Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Kowhai chintz

It’s a tale often told by New Zealand ex-patriots like myself who are living in London: A thousand miles from home, in a city more than double the size of the homeland, crossing Oxford street/entering a pub/walking into Sainsburys, you see a familiar face...

 ‘Cheryl?!  Aunty Jo didn’t tell me you were over here; haven’t seen you since Uncle Trevor’s 60th’.
‘ Keith, maaate, It’s Sarah remember? Standard 4 class at Titirangi Primary!’

Some days, London doesn’t seem so far away from a lot of kiwi towns or cities. Recently, as I searched a box of 1930s dress fabric designs (the sort sold to retailers like Liberty's), I spotted this familiar sight: 

Design for a dress print in watercolour, Silver Studio, 1930s [SD14350, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture]
Kowhai? What is a kowhai flower doing in amongst the daisies and roses of the Silver Studio chintzes? Kowhai (latin: Sophora) is a native tree of New Zealand rarely seen outside of the country whose flower is commonly used by local artists and the national postal service. Artists tasked with making a distinctly New Zealand piece will often use kowhai and other native flora in their work (for example this Jardinere commissioned as a gift for Elizabeth II on her wedding day by the New Zealand branch of the Royal Empire Society)

This design along with an attached pencil sketch (below) is attributed to Madeleine C Lawrence who was one of several women employed by the Silver Studio in the 1920s and 1930s. Lawrence produced excellent chinoiserie and Modernist designs  for the Studio and was responsible for many floral patterns for Liberty dress fabrics in the 1930s. The work of Lawrence and other female designers is the subject of MoDA's exhibition and publication Petal Power. You can see some other examples of Lawrence's designs on MoDA's website here.

Design for a dress print in pencil, Silver Studio, 1930s [SD14349, MoDA]
I'm sure Lawrence would have found my enthusiasm for this piece amusing as she was most likely just trying to find fresh source material beyond traditional flowers. The design is all the more interesting because we recently found what could be her working notes for the pattern. 

Rex Silver kept a reference library of books, pamphlets, scrapbooks and portfolios for his artists, many of which show signs of use including notes pinned to margins and paint splatters on pages. On one scrapbook cover, we found working notes and sketches about a kowhai flower.

Notes attached to the front cover of a scrapbook in the Silver Studio collection [SR261,  MoDA)

We don't know if this design for a dress print with a particular native flower was ever purchased. I can only speculate that in the 1930s, ladies walked the streets of London in dresses of kowhai chintz. The kiwi-connections aside, this design is a special example in MoDA's collection. Along with the working notes, it gives us an insight into the working process of a Silver Studio designer: how she researched, referenced and tested out a new subject matter for a floral dress fabric. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Giulia Ricci, artist in residence at Middlesex University

We continue to be excited by the many different ways that artists and creative people take inspiration from the collections at MoDA.  We have invited Giulia Ricci, artist in residence with the Fine Art Department at Middlesex University, to share her ideas and creativity based on visits to the MoDA Study Room:

'The Grammar of Order is a piece of work consisting of a series of A1 digital prints; these loose sheets form a catalogue of patterns which are collected in a portfolio. As the title indicates, this work pays homage to Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament and is the result of my residency at Middlesex University.'
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (SD 10982)

'Between November 2011 and March 2012 I visited the archive of MoDA, the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA) at Middlesex University, and looked at a wide range of items spanning from the 1880s to the 1960s. My research focused on items that presented geometrical patterns and grids; these were mostly wallpaper samples and designs for wallpapers and textiles'.

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (SD 6116)

'The Grammar of Order was made in response to the observation of these designs for domestic use, which form a significant part of the inspiration behind my vocabulary. I set out to create my own catalogue of patterns by using the formal language that I’ve been developing over a number of years. This consists of patterns composed of isosceles right-angle triangles. By using a variety of tiling combinations, I produced more than 200 different patterns encompassing features and structures from a wide range of designs and styles I observed at MoDA.'

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (SD 10434)

'Unlike Jones’ approach, which catalogued patterns from around the world according to the culture from which they were taken, I grouped my patterns into themes that are important within my own practice: alphabet, flora, fauna, symmetry, asymmetry, crystals and boxes. Some of the invented names of my taxonomy hint at relations to figuration, despite the work appearing completely abstract. The basic unit in the alphabet series is a 2x2 grid which inscribes 4 triangles; this is the smallest unit used to compose all the patterns. The other families are made from a 4x4 grid, each featuring 16 triangles.'

'The Grammar of Order is potentially a work-in-progress that could expand endlessly; its elements form a sort of periodic table of patterns that can be combined in almost innumerable ways to generate other patterns'.

'Exploring MoDA’s archives has given me the possibility of seeing a wide range of patterns from a variety of historical periods; I have found it extremely exciting to be able to see how different styles developed and changed over the years. Looking at original designs has given me the possibility of observing the tiling of patterns; this has been the most influential aspect in relation to my practice and it is reflected in The Grammar of Order, because the combinations of the patterns I created are generated through symmetry, mirroring, repetition, combination and rotation. The fact that The Grammar of Order is a piece of work in the shape of a catalogue has also been inspired by the beautiful wall paper books I saw at MoDA; I was really fascinated by the potentially infinite variations of colour and shapes combinations that each design may have.'

Giulia Ricci May 25 2012

I am sure you would agree that the work that Giulia has produced is absolutely fascinating and very different to what we would normally expect from research inspired by the MoDA collection.  In her role as artist-in-residence within the Middlesex University Fine Art Department, Giulia will be presenting an update of her work to staff and students in the Autumn.  In the meantime you can see more of Giulia's work at the Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy which runs until 12th August and by visiting her website and blog.