University of Brighton Design Archives

Collections • Collaboration • Research

A portrait of Karen Fraser

Reflections from a Jonathan M Woodham Design History Award Winner

The Jonathan M Woodham Awards are made for work in any medium informed by research in the University of Brighton Design Archives, and are made possible by the generosity of Emeritus Professor Woodham who, with Dr Paddy Maguire, established the Design Archives in 1994.  Here MA History of Design & Material Culture graduate Karen Fraser, who received the Jonathan M Woodham Highly Commended Award, reflects on her research at the Design Archives, and what the award means to her

For a module on graphic design for the MA History of Design and Material Culture, I attended a study session in the University of Brighton Design Archives led by Deputy Curator Lesley Whitworth and then Archive Leader Sue Breakell. After an overview of the collections and an exercise where our class practiced “reading” photographs, posters, and administrative documents, Lesley and Sue distributed a slim booklet with an intriguing cover design and title. Inside was an essay written by Catherine Moriarty that investigated the design practice of Barbara Jones and the radical exhibition of British traditional and popular art she mounted in 1951, Black Eyes & Lemonade. I thought about exploring the topic for my term essay, but it seemed as though everything had already been said about the exhibition – it had even been brought to life again by Moriarty and her co-curators, Nayia Yiakoumaki and Simon Costin, at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013. Yet, Lesley encouraged me, saying there was more to explore, a different angle to take.

During my first session in the Design Archives, I sat at the large, central table and began to read the notes, correspondence with lenders, and meeting minutes associated with Black Eyes & Lemonade. The quiet I experienced was different than the quiet in a library. Books, one assumes, have gone through a rigorous editing process and are created with input from many different readers before they finally reach the hands of someone in the audience. By contrast, the jotted notes I was reading were not for an outsider’s eyes. They were for the people who were fully immersed in the planning of a project, who knew the shorthand, who could make sense of the annotations in the context of what had just been discussed. The ink on the page had dried, but the ideas seemed to be still swirling and fresh. The sense that I needed to do Jones’ words, and work, justice weighed on me.

Cover art of The Unsophisticated Arts book by Barbara Jones

I booked several appointments over the course of a month, and each visit left me with more notes and possible angles to pursue. Fortunately, Lesley welcomed a meeting with me to discuss my approach to the essay, and she directed me to photographs available in the Design Council Archive that could possibly help me get a better sense of the post-war graphic environment. I was trying to understand what made Black Eyes & Lemonade stand out, and how it contrasted with other design exhibitions at the time. I remember Lesley asked whether I, as a Canadian, had any relatives, an aunt perhaps, who could tell me about British society and culture in the mid-twentieth century. When I said I did not, she offered an overview that saved me scouring dozens of books for clues. It was this kind of tailored, insightful support that contributed to my ability to effectively incorporate material from the Design Archives into my essay and, ultimately, draw together the threads of my research in a limited time.

I am honoured to receive the Jonathan M Woodham highly commended award. It feels like a small confirmation that I am heading in the right direction as I continue on an academic path and expand my horizons. Gaining experience using archives was invaluable, and I share my personal success with the wider research programme that the Design Archives develop and support. My sincere thanks go to Professor Woodham for establishing this award and generously funding emerging research connected with the Design Archives. With fond memories of my time at the University of Brighton, I have donated part of the award money to the Student Potential Fund.

Since 2020, Karen has been teaching two undergraduate courses on the fashion industry at the University of Alberta, Canada, and in 2021 she began studying for a PhD in material culture in the University of Alberta’s human ecology department.

Image shows the front cover of the Barbara Jones book The Unsophisticated Arts, first published in 1951.

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Sirpa Kutilainen • June 3, 2021

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