Design and Culture in Spain I: Templo de Debod

In the first of a short series of posts about Spanish visual and material culture, Amy-Lou Bishop, a first year student on the BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies degree course, reflects on a recent international study trip.

As a guest of the University of Brighton’s BA (hons.) Design and Craft students, in February 2013, I found myself, along with seven other History of Art and Design students, on a study trip to Madrid. Having never been to Spain before, I was travelling with an open mind, with my expectations only informed by the Spanish imagery we all instantly recognise. Before we went we were told by our tutor to look out for the distinctive visual culture of Spain and try to identify what we think is their particular national cultural identity. We almost all had a ready check list of clichéd images of ‘Spanish-ness’: tapas and paella; matadors and bull fighting; flamenco dancers and their dresses, shoes and fans. We were told to look out for Moorish style and its legacy, and to see if there were any visible clues to Spain’s violent Civil War past. Being aware of Spain’s current economic crisis, there was a chance we’d see the effects of that on Spanish art, design and culture too.  So by the time we got to Madrid, map in hand and intent on seeing anything and everything, we were directed to an ideal spot from which to see the city. When we got there, however, we found something I had in no way been expecting: an ancient Egyptian temple. Whole and complete, floating on a pool of water, it sits high above Madrid. As pleasantly surprisingly as it was to see, my main question was: why was it there?

The Parque Oeste, Madrid. Photograph by Amy-Lou Bishop. 15 February 2013

The Parque Oeste, Madrid. Photograph by Amy-Lou Bishop. 15 February 2013

There was surprisingly little information provided at the monument, as if the locals were so used to it or it was so taken for granted that they didn’t need this anomaly on the landscape to be explained. Since getting back, however, I have found out that it is called Templo de Debod. After standing on the banks of the Nile for two millennia, it was relocated from Egypt in 1968 to thank Spain for their assistance in saving ancient temples from flooding during the dam building of the period. Along with another temple, sent to New York City, Templo de Debod was given to Spain and placed in the Parque Oeste near the royal palace in Madrid.

We visited the spot on two separate occasions and were surprised each time by the amount of people there. However, they were not in the park to see the unusual landmark. They were all gathering for the view behind it – the uninterrupted landscape and the ideal spot to view the sunset. Vast numbers of visitors come and turn their back on the monument, and instead pose in front of and photograph the brilliant, dramatic hues of the setting sun. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that everyone has seen a sunset, and perhaps almost all of those will also have photographed one. The sunset in Madrid seems particularly spectacular, at least compared to ones in England, and I found myself in the same position as all the other visitors, taking pictures of something I’d seen hundreds or even thousands of times before. Of course, by doing this we were all guilty of the same thing – ignoring the temple. When the sun sets, you might expect the temple to regain some attention, but with the sun gone the people start to leave too, as if there is nothing left to hold them there.

Templo de Debod, Madrid. Photograph by Amy-Lou Bishop. 15 February 2013

Templo de Debod, Madrid. Photograph by Amy-Lou Bishop. 15 February 2013

Obviously not everyone ignores it; I am proof that they don’t. I think, on balance, I took more photographs of the temple than of the sunset, but I can say that on those two occasions I was almost the only one. There were others there using the space as they would any open space. There were families strolling, skateboarders passing, people just sitting on the water edge, even a man entertaining children by blowing giant bubbles; but for them it seemed that the temple wasn’t adding anything to their activities. Despite its ancient origins, sacred status and unusual location, thousands of miles from home, I could have been in any park and the scene would have looked exactly the same.

I wonder how the temple is viewed by the local madrilenos. Do they find it odd that a piece of Egypt is located slap bang in the centre of their city? Does everybody who visits find it as unusual as I did? Or do they just take it for granted as an added extra to their sunset snapshots? However it is seen, I felt it added something to my trip. And maybe, in a roundabout way, it helps to answer what Spanish national identity is: it can be a bit of everything, even a little bit of Egypt.

Transatlantic Dress History: An interview with Dr Charlotte Nicklas

Amelia (Milly) Slater, first year student in BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, interviews Dr Charlotte Nicklas about her research interests and background.

“The Fashions Expressly Designed and Prepared for the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (fashion plate). Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, May 1860. Hand-coloured engraving. Special Collection, St. Peter’s House Library, University of Brighton.

For the blog I took the opportunity to interview Dr Charlotte Nicklas, a senior lecturer in the History of Art and Design at University of Brighton. Charlotte has taught here since 2006 and specialises in the history of dress and textiles. She completed her PhD in Brighton after starting her studies at Harvard and the Bard in New York.  It was a great experience to be able to find out a lot more about Charlotte’s studies, both past and present, and the reasons and influences that encouraged her to choose to study fashion and dress history and teach us here in Brighton.

Milly: What drew you to study fashion and dress history?

Charlotte: I had been interested in the subject for a long time, almost as long as I can remember, however, the inspirational moment for me would have to have been my 12th birthday trip to New York with my grandparents. It was then that I was first taken to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit the exhibition From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress 1837-1877 . I almost had to be pulled out by my grandmother as I was so enthralled by it. It was there that I started to think about dress history and consider how it could be possible to study it. It isn’t possible to do an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Dress History in America, so I studied History and Literature at university and was lucky in my second year to meet a lecturer who was completing her PhD on 18th century dress and this again made me think ‘wow you can do this!’ All through my undergraduate degree I thought of ways to study this history of dress. To tailor my degree, for example, I took courses in Indian history and studied chintz, always along the lines of dress history.

Milly: Is there a difference in the study of fashion and dress history between England and America?

Charlotte: In the collections here there is a longer ‘history’, in that there are surviving Renaissance portraits and texts, whereas in the US there is obviously a shorter history of European-influenced dress. However while I was working the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I did get this sense that there was a little more dialogue between the museum world and the academic world in Britain, although this is changing now. This may be to do with the size of the UK – you can get anywhere in a couple of hours and not have to take a plane, so it is easier to see colleagues more frequently. I really enjoy being here, partly because it is so much easier to move around, but also because Britain really is a centre for the study of fashion and dress history. Due to my training in humanities, this is a department I feel comfortable and happy to be working in, mixed with lectures to the Fashion and Design students. It is interesting to have these two very different, but interrelated, ways of approaching a subject.

Milly: From what you have said previously about the very different histories the two countries have, do you think the American system provides a more detailed study of fashion and dress through having a shorter, more documented, history than England’s?

Charlotte: I think it really depends on where you go to study, even here in England a lot of histories of dress start from around the 18th century. A few will go back as early as the sixteenth century, but then you start to have to use more archaeological methods of research as there are so few surviving examples of dress.  This is the same in both England and the US, and in the United States they tend, like England, to focus largely on the dress history of Western Europe and Northern America, although this is changing now.

Milly: What drew you to studying the area of 19th century American and British Dress?

Charlotte: My PhD was about the transition from natural to artificial textiles dyes in the mid-19th century. The way that I found that research project was through an essay that I wrote during my MA degree, for a module on the 19th century domestic interior, so it did not even begin as purely the study of dress history. However I got particularly interested in the relationship between textiles and dress and science and technology and it was this which really got me thinking about making this my MA research project. The 19th century is, for me, so intriguing as in many ways a lot of the issues surrounding modernity that are so apparent today – transport and travel  and the moving of people away from the traditional community centres – were, if not created by the changes of the 19th century, were thrown into sharper relief during this period. Also, looking at the dress that women wore in the 19th century , it was so different from what we wear today.  It was a time when women’s roles changed very dramatically, and certain  women started to demand new rights.  It is these similarities and differences which drew me to study this era.

Milly: Have you noticed during you studies any noticeable differences between England and America at this time?

Charlotte: The US at this time was far less urbanised than England and Europe. The process of urbanisation was happening but the distances were far larger. It takes far longer to travel across the country and there were huge spaces of wilderness, which still remain. These have been preserved even till this day in many places, partly by accident and partly by learning from the large scale urbanisation of England and Europe which was happening in earnest by the mid-19th century. Comparing what was happening in 1870 in Britain and in 1870 in the United States, there were huge differences. There were, of course, the obvious differences of the systems of government, the monarchy versus the republic The differences in the way the fashion system worked might not have been so obvious in some of the East Coast cities where there were significant similarities with Europe . It is these similarities I am perhaps most interested in–there has been a lot of very interesting scholarly work recently about the concept of transatlanticism.

Milly: What are you currently working towards?

Charlotte: I am working on an article at the moment which is developed from part of my PhD and I am working on a book proposal to turn my PhD into a book. Alongside this I am working on a new research project for the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference in California called Loco/motion about travel in the 19th century. I am interested in the figure of the women traveller and the way in which travel took women away from their ‘proper’ domestic sphere. I am interested in how they negotiated the public space and activity of travel, especially on trains where the space could be both public and private and how this affected their self-presentation through dress.

Milly: Lastly, why did you choose to complete you studies in Brighton and to work here?

Charlotte: Professor Lou Taylor is the reason I came to do my PhD here. I considered some places in the US, but she was a very well-established scholar and I knew she was interested in 19th-century dress and in my project. But also for reasons that I have mentioned before, I realised that being in England would be a great opportunity more generally, to see collections first hand, allowing me to explore certain areas of research just not possible in the US. And it was just luck which meant there was a job here that was so right for me at the right time, so I stayed!

Art 13: New global art fair

Aurella Yussuf, second year BA (hons) History of Design Culture and Society student, describes her experiences at Art 13, a new London art fair, in March 2013.

A new addition to the art fair circuit, Art13’s press promised a departure from the regular scene. According to their website it would present ‘a truly global perspective’, showcasing art from 1945 to the present day. Admittedly, these sorts of events only register on the periphery of my art world radar, being that the academic interests of an average (read: impoverished) art and design history student and the pecuniary interests of the dealers in the commercial art market have seemingly little in common. However, a timely encounter with a social media giveaway put me in the possession of VIP entry to Art13, as opposed to regular entry, which went for £16 per person, per day.  Was this a chance to mingle with the glitterati of the art world? Not quite. The majority of the VIP events had been fully booked months in advance (presumably by those who had actually purchased their tickets). Nonetheless, students love a freebie, so I made the most of the three-day entry that my ticket provided.

My previous, albeit limited, art fair experiences have been somewhat paradoxical – the events can be elitist in atmosphere, yet still give the impression of being at some sort of trade show. Upon entering Kensington Olympia, however, it was immediately apparent that, in spite of its commercial motivations, this was indeed an art exhibition. Entertainment seemed to be the principal intention, with a young, trendy crowd (and reportedly boy-band members) in attendance. Individual gallery areas varied in size and layout, seemingly in no particular order, with a great deal of space provided to mingle, to drink champagne or coffee (whichever was more appropriate) and to take in the works. Many of these were interactive installations, which did not appear to be associated with any particular dealers and seemed instead to function only for visitors’ amusement. The catalogue would later tell me that these ‘projects’ were indeed intended to ‘enhance the multi-sensory experience of visiting the fair.’

Visually speaking, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s enormous wall hanging In the world but don’t know the world was spectacular, but was draped so far above the doorway that it was only particularly noticeable when leaving. Constructed of discarded bottle caps it takes on the appearance of a rich, luxurious tapestry. In my opinion the distance made it difficult for the viewer to really connect with the associative possibilities that close inspection of the work could convey. As far as interaction went, South African sculptor Roelof Louw’s Pyramid of Oranges, was the clear leader. This conceptual sculpture was inspired by Covent Garden fruit market and requires the participation of the audience. Displayed at floor level without any barriers, visitors – many of whom were children – were invited to take an orange and by doing so change the shape of the sculpture. Elitist this was not.

What struck me most about Art13 was the strong emphasis on selling work by artists from Asia and the Middle East, indicating a growing interest in art from these regions. It was refreshing to see these artists represented by their regional galleries, not only by established European dealers searching for the latest trend. Chinese artist Su Xiaobai’s unmissable large scale panels layered with paint dominated the view as one entered the exhibition hall. South Africa’s strong photographic culture was represented by Zwelethu Mthethwa, and there were a smattering of other global works, but the Far and Middle East were the stars of the fair, with both regions also featured in the discussion series. Unfortunately, I felt that these talks fell flat and lacked critical depth, which is perhaps unsurprising, since the panels were dominated by private collectors who may be more interested in profit than critique.

Overall, Art13 was thoroughly enjoyable and I appreciated the inclusive atmosphere even if, as a student, I was not the intended audience of art dealer or collector. It was refreshing to see such an international market represented, and felt less alienating than other similar events. It will certainly be interesting to see if it manages to retain this uniquely friendly and youthful feel in years to come.

Hollywood Costume: A review

Florence Staunton Howe, a third year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, reports back on her visit to the V&A’s blockbusting exhibition for her dissertation research.

The V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition. 20 October 2012 – 27 January 2013 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

I went to visit the Hollywood Costume exhibition in December 2012 and was looking forward to it enormously as I’ve always wanted to be involved in costume for film as a career. It has been one of the most publicised and eagerly awaited exhibitions the V&A has ever had and because of this I was expecting good things. As anticipated, when we arrived, there was a massive queue and a forty five minute wait. The queue kept getting longer as we stood in line.

The first thing that struck me once inside was how crowded it was and how difficult to move around and see everything. The mannequins were set out in lines and there was a solid wall of people in front of them. You had to try and ignore this fact to enjoy the exhibition. The selection of Meryl Streep’s and Robert De Niro’s costumes side by side really stood out for me as they are both acting legends and the costumes spanned their careers. Other costumes I particularly enjoyed included Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean, designed by Penny Rose, due to the fact that I’m writing my dissertation on the dress history of the pirate and its changing representation throughout history and popular culture. A costume from Avatar was intriguing to see as the film was a mixture of live action and computer generated imagery; it was fascinating to know what was real and what was virtual. In terms of display, Batman and Spiderman costumes were hung dramatically from the walls, while Marilyn Monroe’s famous classic white dress from her 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, designed by William Travilla and worth almost three million pounds, was displayed in a glass case as the culmination of the show. All around the exhibition there were videos of costume designers and actors talking about the process of creating costumes for film. The heads of all the mannequins showed digital projections of the actors’ moving faces (which was an unnecessary addition and little more than a gimmick). Each mannequin was displayed behind a photo of the actor wearing the costume and then text explaining which film the costume was from, who wore it and who designed it. There was usually also further explanation from someone involved in the production.

The main message I gained from the exhibition was an appreciation of the costume designers themselves. The exhibition was curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick. Landis and Lodwick have backgrounds in set and costume design, while Frayling is an eminent art and design historian. Together, they were keen to communicate how central and under-appreciated costume designers are in the creation of a film’s meaning. The exhibition definitely made you realise what an important and difficult job they have, and the exhibition goes some way towards finally giving them the credit and recognition they deserve. Costume plays a huge part in the creation of characters in film. A good costume designer, in my opinion, is someone who creates costumes that create characters and atmospheres, but doesn’t detract from the story. Film costume can also create effects beyond the screen, such as influencing fashion. As film scholar Sarah Gilligan has written, on this point, “clothing creates a tactile platform in which the spatial distance between the text and the spectator can be bridged via adornment and touch and thus the processes of identity transformation and performativity can be played out in our everyday lives”.

I’m not completely convinced that costumes can communicate character when static in an exhibition, without their accompanying actors, sets and music, but this was surely always going to be the biggest challenge for the curators of Hollywood costume: to see whether the costumes alone could recreate screen magic. However this, if anything, made me appreciate even more how hard the job of a costume designer is. After all, they have to design costumes for characters and films that haven’t yet been fully realised. For my dissertation I particularly wanted to see the Jack Sparrow costume as I am studying the historical influences and after effects of this particular manifestation of the pirate figure. While the costume was interesting to see, it certainly wasn’t as impressive as when Johnny Depp wears it on the exotic sets of Pirates of the Caribbean. However I did like how the exhibition had the mannequin engaged in a sword fight with an Errol Flynn Don Juan costume. It worked to bring the costume to life and give it a sense of movement.

Although the exhibition’s argument could be said to be the promotion of the art of the costume designer, this wasn’t a particularly scholarly exhibition. Its main aim was to have a wide appeal to anyone who is interested in film and clothing, and to include the most famous costumes they could to draw in the crowds. If they didn’t have crowd-pleasers such as the Jack Sparrow, Darth Vadar and Dorothy costumes, the exhibition would surely not have been so appealing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this ambition. It was great to see how popular a museum exhibition could be, with enthusiastic crowds prepared to queue for up to an hour. It was, in any case, always intended to be a blockbuster event. The V&A described as a “ground-breaking exhibition including over 100 of the most iconic and unforgettable film characters from a century of Hollywood film-making”. It certainly was that. The overcrowding did slightly detract from the experience, however, and the exhibition could be said to be a victim of its own success. Nevertheless, it was clear why it was so popular, and I thoroughly enjoyed gaining further insight into the fascinating world of costume design.

Design History Society: The student experience

Doctoral student Ness Wood describes the student opportunities provided by the national Design History Society, and the role of the Student Officer in particular.

The Design History Society (DHS) was set up in 1977 as a means to promote and support research in the history of design in its broadest sense. The Journal of Design History, affiliated to the society, followed ten years later. In the first edition, editor Christopher Bailey stated that ‘we hope to bring coherence to the historical study of design’, stating that ‘the humblest object to the grand plan finds a place’. The society has also always sought to promote and develop the work of students of design history, through providing discounted membership and journal fees, research funding, essay prizes and also opportunities to participate in the running of the society.

The DHS is made up of eleven voluntary Committee members from across the country. The Chair, Dipti Bhagat, is Senior Lecturer in Design History at London Metropolitan University. In addition there is a Secretary, a Treasurer, a Membership Officer, a Communications Officer, an Essay Prize Officer, a Teaching and Learning officer, a Research Grant Officer, a Conference Liaison Officer, the Chair of the Journal of Design History Editorial Board and the Student Officer (my role). University of Brighton lecturers, Charlotte Nicklas and Annebella Pollen, are both committee members.

The Executive Committee meets every two months in central London to discuss DHS matters, such as the organisation of the annual conference. In 2012, the conference was organised by Dr. Paul Jobling at Brighton and was entitled The Material Cultural of Sport: Design, History, Identity. The previous year, the venue was Barcelona and the topic was Design Activism and Social Change. This year’s conference, Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives, is to be held in Ahmedabad, India, and it is the first DHS conference to be held outside of Europe, reflecting the increasing relevance of design as a global discipline. The DHS are able to support some student conference places as part of a bursary. Executive meetings might also involve discussions about Day Seminars, which have included one at Brighton on Design History in East Asia, organized by Dr. Yunah Lee, one at Edinburgh College of Art/University of Edinburgh devoted to craft and one at University of Wolverhampton about country houses. Each were paid for by DHS funding.

I have been the DHS Student Officer for the past 18 months. Studying the History of Design at the University of Brighton for both my BA and my MA developed my passion for all things designed and that is why I applied for the position. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Executive Committee. Although the meetings are formal, the Committee is both welcoming and supportive. My role involved being responsible for and responding to student queries. This meant liaising with other members of the committee about student matters and generally representing student interests.

As the Student Officer, one of my core tasks was to manage the Student Travel Award to which students are encouraged to apply. It is certainly worth considering making an application as a sum of up to £500 can be granted. The award can be used to fund travel, accommodation and photocopying costs incurred when researching. My role involved making sure that the award is advertised by a variety of means, including word of mouth, email, Twitter and posters. I was also the point of contact for students who applied for the award. As Student Officer I was also responsible for managing the award-winning students’ reports. Successful students must report on their research and send in a written piece to the DHS. The articles are then published in the DHS electronic newsletter. Other Student Officer tasks can include reviewing exhibitions or events for the DHS newsletter. Writing for the newsletter was a great experience and also good practice for essays. I wrote about the V&A’s exhibition, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, as well as a piece about a student publishing workshop held at the 2012 conference in Brighton.

To take on the responsibility of the Student Officer post one needs to be dedicated, organized and have some knowledge of social media, as well as having ideas about how the student role could develop. I am now stepping down from the role to concentrate on my PhD studies and so the DHS will be looking for a replacement. Good luck to the next candidate!

Taking Part: Silver Action

Althea Greenan, doctoral student and curator of The Women’s Art Library/Make, describes her recent experience as a participant in a large-scale feminist art work in The Tanks, Tate Modern.

During December 2012 I leapt at the chance to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action. I was eager to recreate the spectacle of her earlier art work The Crystal Quilt, where hundreds of women, seated at tables arranged in a vast pattern, discussed age and public life. Tate Modern recently purchased The Crystal Quilt as it exists now in the form of a video, documentary, quilt, photographs and sound piece. Its display helped launch the new space for performance art in the Tanks, but Lacy has long been a personal touchstone of art for social change.  Her work, for example, featured alongside other radical feminist art projects in the groundbreaking exhibition Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists at the ICA in 1980, curated by Lucy Lippard.

Silver Action concentrated on recognizing a generation of women’s action for social change in Britain, and the project specifically invited older women to talk about their experiences. The resulting Sunday afternoon – 3 February 2013 – went beyond mere remembrance, judging by the impassioned discussion it generated and continues to generate, including a letter on the subject in the Financial Times (16/2/2012). Over 400 women participated in shifts of 100 throughout the afternoon. Seated four at a time around tables, we were for the most part strangers. We might forget each other’s names as soon as we heard them, but not the stories that were told. We were asked:

– What do you believe in?
– How has age and experience shaped your ideas?
– What are you willing to take action on?

The function of Silver Action was to “write yourself into history”. Experiences stretched back as far as 1958 when two women started the Notting Hill Carnival to rebuild the community in the wake of the riots.  Our timeline clustered around actions taken between 1980 and 1990 and included public protest alongside other actions, from setting up health clinics and nurseries to personal stories of defiance.  Crucially, we also discussed what was important now.

During our hour we were invited to join a transcriber at a laptop that was rigged up to project text directly onto the wall of the Tanks.  However, finding words as an audience watched your text appear was less like writing a press release and more like constructing a disembodied RSS feed from a non-linear past. Yet all I needed to describe was the event that made me get involved in activism. My answer: hearing feminist psychotherapist Susie Orbach speak about her book On Eating. This led to the founding of AnyBody and its wonderful off-shoot  connecting  groups working against body hatred all over the world.

The long admission queues were a tribute to the project’s success. Even though many of the spectators were friends and family of participants, I glimpsed in this art audience a real shift in expectation. One described her astonishment at the first thing she saw: a tall gentleman on bended knee genuflecting to a spot-lit table of older women.

A range of different motivations attracted women to take part in the project. For me, I volunteered to realize an artwork, as opposed to those who came to realize action through the invitation circulated on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour or via the National Women’s Register and other active women’s groups.  The Tate website, nevertheless, called us all ‘participants’. So what is distinctive about being a ‘participant’ in an artwork? On the day, the work depends on you; Lacy was nowhere to be seen. However, the week before she had met us to explain how the ‘aesthetic’ of Silver Action was to give voice to the tradition of women’s activism in Britain, and how the event was designed for us. For the audience forced to drift around the periphery as most of the wonderful exchanges remained unheard, this too was the point.  

Accounts shared could be hasty or hilarious. Sometimes they were set adrift; at other times they were almost too harrowing to absorb, but absorb we did because we were talking to each other. Lacy knew, perhaps, that with the distance of time and in the company of these smiling women, attending to the pain would be possible.  And if that’s possible, anything is possible. In the end these fragmented accounts became shatterproof, reinforced not by placards, by speaking through megaphones or by civil disobedience, but by turning up in the hundreds to a contemporary art museum in the full understanding and faith that this too is action. And yes, this is what activism feels like; it’s like being in a participatory artwork. If you felt it wasn’t participatory enough as a member of the audience, that’s because connecting with social change is not just about the odd Sunday visit to the Tate. But for once, it could be a start.

Now or Never? Mature students reflect on the right time to study

Sandy Jones (second year BA hons. Museum and Heritage Studies) discusses the advantages and challenges of studying the history of art and design later in life, in conversation with two student colleagues.

Day trip to the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Summer 2012. Left to right: Jane, Sandy, Aurella Yussuf (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society), Marian and Thomas Cooper (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts).

One thing I hear a lot is ‘What’s it like studying later in life?’ To be honest, I was filled with trepidation when I started. I hadn’t written an essay for 30 years, let alone sat an exam and I am, well, older… (polite cough). But once you start attending lectures, get to know other students and realize that you have a team of brilliantly supportive tutors, the experience tips from being terrifying to exciting. It’s a bit like starting a new job, only better. Much better.

People decide to go back to higher education for all sorts of reasons. According to a recent study published in The Independent, mature students – that’s anyone over 21 – make up around a third of the UK’s student population. So what is it like to be a mature student studying the history of art and design at Brighton? I discussed this with fellow ‘matures’ and study buddies, Marian Chambers (BA hons. History of Decorative Arts and Crafts) and Jane Allum (BA hons. History of Design, Culture and Society).

What was it that motivated you to apply for a place to study the history of art and design at Brighton?

J: I thought it was ‘now or never’. My sons had left home, my husband was about to row the Atlantic – we’d both taken a very early retirement. I worked in fashion early on and later restored houses and designed interiors, so the History of Art and Design programme appealed to me because it encompasses everything I’m interested in: dress history, design and architecture, interiors, objects and film.

M: I saw that the history of the English Country House was part of the course and that was it! I love interiors, textiles and gardens but wanted to know more about the social history and theory. I’ve always worked in admin but also dabbled in floristry and interior design. Also, Brighton is absolutely the right city to study art and design; it’s a creative city and there’s always something going on.

S: I’d been looking at the Museum and Heritage Studies course for a while and went to an open day to find out more. I’m a projects director in the design industry so this course presented me with an opportunity to understand the context to the industry I’ve worked in. Also, after 20+ years I wanted to change direction, but stay within a creative environment. I’ve always secretly wanted to work in a museum.

Did you do any preparation or courses before you started?

J: I wish I had arrived with better computer skills as I found the practical side of preparing a presentation hard in the beginning.

M: I did an Access course and this really helped. I learned how to learn again.

S: My work involves writing, planning and deadlines, and I found those skills useful in my approach to studying.

What are the more challenging aspects of studying as a mature student? And how is it rewarding?

J: The essays were challenging initially, but it’s about learning how to structure them. However, I have discovered that I love the detective aspect of research and uncovering the unique history of a particular art movement or object.

M: Essays, seminar presentations and some of the theoretical reading have been challenging. I’m learning how to construct detailed research in preparation for writing my dissertation next year, and I’m really enjoying it. I also like to share my learning with my family and friends – they say they are inspired by some of my stories and I love that.

S: I’m studying and working part time, and have a family so I have to be organized. Juggling work commitments can be stressful. What has surprised me is that I’m constantly discovering new things to be inspired by – I had a bit of a moment last year with the 1851 Great Exhibition; it became a complete obsession. This year the study of Postmodernism has another dimension to it – we three have actually lived through it, so there are unexpected benefits to studying later in life.

What are you hoping to do after your course?

M: My dream job would be to work at Petworth House, cleaning and restoring their art and objects when the house comes out of hibernation. I’m about to do a placement at Brighton and Hove Museum as part of the course, so I’m really looking forward to putting into practice what I’ve learnt so far.

J: I would like to continue studying or move into research.

S: I’d love to work in a museum as a curator or researcher.

What would you say to anyone thinking about going back to study?

M: Absolutely! 100% do it! It’s the best time of my life.

J: Be prepared to think about whether you need to do an Access course first.

S: Sounds obvious, but choose a subject that fascinates you. Going back to academic work is challenging and hard work but less so if you’re really interested in what you’re studying. Ask the university to put you in touch with a mature student so you can find out about how many hours you’ll need to study and the commitment you’ll need to make.

Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things

Stan Portus, second year student of BA (hons.) History of Design, Culture and Society, reviews a new show that celebrates the role of design in everyday life.

Stan Portus by Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitious road signage at the Design Museum

The Design Museum’s spring 2013 exhibition, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, reveals the histories behind the designs that have come to occupy our lives. From Marcel Bich’s Biro to David Mellor’s traffic lights, present on almost every road in Britain, the exhibition reveals the extent and importance of design in how we live and its role in the world that surrounds us.

Six stories –  all employing exclamation marks (Taste!, Identity and Design!, Why We Collect!, Mater!als & Processes, !cons, and  Fash!on) – are assembled through 150 objects from the Design Museum’s collection. Artefacts are displayed in grey stained plywood boxes designed by Gitta Gschwendtner. These look like the crates that one imagines the objects would normally be stored in and this helps you feel close to the objects, with almost nothing held behind glass (minus the display of Euros and Matthew Dent’s sterling currency designed around an Heraldic shield). Everything presented feels tangible and real.  The claim for the influence design has on everyday life, put forward by the exhibition’s opening text panel, is reiterated by not having anything between you and the objects on display.

The first story, Taste! shows the influence of European Modernism on British design. For example, the influence of Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs is shown through the furniture used by the menswear store Simpson’s, the seating that occupied school cafeterias until the 1970s, and his items designed for Dorothea Ventris.  It seems fitting that the first part of the exhibition starts with Modernism – a movement that sought to integrate design and living almost completely – as the show sets out to illustrate the importance of design in relation to the day-to-day. Terence Conran made an impassioned speech last year at the unveiling of the new £80 million project to move the Design Museum to the Commonwealth Institute by 2015 where he called for design to become part of this country’s DNA. This exhibition supports this ambition by showing how design exists as part of the fabric of society and can act as a powerful social force.

A slant towards Europe is present throughout some of the exhibition, however little if any of the world beyond is mentioned. The exhibition largely traces design in the UK and illustrates how design has influenced the visual makeup of this country. It pays considerable attention to Giles Gilbert Scott’s telephone kiosk, something that almost shouts Britishness, and to Calvert and Kinneir’s ubiquitous road signs (although, in my opinion, it does not show the process and history behind these signs as well as the V&A’s exhibition, British Design 1948–2012, did last year).

It can feel that the exhibition brushes over the stories it wishes to tell, although there are exceptions to this, most notably with the example of the Anglepoise lamp, which is explored in detail. The last part of the exhibition, entitled Mater!als & Processes, focuses on plastic and its associated issues, as a material so heavily relied upon but that is produced from such a finite source. However, like other parts of the exhibition, you are left wishing that the show had delved deeper and engaged with the debates to a greater extent.  Arguably, the exhibition was not intended to do this, as it functions more to showcase the museum’s collection. Nevertheless, it could have considered the future for design and its role in tomorrow’s everyday life as opposed to just the past.

Despite these shortcomings, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things is still worth a visit. It may not offer a great deal of content about what role design may play in the future, but it certainly provides an insight into what the Design Museum has been collecting throughout its history. Intriguingly, it may also offer a glimpse of what to expect from the Design Museum’s new home at the Commonwealth Institute in 2015.

Evaluating Art by Committee: A critical fine art project

Second year BA (hons.) Visual Culture student Dan Simmonds observed a recent satrical fine art student project that offers new ways of measuring the success of an artwork. Here he reviews the results.

The Committee ballot box, 2012. Photo by Dan Simmonds.

Hearing ‘You’re fired!’ is synonymous with BBC programme The Apprentice and the cut-throat world of business that it dramatises for viewers. The idea of success advocated by programmes such as this demonstrates a clear cultural preoccupation with defining what, or who, is ‘best’ or most ‘successful’. The words ‘You’re fired!’ and this business ethos is not often associated with the art world, but all these components clashed in late 2012 when second year BA (hons.) Critical Fine Art Practice (CFAP) students at the University of Brighton formed The Committee.

Seventeen members, each with a different role within The Committee, set out to discover what makes a successful piece of contemporary art, with each using a piece of their own work as a potential example of success. Their worth was to be judged against a set of six criteria which they had decided were fundamental to a successful artwork. These criteria were originality, a balance between accessibility and exclusivity, the effective use of medium, technical execution, emotional impact and finally the incorporation of cultural and contextual references. The use of reasonably complicated and ambiguous criteria such as ‘emotional impact’ and ‘effective use of medium’ made a nod to the grading criteria against which their works are marked in Higher Education. A subjective appreciation of art, as expressed by those who mark an artwork, surely cannot mean the same thing when applied to several different artworks. Marking processes may be flawed in this respect, which is something The Committee drew careful attention to.

In the way that reality television courts discussion from a panel of experts, The Committee discussed their art and each criterion at length, and through this, found that they redefined the very criteria they had initially developed. Attendance at The Committee was considered compulsory and failure to attend three meetings resulted in a termination of membership. The words ‘You’re fired!’ were directed to one member for that very reason. The potentially never-ending set of discussions demonstrates the satire in The Committee’s work and acts as a comment on the dour meetings, and meetings about meetings, which many of us attend, often to little consequence.

Each Committee member handed in proposal forms for the pieces which made up the exhibition, and then judged each other’s work on the six criteria with a combined 60% agreed as a threshold for determining work as successful. The results of this judging process revealed a piece which was designed to conform to the criteria called ‘Prints’ fell short. The failure of this work could amount to the previously mentioned ambiguity of some criteria or, more likely, to the doomed nature of work which sets out to conform to such ideals as ‘emotional impact’. The Committee also invited public comment through a ballot system when they exhibited their work in the foyer of the University of Brighton’s Grand Parade campus. Just as the government or large companies undertake public research surveys, The Committee encouraged visitors to fill out a paper requiring them to mark each artwork against the six criteria, and also to leave comments. The Committee is yet to gather information on public interpretations of the exhibition and this is crucial to further understandings of their work’s success.

The Committee, centred on discovering what makes a successful artwork, may be flawed from the beginning due to the very nature of the questions they ask. ‘Success’ is tough to measure when considering something as subjective as art and The Committee’s satirical application of a set of criteria as a means of discovering it make it even more difficult to decipher. The criteria used are a direct reference to the draconian rules, regulations and criteria increasingly imposed on artists when applying for funding or when entering competitions. The Committee summed up their achievements in a presentation given during one of their discussions: ‘To criticize the institution, we became the institution’. Although there were intended outcomes as part of The Committee, in my opinion the best outcome is something that I perceive to be totally unintentional. The criteria used are those which some members of the viewing public may not normally consider when looking at art. Normally in galleries we are only given small captions of factual information but the ballot forms direct the public to consider particular aspects of the work whilst still allowing subjective opinion. It encourages a new way of seeing which I believe could be a way of opening gallery spaces to a whole new audience.

Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950

Gabriella Mihok, third year student of BA (hons) History of Decorative Arts and Crafts, introduces the university’s research partnerhip with Regency Town House and outlines her contribution to the project.

Baron Scotford, c1911, mixed format of cut-out & pen and ink. Image courtesy of: Secretary, Silhouette Collectors Club

The University of Brighton, in partnership with the Regency Town House in Brunswick Square, has organised a student research group to investigate the creation and consumption of silhouettes from the 18th to the 20th century, under the title Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950. The group includes PhD, MA and BA students from University of Brighton’s Visual and Material Culture and Fashion and Design History programmes, and has been organised by Professor Lou Taylor with assistance from Dr Annebella Pollen, Dr Lara Perry and Dr Charlotte Nicklas. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to unearth information about this largely unexplored subject and to see what silhouettes can tell us about fashion and society.

Funded by the university’s Springboard grant scheme, much of our research is focussed on the stunning collection of paper silhouettes held at the Regency Town House. Our findings will be catalogued and available to view on the both the Regency Town House and University of Brighton’s websites. A study day to present our findings will be held at the Design History Research Centre in June 2013, and finally our work will contribute towards a major Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition to be held in Brighton in 2014, with a touring exhibition to follow.

The popularity of the silhouette was at its height between1770-1840, and the images were either delicately painted or cut out using skilful scissor work. Before the advent of photography, the silhouette was an effective way of reproducing a person’s likeness. Photography caused the popularity of the silhouette to wane, but silhouette artists continued to work from department stores and seaside piers, including Brighton, so there is a strong local connection binding this project together.

The Regency Town House’s collection of silhouettes mostly date from 1750-1830, but also includes some wonderful later examples dating up to 1950. Each member of the research group has a specific time period to investigate. I chose to research some of the later silhouettes from 1895 -1919 as I have a particular interest in the fashion and decorative arts of the early twentieth century, and this offered a wonderful opportunity for me to explore this era’s design and consumption in greater depth.

I am a BA History of Decorative Arts & Crafts student in my final year and research into the silhouettes of the early twentieth century is a brilliant learning curve for me as I continue to find out more about the changing dress styles of this era, from the corseted designs of 1895 through to the slim and elegant fashions of the late 1910s. Period fashion magazines held at St Peter’s House Library have been invaluable in comparing the dress styles worn in the silhouettes with contemporary photographs and illustrations.

One of the most interesting things to research was the changing hat designs, which by 1911 were impossibly voluminous. However, many hat designs included copious amounts of feathers, leading to the near extinction of many species of bird; the RSPB was formed in England as a response to the danger posed to wild birds due to the demand for plumage in fashionable millinery.

I am really looking forward to continuing my research and working with the rest of the group towards the final exhibition and I feel privileged to be a part of such an exciting project.