosophical reflection and theoretical engagement. My interest has always been in the connection between these critical moments of thought and action. Now this exists as a degree programme here in Brighton.

 

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.

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.

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.