My MA Story: from India to Brighton and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Poonam at the entrance of ISDI.

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

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

Volunteering in a Living Museum’s Costume Department

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Sarah-Mary Geissler, currently studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, shares her experiences behind the scenes at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North.

Before embarking upon the Fashion and Dress History course at Brighton I wanted to seek out relevant experience in the field. I came to Brighton as a direct-entry second year student and had previously completed a year of a Fashion Design degree but was concerned it may be difficult to transition from making clothes to analysing them, so for 8 months I volunteered once a week at the Living Museum of the North; Beamish.

Beamish costume clothing label

Beamish costume clothing label. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

I had visited Beamish often before, the open air museum is a school-trip staple of every north-eastern child. Visiting as an adult I still felt totally absorbed by the experience: the exhibits aren’t restricted behind glass panels in temperature controlled rooms, rather everything is laid out awaiting interaction. The grounds are divided into 7 distinct period areas, the earliest an 1820s farmer’s house and most recent the 1940s wartime home farm, all linked by restored trams and buses. I was elated when my volunteer application was accepted!

Public transport depot, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Based upon my sewing experience, they started me off working in the Costume Department. An onsite sewing room is an absolute necessity in such huge attraction; Beamish has around 400 costumed staff and volunteers, most of whom work between different areas and so require 3-4 period costumes each. On top of this there were always different projects popping up, from making oilcloth table covers and floral curtains to Boy Scout neckerchiefs or nurse’s aprons; we were certainly never short of work.

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Inside the sewing room were photocopied images pinned to every wall, a large bookcase stood in one corner filled with texts on costume and period fashion and another corner housed large filing cabinets of dress patterns, a mix of store-bought contemporary clothing patterns and specialty costume patterns sourced online, all to keep a strong sense of each era’s shapes and silhouettes. Reproducing the periods accurately is a key priority of the museum as the visitors range from young children using Beamish as an educational resource to history buffs who are all too eager to point out historical inaccuracies.

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

When the curatorial team gave me the opportunity to explore the clothing archives I was thrilled! There is an expansive collection of period clothing hidden in the archives, mostly accredited to a previous curator with a personal interest in textiles. Due to the fragility of the garments and the nature of the museum, there is no way to wear these garments or display them effectively, which is a shame as there are some remarkable pieces. For a living museum it is important to collect pieces reflecting various walks of life, so within the archives was a 1980s coal miner donkey-jacket as well a fascinating 1940s wedding dress with matching gas mask. Also stored were many pieces of 19th century servants’ uniforms and other examples of workwear, garments that rarely survive past their original usage.

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

The earliest items of clothing are late 18th century while the earliest shoes dated back to around the 17th. A large number of gowns from Victorian society women were kept, worn fairly little and preserved very well. Certain pieces came with a full biography of the previous owner whereas others remained a mystery. Interestingly, it was possible to discern when gowns had been altered or re-made according to trends, we actually found two dresses which had been cut from one original gown. There were various wedding dresses and mourning clothes dating throughout the Victorian era up to WWII Utility wear. The collection becomes sparse from 1950s items onwards, mainly because these more recent items now have value in the vintage clothing market and are no longer donated freely; however, there was a delightful 1960s Biba minidress hiding behind the gowns.

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Beamish has a sentimental value to many and often people will bequeath their possessions to the museum, leaving them to someday represent their era to future generations. Currently the museum is preparing a 1950s Pit Village area, so towards the end of my time at the museum there was an influx of 1950s items and furniture. It falls to the curatorial team to decide what is kept for future use within the museum and what is archived, one difficult decision I witnessed revolved around 3 packs of genuine 1990s Safeway brand toilet rolls.

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Volunteering at the Beamish museum was an enlightening look behind the scenes at how a museum operates, not only did it strengthen my dressmaking skills but I had the opportunity to learn about period clothing, how garments were made and how people would have valued their clothes. The experience has led me to rethink what I thought defines an era, the importance of living memory in the understanding of history, and to consider what we would choose now to represent the present to future generations.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

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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.

Volunteering at Fabrica: contemporary visual arts in Brighton

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Fancy volunteering in the visual arts? Student Rosie Clarke (BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society) gives a taste of her experiences a
t Brighton’s Fabrica.

Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with some of the events and exhibitions which happen behind closed doors in the cool, quiet atmosphere of an old church on Duke Street. You may have been inside Fabrica, or you may have walked straight past like I had countless times before, but now I urge you to stop and have a look.

It’s a wonderful building, with walls so thick that even the busiest Saturday Brighton tourists are muffled, and a roof that vaults high into shafts of sunlight. Fabrica hosts contemporary visual art exhibitions and holds all manner of events, from films to workshops to talks. It’s an organisation which commissions art works in relation to the building itself, creating a feeling that is unique to Fabrica.

My role as a volunteer means helping out during exhibitions: I talk to the public about the current artists on display and the work that Fabrica does elsewhere. So far I’ve been involved with The Blue Route (by Kaarina Kaikkonen), Resonance (Susie Macmurray), and A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (Jordan Baseman). When I applied to become a volunteer at Fabrica I wanted to learn how a gallery functions, meet some new people, and perhaps be inspired in my own creativity. However there is so much more to being a Fabrica volunteer than just standing in a gallery.

One great opportunity was being able to contribute to The Response, a magazine put together by Fabrica volunteers alongside each exhibition, featuring our own artwork or writing. It was great to be a part of the editing team and have the chance to get my work read by hundreds of visitors. We responded to Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route, which used reclaimed shirts to project ideas about loss and longing. You may have seen some of Kaarina’s work wrapped around the clock tower in Churchill Square. We used the shirt as a starting point, and the magazine content grew from there.

During the set-up of Resonance I found out how to put together an installation, by spending a few days stitching reams of sheet-music into cones for the final piece – getting to know many interesting people along the way. It felt like time had stopped, if not for the fact that every time I glanced up there would be another huge new limb of the paper sculpture suspended above, the product of our labour. This photo was taken halfway through…

Installation of Resonance by Susie Macmurray. Fabrica, 2013. Photograph by Rosie Clarke.

There are also plenty of evening events that are held in conjunction with the current exhibitions, such as panel discussions and film screenings. In October I invigilated for “Nothing Lasts Forever (Nor Should It)”, a frank and heartening discussion about death and dying to compliment A Cold Hand on a Cold Day. The series looked at ways of dying (inevitable as it is) and raised the question, why are we so averse to talking about death? I remember one of the speakers describing pain, as “a vessel of grief.” Its moments such as this that I appreciate the depth and essence of Fabrica’s work, which goes so much further than the visual arts.

So within all these experiences, I’ve learnt that by engaging with unfamiliar things there’s a lot to be discovered. The best aspect of Fabrica is their willingness to encourage new ideas, and allow volunteers such as myself to take on more responsibility. If you’d like to get involved too, you can download an application form from Fabrica’s website, or come along to one of their events to find out more. Fabrica’s next exhibition features Jacob Dahlgren’s On Balance and it runs from 5 April to 26 May 2014.

Mirrors and rainbows: Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio

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MA History of Design and Material Culture
student E-J Scott was spellbound on a field trip to Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio in London.

“The idea was to have a window on the world.” Andrew Logan.

Entering Andrew Logan’s Glasshouse Studio, one is literally tripping the light fantastic.  As our MA group climbed the stairs to his crystal palace of creativity, we were visually bombarded by a menagerie of flying horses, queer medusa statues and warped, plastic toy landscapes.  We had stepped inside a diorama of his imagination, where the kaleidoscopic colours crashed and banged loudly enough to make audible our group’s shared delight.

Sally Reynolds smiles in Logan’s sunlit studio. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Out trip to Logan’s studio followed our morning at Zhandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textile Museum.  A six foot high photograph of him in a dress designed by Rhodes depicted the friendship they have shared since the early seventies. Rhodes still designs half his frocks (the dresses are split down the middle, representing transformation) for his Alternative Miss World appearances, the outrageous drag pageant he launched in all its fabulousness in 1972.  The sculpture he made of her is housed in the National Portrait Gallery.  Zandra describes herself and Logan as “blood brothers”.

Logan (pink t-shirt) explains his curiosities to the curious! Photograph by Professor Lou Taylor.

A sculptor, painter, performance artist, jeweller, qualified architect and flamboyant London queen, Logan is the only living artist in Europe to have a museum dedicated to his work (The Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture, Berriew, Mid Wales, est. 1991).  His work has been shown everywhere from the Hayward Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to Somerset House and the Royal Academy of Arts.

Louisa Carpenter next to a mannequin dressed in Logan accessories. Logan’s jewellery has been used for catwalk shows by designers ranging from Zhandra Rhodes to Ungaro to Comme des Garcons. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Logan’s studio was cluttered with portraits of Britain’s most eccentric queer characters. They are devotedly pieced together from smashed up mirrors, plastic toys, beads and the odd Swarovski crystal.  Derek Jarman is there, and as Logan ran through the artistic career he formed in London’s underground scene, he nonchalantly contextualised the portrait, divulging that he introduced Jarman to Super8 film-making at his Butler’s Wharf studios in the ‘70’s.   His sprightly, sexy and curious creations are steeped in personal history.  The noticeably rough finish on many works- splotches of glue here, drips of colour there- are left over touches indicative of an artist having fun at play.

Surreal sculpture by Andrew Logan. Photograph by E-J Scott.

Logan’s public art projects litter the UK landscape, reflecting his belief that art can be found everywhere and in everything. His Millennium Pegasus on Scots Green Island – a larger-than-life bronze horse with gold and silver glass inlaid wings and a bejewelled mane – depicts hope for a new era.  Logan says, ‘It is about where we come from, and where we are going to’.  Legend has it that wherever the hoof of Pegasus struck the ground, an eternal spring appeared.  Like Pegasus, when describing his artistic vision, Logan himself can appear to be bred from the love of Poseidon, and the carrier of Zeus’ thunderbolts.

E-J Scott in front of a winged Pegasus (a signature piece of Logan’s). Photograph by Professor Lou Taylor.

Little rainbows refract throughout the studio, as if they somehow shone straight from the glimmer in the craftsman’s eye.  As energetic as it is inventive, Logan’s works reflect his dreamy optimism, his colourful nature and his extraordinary warmth.  He not only welcomed our MA History of Design and Material Culture group into his creative space, he welcomed us into his world. My guess is Dr Annebella Pollen did not want to leave… at least, not without the  frog brooch in his Emporium gripped tightly in her clutches.  Speaking for myself, the visit to Logan’s studio – a self-created space, funded by the success of his lifelong dedication to his artistic pursuits – was a source of unequivocal inspiration.  Believing it is possible to live another kind of life – an enchanted life of art, whimsy and make-believe – is one thing; being brave and clever enough to make it happen is altogether another.   Just as Logan’s work resides in a boisterous space somewhere between fine art on the one side, and craft on the other, so too, Logan’s faery-like attitude toward the art of living is protected and crystallized in his castle: a chrysalis that dangles on the increasingly dirty, corporate, capitalist London skyline, home to a rare butterfly of a man.  This visit made the value of my study ring true, and I caught the train back to Brighton full of shiny ambition.

A pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus

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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

 

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things: Writing the gallery guide

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Second year BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies student, Sandy Jones, explains the process by which she came to assist on a show described as a ‘mash-up menagerie’.

Installation view of the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. 2013. Photography courtesy of the De la Warr Pavilion.

What do a ten metre high inflatable Felix the cat, William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, a replica Sputnik satellite and a singing gargoyle have in common? They are all part of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an exhibition at Bexhill’s De la Warr Pavilion curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey. The exhibition is part of the Hayward Touring programme that brings exhibitions to over 100 museums and publicly funded venues in Britain every year. This summer, I was fortunate to work with the DLWP on the gallery guide for this thought provoking exhibition.

The De la Warr Pavilion is a contemporary art gallery and live performance venue situated on the seafront at Bexhill. Designed in 1935 by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the Grade One listed historical building remains an icon of Modernist architecture and a celebration of the International Style. Described by Mendelsohn as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’, the building was restored and redeveloped between 2003-2005 with funding from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Rather than house a permanent collection, the DLWP flexes its spaces to support a dynamic programme of art and performance, showcasing experimental and inter-disciplinary works from emerging artists and big names like Andy Warhol and Antony Gormley.

The gallery guide project came about after I wrote to the DLWP to ask whether they had any volunteering opportunities over the summer. They wrote back saying they needed some support with the guide and as I’d worked in design before, they thought my experience would be helpful. Before I met their curator, David Rhodes, I carried out some research and discovered that the exhibition was inspired by the concept of techno-animism, the idea that everything that is in (and of) this earth is being animated from within. The show is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where non-living things are brought to life. Paradoxically, these advances in technology reconnect us with our ancient past where objects and environments were thought to possess magical and divine powers. This was quite a concept to get my head around and it took a fair bit of reading to understand it. The method of curation was also alternative, approached by Leckey as ‘an aggregation of things’ and ‘a network of objects’, rather than a display of personal taste. Using the internet as a digital archive to research and select works over a period of two years, Leckey meticulously sourced and filed words, images, sounds and video into a conceptual matrix of humans, animals and machines to create a hybrid; an exhibition where the objects are – as he describes it – ‘in the physical realm but come from the digital realm’. His concept for the show can be seen on You Tube, in his trailer-like film, Proposal for a Show. Watch it and think about the challenge that faced the curator, finding all those things for what critic Erik Davies has described as ‘a post modern cabinet of curiosities’.

Leckey is often described as a pop cultural anthropologist, and I can see why; he samples across cultures, eras and media. Fortunately, David (the DLWP curator) and Chelsea Pettit (the curator from the South Bank) brought clarity to my task by advising on the most important themes. We agreed that I would research and write about 12 selected works and that the design would be simple because the subject matter was so complex. David also suggested that I join the team on a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary (another great gallery, by the way) to see the exhibition before it arrived at Bexhill. This helped enormously although when it came to writing the copy it was challenging because there was so much I wanted to say, but no space for it.

I visited the DLWP during the installation process and observed the curators as they worked with the artist to agree where and how the works would be displayed. One highlight was watching the courier, responsible for transporting an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpack and examine each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and testing the environmental conditions. Another highlight was watching the team inflate Felix’s giant head and position it within the stairwell at the front of the building. For a gallery that last summer had rigged a bus to be half on and half off the roof, in homage to the closing scene in cult film, The Italian Job, this was a breeze.

The team at DLWP were extremely generous with their time and were great to work with; I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can: it’s on until 20 October 2013. www.dlwp.com

Felix the Cat at the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Personal photograph by Sandy Jones. 13 July 2013.

Behind the Scenes at the Musee Galleria, Paris

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Second year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History students Amy Hodgson, Nicola Goodwin and Nicola Hayward describe their ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ insight into the historic dress collections of Paris.

As part of our second year option, A Trip to Paris, we were given the chance to go on a five-day study visit to the culturally and historically rich French capital over Easter 2013. As student dress historians it was unfortunate that many of the permanent fashion museums and exhibitions were closed during our time there. However, the Musee Galliera had exhibits in various locations and venues around Paris. One of these was the Paris Haute Couture show at the Hotel de Ville, an enlightening and informative experience which showed not only examples of couture garments but also gave an insight into their elaborate and innovative design techniques. This show included many designers who are not household names, and provided a broad selection showcasing fashion throughout the eras to enthusiastic crowds of visitors. After witnessing this exhibition by the Galliera we were curious to understand the work that takes place to create such a vision.

Luckily we were given the rare opportunity to visit the Musee Galliera costume stores. Despite the renovations that were taking place, our tutor Dr. Charlotte Nicklas was able to arrange the trip through a colleague and curator who was working there. Under heavy security we began our tour of one of the largest dress collections and restoration facilities in Europe, featuring thousands of garments, photographs and historically significant records. Needless to say we were overcome with excitement at the prospect of being allowed to witness this fine collection.

Figure 1.  View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 1. View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Firstly, entering the conservation room, we were faced with an early twentieth century dancing dress being restored by expertly trained seamstresses and members of the highly regarded team of conservators. Every item is meticulously studied, conserved and catalogued before it is considered for the collection. The store rooms even feature a room dedicated to garment cleaning; steamers, hoovers and washing implements are used to make sure all garments are immaculate and at no risk of insect infestation.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

As well as garments, the museum also acquires significant documents, photographs, and accessories. All of these elements are essential to creating an understanding of the fashion industry throughout history. One of the examples we were able to see was a Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear show invitation, which offered a glimpse into the post-modern, conceptual fashion world, where the invitation is the first insight into the illusion and theme of the fashion show. The numerous records and photographs that are gathered by the Musee Galliera are easily overlooked, but are equally as important in understanding the culture, images and innovative work that surrounds, and are sometimes created by, many of these designers.

The next stage of the tour was the storerooms, where we were asked to wear shoe protectors to prevent outside germs entering the controlled space. The room is kept at a consistent temperature and monitored constantly. We were faced with rails upon rails, as far as the eye could see, all holding historically significant garments from a range of eras, and each holding their own stories. We were guided through a maze of storage containers. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen or could have imagined, and was quite overwhelming in its scale.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

We were shown three garments that had been chosen to represent their particular era, from the 19th century and early 20th century to the 1950s. All were excellent examples, embodying the style and design of the their time. A late 19th century Worth opera coat, for example, acted as a potent symbol of bourgeois decadence and the luxurious lifestyle that this social standing entailed. The second example we were shown was a 1920s dancing dress, adorned with rhinestones and velvet fringing, by an unknown designer.  Again, this piece evocatively embodied the changing notions of femininity for which the 1920s are well known. It also exemplified the innovative design and skilled workmanship that is involved in creating such a heavily embellished garment. The third and final garment we were shown was a dress that was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior in 1957/58. The dress echoes Dior’s New Look style, with hidden corseting and a full skirt, creating the recognisable 1950s fashionable silhouette.  The monochrome floral print gave the dress a photomontage effect and the motif appeared quite modern because of these elements. This small selection provided a glimpse into the varied and impressive collection at Musee Galliera. The final room that we visited showcased the museum’s selection of mannequins and the workmanship that is put into displaying garments. Differing body shapes and changing attitudes towards the body must be taken into account, giving a historically authentic form for when the garments are exhibited.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

We were delighted to be offered the opportunity to have a once-in-a-lifetime insight into the inner workings of one of the most important and vast dress collections in Europe. Even though the garments that we saw were spectacular, to be given the chance to observe the conservation, organisation, display and management of the collection was truly insightful. All of these elements demonstrated the vast amount of work undertaken by the highly regarded team of specialists who understand the importance of building and maintaining this internationally important collection.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

 

Design and Culture in Spain II: Museo del Traje

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Karen Scanlon, a first year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, continues a short series of blog posts on hispanic material culture by examining Spanish dress, past and present, at Madrid’s Museo del Traje.

Entrance to Museo Del Traje, Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Karen Scanlon

As part of a recent study trip to Madrid, I made a visit to the city’s fashion museum. Although not as conveniently located within the centre as most of the other museums, this shouldn’t put anyone off from visiting, as a short underground journey from the city centre to Moncloa station will get you there.

The city’s clothing collection began with an exhibition called ‘Regional and Historical Costume’ in 1925, held in the Palace of the Library and National Museums of Madrid. By 1934, this exhibition had merged with the Museum of the Spanish People and was arranged by the government of the Second Republic in the hope of creating a display that would reflect different Spanish traditions. The museum was open on and off between 1940-44 and again between 1971 -73. From then, the collection went into storage until 1987 when it was moved to its current location and site of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (MEAC) with a plan to reopen the collection to the public. Museo del Traje started as a project that would bring traditional, historical and contemporary fashions together as a site for reference and research.

Having never been to Spain before, my knowledge of Spanish dress was, I admit, very limited. Thoughts of flamenco dancers, boleros and other ideas of traditional dress were the only images that came to mind.  However, from the moment I entered the museum and began to look at the exhibits, I realized there was much more to Spanish dress than that. In fact, the museum’s permanent collection is arranged with an overview of the history of costume in Spain from as early as the 16th century right up to the 21st century. The purpose-built interior enjoys wide open spaces to move around comfortably and without the overuse of placards, displays appear to be less cluttered than in other museums. Although signage is limited, the use of interactive touch-screen terminals provides visitors with access to further information about a particular costume, designer, accessory, and so on. That said, although objects may appear better presented without labels, the terminals are a bit finicky and can be time-consuming to use.

Space has been well organized and items are chronologically arranged, including, for example, a section on the Neoclassicism style resulting from the French Revolution and its effects on dress in 18th century Europe as a whole, and a display showing a typical 19th century Spanish domestic interior. An in-depth view inside some garments is offered; a corset for example, is shown in an x-ray image, allowing a closer examination of its construction. Another display features a partly-cut garment to reveal how the bustle’s construction was used to define the desired 19th century silhouette. Each display is a feast for the eyes and each direction offers the viewer one beautiful arrangement of costume after another. As the museum guides the visitor through its historical chronology, there is also an offshoot from the main trail, which leads to a section on regional dress. At once I recognized these clothes as fitting my original impression of typical Spanish costume. This exhibit, covering the late 19th to early 20th century, features items of dress and accessories which represent historical ceremonial dress, typical work clothes indicating specialist trades, and dress used in festival or traditional dance (in fact, the latter styles can still be seen in Spanish dance performances today).

One example of dress that was particularly striking was from the region of Montehermoso, the north west province of Cáceres, Extremadura. The museum display shows a woman sitting in a chair with colourful, multi-layered underskirts, beautifully embroidered with motifs of birds, rosettes, carnations and other flowers. The woman also wears a particular gorra, a bonnet made from very colourful straw, adorned by ribbons, buttons and pompoms. The bonnet sits on top of a colourful kerchief, which is visible from a slight slit in the back of the bonnet. This flows downwards to cover the women to her shoulders. If worn traditionally, the bonnet would appear slightly tilted forward, a result of a type of regional hairstyle that has since been abandoned. The cuffs of her sleeves and her flat, ballet-style shoes are all richly embellished with embroidery. This elaborate use of embroidery also decorates the flamenco dancers’ manton de manila, the silk shawls and fans associated with Spanish culture and the typical matador’s costume.

Approaching the end of the permanent gallery there is a section covering haute couture, and most importantly, Spain’s own contributions, including the work of couturiers Mariano Fortuny and Cristobal Balenciaga,both enormously important to the trade in their own right. Fortuny, an accomplished designer who invented innovative processes for dying and pleating silk fabrics, is featured. Also highlighted is Cristobal Balenciaga, regarded as the most influential Spanish couturier of the 20th century. Balenciaga, from the Basque Country, used Spanish culture, art, and religious dress as inspirationfor many of his evening gown and coat designs, such as the colourful, extravagant robes of cardinals in the Catholic Church. Balenciaga’s creations suggest the grand sweeping movements of a flamenco dancer or matador. The use of sashes, tassels, embroidery, boleros, brocades and hats throughout his collections reinterpret traditional Spanish culture for 20th century European fashion tastes.  Moving on from haute couture are displays on the growth of Spanish ready-to-wear, marking the end of the museum’s historical journey.

Looking back, it appears to me that the art and craft of embroidery indigenous to Spanish culture is a key signature feature of Spanish dress. The preference for materials of rich colour also undoubtedly creates a vibrant museum display. After being treated to such fashion profusion, don’t expect any ordinary ‘exit through the gift shop’ at Museo del Traje. Visitors here are invited to leave in style via their very own catwalk. With loud music pumping in the background, a walk on the red carpet awaits, surrounded by bright lights and your very own (simulated) audience. What more could you ask of a fashion museum?

The catwalk front row: From left to right; Chaqueta y zapatos, Vivienne Westwood. 1985 – 1990; Vestido, Jean Paul Gaultier. ca. 1980; Capa, Roberto Capucci. ca. 1980. Photograph by Karen Scanlon.