Sandy Jones, MA History of Design and Material Culture student, reports back from a symposium held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill in March 2017.
Borders are for Crossing, a symposium co-organised by the Internationalising Design History cluster and curator Rosie Cooper, explored the important role of migration in the formation of new aesthetics, ideologies and practices from the 1930s to the present day. Its point of departure was The New Line: Works from the Jobbing Printing Collection, a recent exhibition of commercial print from the 1930s at the De La Warr Pavilion. This showed how the movement of people, many fleeing oppressive political regimes, contributed to emerging social, technological and political ideas through new design practices. Given the current migration crisis and its complexity, it was a timely and thought provoking afternoon in an appropriate setting. The iconic Modernist De La Warr Pavilion, also known as ‘The People’s Palace,’ opened in 1935. It was designed by a Russian, Serge Chermayeff, and a refugee from Nazi Germany, Erich Mendelsohn, to provide cultural enrichment and entertainment for the townspeople of Bexhill.
The first paper of the event was presented jointly by Lesley Whitworth and Sue Breakell from the University of Brighton Design Archives. Established in 1994, the archive holds not only the Design Council Archive and those of international design organisations ICSID and Icograda, but also the personal archives of British-based designers, some of whom migrated from other parts of the world during the 1930s, including F H K Henrion (born Nuremberg, 1914–1990), Natasha Kroll (born Moscow, 1914-2004), Willy de Majo (born Vienna, 1917–1993) and H A Rothholz (born Dresden, 1919-2000).
Whitworth and Breakell’s paper emphasised that there is not a single route for migration; it is complex and influenced by a range of circumstances. Some designers brought with them experiences of working in different European cities; others had trained in different creative disciplines before their arrival. Crucial to their integration were the nodes of association and institutions, many at the core of the establishment, that supported them and provided employment. These included the Reimann School and Studios of Industrial and Commercial Art (est. 1937), the Artists International Association (est. 1933), the Council of Industrial Design (est. 1944), and the Festival of Britain (1951).
Although archives offer us the chance to discover these migration stories, they also make us aware of the traces left behind. To illustrate this point, Breakell shared Hans Rothholz’s childhood drawing, made in Germany, which symbolised both what was left behind and the loss to Rothholz’s community. The divergence in experience of the individuals discussed highlighted the fluidity of identity and permeability of borders for people and archives, for, as Whitworth observed, ‘these records also lead peripatetic lives’.
The paper by Zeina Maasri, designer and University of Brighton lecturer, considered migration between Cairo and Beirut during the period of decolonisation of the 1960s and 1970s. Maasri focused on transnational circuits of visuality in the publishing industry and the work of artist and designer Helmi el-Touni (born 1934), who moved from Cairo to Beirut in 1974. El-Touni worked as a graphic designer for the Beirut Arabic Book Fair and The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing (est. 1969), a major publishing institution epitomising the new role Beirut began to acquire as a radical centre for transnational Arab publishing. This organisation published work by political groups, scholars, feminists and poets who were censored in their own countries, leading to a revitalisation of Arab intellectual heritage and the introduction of new ideas about the modernisation of society. El-Touni’s vision was to make art accessible to everyone and the style of his work offered an alternative to Euro-American modernism yet shared some of its characteristics. Decoding one of his posters, Zeina showed how his work acted as commentary on social and political themes and its particular aesthetic evoked traditional visual culture through modern graphic forms and colours, thus displacing European discourses of modernity. Thinking about transnational circuits highlights not only the mobility of images, art and people but how politics and aesthetics intersect in our everyday visual culture and cross borders in a way other forms of culture cannot do.
Artist and educator, Celine Condorelli structured her presentation around four thoughtful stories that considered how artefacts and practices come into being, how they narrate the movement of people, goods, capital, artworks and ideas and how they inform her own practice. Her first story concerned visionary architect and designer Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) who arrived in New York in 1927. His most famous exhibition, Art of this Century (1942), has been a great source of inspiration for Condrelli who has extracted some of his strategies, such as dynamic forms of display, lighting effects and soundtracks, for her own work, contending that creating artworks relating to other people’s work is a way of bringing them and their practice back into the present.
She also scrutinized former Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), who arrived in New York from Germany in 1938. Bayer was criticised for working during the Nazi regime. For Condorelli, this raised the issue of legacy from a material and political perspective and what happens when part an artist’s practice is associated with something everybody despises; how is that practice then read? The focus of the third story was Italian architect Lena Bo Bardi, designer of SESC Pompéia, Sao Paulo. For her work for the LUMA Foundation, Condorelli drew on Bo Bardi’s set of beliefs for what a cultural centre should be: a collection from the past, the inclusivity of a ‘playground’, and a site for popular art/craft. Her solution was an installation space (inside an institution) for discussing what institutions should be in the future. Last was Walter Benjamin’s tragic story of escape from occupied France in 1940 and subsequent suicide in Portbou. Carrying a heavy suitcase containing a manuscript that was never found, again the issue of lost legacy was raised, what survives and how it reaches us is often incidental. These stories highlighted that borders are not only national but disciplinary. Drawing on Bourdieu, Celine’s ended with the idea that cultures die in isolation; without the movement of people, goods and information they simply disappear.
A range of interesting topics were discussed after the presentations: these included how visual language adapts to place; how designers played an active role in establishing international networks and professionalising design; and reflections on the weight of terms associated with migration (including émigré, migrant and refugee). Discussions explored how alliances between designers today are made differently online, and the role of global interconnections. Overall the symposium drew attention to how design as a visual language can bring enrichment, vibrancy and unexpected alliances into our lives in its crossing of national, cultural and disciplinary borders.