Irving Penn at the Grand Palais, Paris

Bookmark and Share

 

Second year Fashion and Dress History student Hon Yan Lau discusses visiting a retrospective of the work of photographer Irving Penn

Irving Penn

Irving Penn on a shoot

Nine covers

Nine of the covers Penn did for Vogue during his 66 years working with the magazine

Over the Christmas break, I visited the best exhibition I have ever seen. This was the touring work of famed American fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917-2009). The exhibition, held at Paris’s Grand Palais, was organized by The Réunion des musées nationaux in France- Grand Palais with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in conjunction with the Irving Penn Foundation. It was the first major retrospective of Penn’s seventy year career since his death in 2009 and the 235 photographic prints provided insights into his vision, work and life.

picasso

Pablo Picasso, Cannes, 1957 by Irving Penn

In the exhibition, the curators focused on eleven aspects of his career: ‘still life and early street photography’, ‘existential portraits’ (1947-1948), ‘In Vogue’ (1947-1951), ‘Cuzco’ (1948), ‘Small Trades’ (1950-1951), ‘Classic Portraits’ (1948-1962), ‘Nudes’ (1949-1950), ‘Worlds in a Small Room’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Late Still Life’ and ‘Time Capsules’. Penn’s works left a significant impact both on the fashion world and on photography and the exhibition highlighted his methods of working. Before he shot his sitters, for example, he would have a long conversation with them in order to put them at ease and to get the best out of them. He said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world […] Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe”.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 1957

The existential portraits section – my favourite part of the exhibition – included many familiar faces such as boxing legend Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.  Penn converted colour photos to black and white in order to bring out the sitters’ emotion and expression, saying: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is, in one word, effective.”

Irving Penn was shown at the Grand Palais from 21 September 2017 to 29 January 2018

From kitsch to Frankfurt Kitchen: Berlin’s Museum der Dinge

Bookmark and Share

 

Student Wendy Fraser (BA (hons) History of Art and Design) opened the cupboards in a real-life Frankfurt Kitchen whilst learning how ‘good design’ was promoted in Germany

In November, second year students on the History of Art and Design trip to Berlin visited the Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) in the creative Kreuzberg district. The museum houses a collection of 40,000 German objects manufactured in the 20th and 21st centuries in addition to 35,000 documents in the archive of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). The Werkbund, an association of designers, architects, industrialists, publishers and teachers founded in Munich in 1907, shared similar concerns to William Morris’ earlier Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. However, although they advocated aesthetic education, sensitivity to materials, quality and durability, their interests diverged from Morris’s ideals in their promotion of modern design and excellence in mass production, aiming to create a cultural utopia.

Figure 1: The museum's main dispaly area with contrasting exhibits displayed in glass-frontedcabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge. Figure 1: The museum’s main display area with contrasting exhibits displayed in cabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Museum der Dinge is located at 25 Oranienstraße and its compact space on the third floor of the building houses a shop, the main display area with glass-fronted shelved cabinets and a separate room with an example of the modernist Frankfurt Kitchen. The cabinets contain an astounding array of exhibits including crockery, kettles, toys, lamps, clocks, shoes, typewriters, tools, telephones, technology, glassware, furniture, and tins. The objects displayed exemplify the concerns of the Werkbund to preserve the quality of manufactured goods during the industrialisation of Germany and their aim to create a cultural utopia via excellence in German factory production. Handcrafted objects are shown with those that are mass produced by machine, named designers alongside anonymous makers, professionally made next to inexpertly produced items, articles made in West Germany compared with those made in the DDR (East Germany) and genuine products displayed alongside counterfeits.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Werkbund also aimed to educate in matters of taste. The Department of Aesthetic Aberrations was created at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909: 900 ‘bad taste’ articles chosen to demonstrate to the public what not to buy. Conversely, the publication of the ‘Deutches Warenbuch’ from 1915-1927 showed 1600 approved everyday objects as a guide for retail buyers and a pattern book for designers. While all of this may sound a little dry, the museum’s display concept invites the visitor to compare the contrasting qualities of the exhibits. The Werkbund viewpoint of appropriate design is juxtaposed with objects of opposing values. Accordingly, examples of ‘good design’ are shown with the kitsch holiday souvenirs they abhorred, licensed character merchandise and some chilling Third Reich goods such as SS figurines and Swastika mugs.

My favourite exhibit was the room containing the Frankfurt Kitchen: visitors can walk into the room, open the cupboards, pull out the aluminium storage containers and chopping board and really feel what it would be like to use the space. As it was the topic of my forthcoming seminar presentation, it was really valuable to experience the kitchen I had previously been studying only in books.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Ultimately, the Museum der Dinge is an account of the Werkbund’s achievements as an association and with the exception of the Frankfurt Kitchen installation, what is missing for me is the human element. Although a large number of the exhibits are everyday possessions rather than the elite items that we are most used to seeing in museums, it is not the stories of the makers and the owners that are being prized in this museum. That is not to say that there are not fascinating things to see – despite the rather academic narrative, the museum is full of wondrous objects and is worth a visit. It is a trip through the mind boggling factory output of the 20th century and the ‘bad taste’ items are as pleasurable to view as the ‘good design’ products are inspiring and informative.

Volunteering at Brighton: Gladrags Costume Store

Bookmark and Share

 

Emmy Sale, a second-year student studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History tells how Brighton University helped her to get involved with a fascinating costume project…

Life at university can offer many new opportunities: volunteering can not only help others, but also give you new experiences that can be helpful for your future career.

To complement my studies, I decided to undertake a volunteering placement with help from the university’s Active Student scheme. There are a broad range of placements in and around Brighton that are available, whether it may be to gain experience in a museum environment, assisting events organisation or in education and teaching. Whatever your interests and aims may be, the co-ordinators help to understand these in order to ensure the placement will be suitable and fulfil your aspirations.

As a Fashion and Dress History student, I understood how competitive the field is within the museum and heritage sector. I wanted to use my spare time to be productive, learn new skills and meet new people alongside my course and university experience. After meeting with Active Student, I chose to undertake a Research volunteer placement with the community charity, Gladrags.

Gladrags is a volunteer run charity and offer a unique resource for the hiring of costumes to schools, community groups, amateur art groups and individuals. The store has over 6000 costumes and garments, that volunteers find themselves overwhelmed by when first entering the store. Through the role and time dedicated per week to helping at the store, I found myself putting away costumes, which was always a test of knowledge but also enabled me to learn new things about historical clothing from other volunteers. I also enjoyed spending time in the sewing area to fix, rejuvenate or make garments requested by users of the store. Outside of my time at the store, I undertook research into Roman clothing and artefacts for the education boxes that can be hired by schools to compliment and enrich the national curriculum.

Macduff costume sketch by Duncan Grant c. 1910

Figure 1: Scanned image of the Macduff Sketch, from the Sketchbook of Duncan Grant, c.1910

Through this placement, an opportunity to be part of a project with Charleston House arose. The project was proposed as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the House and to bring together community groups to discover and explore Charleston House and its history. It involved the use of costume sketches from a sketchbook given to Charleston by Angelica Garrett, the daughter of Duncan Grant which were originally intended for a production of Macbeth dating from 1911. The production was going to be directed by Harley Granville Barker at the Savoy Theatre in London, but in the end the costumes were never made. With help from costume designer, Suzanne Rowland, a group of 15 volunteers at Gladrags set to interpret, imagine and reproduce the costume sketches of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, a witch, Lennox and Macduff.

Figure 2 The author of this article working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

Figure 2: Emmy Sale working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

We spent several workshops together to learn about Charleston House and to produce the garments. I was excited to work on the costume of Macduff. The costume sketch featured a tunic with squares and circles erratically placed and adorning all spaces of the fabric. It was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08) and the various sized squares featured on the covering of the bodies. Appliqué squares of different sizes and proportions would cover the calico tunic in a colour scheme of gold, browns, blacks and silver toned textured fabrics.

To exhibit the costumes, actors from Burgess Hill Theatre performed a mini-Macbeth within the gardens of Charleston House which we were invited to help with and share our project with those at the centenary events. It was a truly unique and wonderful experience to see a piece of history that could have just been hidden in an archive but has been somewhat revived and as a result Duncan Grant’s vision was realised through the interpretation and construction of the garments.

Figure 3: Actor wearing the finished garment in the garden of Charleston House. Image courtesy of Gladrags. Taken 29 May 2016.

Overall, my volunteering with Gladrags has been one of the most valuable experiences I have had since moving to Brighton and starting university. It helped me to contextualise my studies as well as testing what I already knew or did not know. It is an experience that I will be able to talk about to future employers as well as one that expresses my commitment to expanding knowledge to both my studies and the job roles I may want to have in the future. I would highly recommend to anyone how helpful the Active Student service at the University is and the advantages that volunteering can have on both personal development and preparing for future job roles.

Living with art and design: a trip to Charleston

Bookmark and Share

 

Wendy Fraser, a second year studying BA (hons) History of Art and Design  at the University of Brighton, delves into the lives of the Bloomsbury Group on a visit to their idiosyncratic and highly decorated home, Charleston.

On Thursday the 29th of September a group of second year students enjoyed a trip to Charleston, a 17th century farmhouse set on the Firle Estate deep in the Sussex countryside. The artist Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) moved into Charleston in 1916 with her two sons, her lover the painter and designer Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and his lover, the writer Bunny Garnett. The house was perfectly located nearby to Vanessa Bell’s novelist sister Virginia Woolf’s Sussex home and the neighbouring farm provided Grant and Garnett with essential war work thus releasing them from conscription during WWI.

Bell and Woolf were original members of ‘The Friday Club’, a group of writers, thinkers and artists who met weekly from 1905 onwards to discuss ideas in their home at 46 Gordon Square, London. After the artists exhibited at the ‘Post-Impressionism Exhibition’ in 1912 they became known as ‘The Bloomsbury Group‘. Charleston was to remain their home, studio, and hub of Bloomsbury activity for over 60 years until Duncan Grant’s death. Many key figures from the period’s literary and artistic worlds visited the house including Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, E.M. Forster and Roger Fry (who had established the Omega Workshops for which both Bell and Grant designed textiles and ceramics). The stories and interpersonal relationships behind the inhabitants of Charleston are almost as interesting as their artistic endeavours. There are eyebrow-raising tales of the sexual shenanigans within the group, unrequited love and personal tragedy.

On our guided tour we viewed 10 rooms: Clive Bell’s study (Clive Bell was an art critic, Vanessa Bell’s husband and father to her sons), the Dining Room, Library, Garden room, the bedrooms of Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their friend, the economist Maynard Keynes, the spare room and the pièce de résistance – the studio shared by Grant and Bell. Charleston was always rented from the so the interior decoration of the house was always an organic process with nothing intended to be particularly permanent or durable. The dining room walls were stencilled by Duncan Grant in a geometric design with the paint drips clearly visible, there are numerous examples of hand-painted furniture with headboards, chimney boards, wardrobes and tables decorated with either artist’s work and a peak behind the doors reveals some beautiful paintings. A number of the window embrasures have been painted and touchingly around Vanessa Bell’s bedroom window Grant painted Henry, their pet lurcher to watch over her while she slept and a cockerel above the window to wake her up in the morning.

Photo of students and staff in the garden at Charleston

History of Art and Design Year 2 Welcome Week study visit to Charleston Farm House. From the left, Wendy Fraser, Harriet Dakin, Dr. Anna Vaughan Kett, and Lisa Hinkins in the garden of Charleston. Photo by Dr. Yunah Lee.

Charleston’s furniture and decorative items are an eclectic mix of heirlooms and contemporary pieces – a 1960’s chintz bed throw from Habitat, beds from Heals, psychedelic fabric Grant brought back from Morocco displayed with 17th century carved and painted Venetian chairs, Julia Stephen’s dressing table (Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s mother), an 18th century square piano, an ornate north Italian console table, kitsch Staffordshire pottery figures and a rush-seated Sussex settle. The paintings on display are a combination of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s works augmented with paintings, etchings and prints of artists whose work they admired- Delacroix, Sickert, Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, George Bergen, Segonzac and Pierre Roy. Some of the paintings Grant swapped his pieces with fellow artists for and there are a few works inscribed to Clive Bell from French artists of his acquaintance through his role as an art critic.

Charleston does still feel very much like a family home where it is easy to imagine the daily life of both domesticity – meals be cooked and eaten, children being educated and weekend visitors being entertained in the beautiful gardens coupled with a prodigious amount of creativity – sketching, painting canvases and furniture, writing, sewing and knitting in a harmonious and productive artistic life. It is a truly fascinating place to visit.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

Bookmark and Share

 

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.

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

Bookmark and Share

 

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.

 

Why Grandma and Grandpa wore what they wore: Fashioning Everyday Lives In London and New York

Bookmark and Share


Fashion history is about much more than elite garments. Amy Hodgson has been intrigued by the everyday fashion choices of ordinary people in the final year of her 
BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History studies.

The option module ‘Fashioning everyday lives in London and New York’ has been essential to my understanding of fashion and dress history: observing and questioning the ordinary over the extraordinary, theorizing the overlooked and mundane, asking how fashion and modernity is seen in the ordinary and average areas of society, and how modernity, post-modernism, geography, capitalism, or globalization could affect everyday fashion choices. It has been taught by Professor Cheryl Buckley and is based on new research that she is carrying out. Professor Buckley has just joined the University of Brighton, and it is great that BA students are taught by staff who are leading research in the subject.

This option has helped broaden my understanding of how we look at the average person and their choice of dress. I have learned that fashion isn’t just about the most modern or groundbreaking clothing, but can be seen on the streets on ordinary people going about their daily lives. Questioning the everyday highlights differences. As Ben Highmore observes in his introduction to The Everyday Life Reader, ‘in its negotiation of difference and commonality it might, potentially, find new commonalities and breathe new life into old differences’. Negotiating the different and common, or modern and traditional is witnessed repeatedly when observing everyday fashion; how people may choose to consume the latest fashion on their own, possibly more traditional, terms may uncover issues of gender, race, ethnicity or generational differences.

This option touches on a broad range of subjects, from mass-consumption and ‘fast-fashion’, to geography, feminism and museum studies. All serve the purpose of highlighting how fashion changes and is used on a day-to-day basis. Understanding how fashion is consumed in everyday terms offers insight into society and how, for example, mass-consumption may allow a broader range of people to consume and partake in fashion on their own terms. Geography and fashion cities also play a large part in this option: how fashion operates within a city, and how this in turn affects the peripheral towns has been a key element in uncovering how fashion, and the modern, is witnessed in areas that may be deemed unfashionable or less modern.

Grandma and Grandpa photographic collage

‘Grandma and Grandpa collage’, 1940s, accessed 29/05/14, JPEG, Authors Personal Photograph.

My favourite aspect of this module is studying images: images of ordinary people on their way to work, shopping, partaking in the mundane, everyday chores that may be overlooked by many. Students on the course enjoyed this aspect of the module, choosing to study their own family photos, such as the ones above. Personal photographs of grandmas and grandpas, for example, brought to light various issues of class, modernity or geography, that were then discussed in presentations and class debates. This un-picking of images highlighted how society consumes and chooses to engage in fashion, challenging the understanding of fashion as structured. Studying a variety of images highlighted how a mix of old and new silhouettes are constantly seen through all decades, proving that fashion is a constant recirculation, and that there are no clear boundaries.

This option has opened my eyes to the everyday. I no longer walk down the street and take my surroundings for granted. I am aware of shopping and my sartorial choices. I now question the ordinary practice of getting dressed in the morning, and how like many, I chose to represent myself to the outside world. Studying Sophie Woodward and her book, Why Women Wear What They Wear, has highlighted this aspect of everyday choices, as Woodward concentrates on theorizing these simple acts and the ‘imagined projections of how others might see them’.

This option has helped me apply various theories to the everyday, and the everyday fashions that everyone engages in, and how subjects such as, modernity, post-modernism, geography, capitalism, or globalization affect people’s ordinary choices and are witnessed in their day-to-day projected self.

A pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus

Bookmark and Share


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