Thursday, 26 September 2013

Inspirational Objects: Inspiring Creativity in Art & Design Undergraduates

MoDA’s Assistant Curator Maggie Wood and I were invited to run a workshop at a recent event organised by the Design HistorySociety. The Teaching Design History Workshops take place annually, and provide an excellent forum in which to showcase new approaches and share ideas.  The majority of participants tend to be those teaching design history to art and design undergraduates in UK universities. However the workshops are also open to students who might be considering a teaching career in this field, as well as those working in museums and archives which support teaching and learning at HE level.

There is a long tradition of art & design students ‘learning’ from museum objects, and a belief that this type of engagement has the potential to enrich and add depth to a student’s work. But it is also a process which we know is a struggle for many students, and which does not appear to come as ‘naturally’ to many of them as we might initially believe.  MoDA’s collections are used by Middlesex University students from a broad range of art and design disciplines. At the heart of our work with these students is the Arthur Silver Award; an annual prize offered by MoDA to 2nd & Final Year art, design & media undergraduates whose work has been ‘inspired’ by our collections.  

The approaches we demonstrated in this workshop stem from our attempts to unpick what it means for art & design students to ‘be inspired’ by museum collections:  how might we start to break down this process in order to help students not only to find inspiration in our collections, but also be able to articulate how that moment of inspiration has developed and informed their creative practice?

We asked participants to ‘road-test’ a number of different object analysis approaches, using real objects from MoDA’s collections.  Our aim was to recreate as much as possible the type of object handling sessions we offer at MoDA, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies we’re currently developing.

Overall we received positive feedback from participants and as a result we will be looking to incorporate these approaches into future student sessions in the MoDA Study Room.  It is also worth noting that the use of MoDA objects in the workshop represented the first time that objects had been used in this way outside of the museum.  Consequently we will be looking to explore other opportunities to introduce Middlesex students to MoDA’s collections beyond our Collections Centre in Beaufort Park, including on the University's main campus at Hendon.

For more information about our approaches to working with objects, please contact Maggie Wood or myself at MoDA.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Art Nouveau on the Beeb

I've been enjoying BBC4's current programme about Art Nouveau. Last week saw presenter Stephen Smith exploring the seamy Parisian underworld where Art Nouveau originated; it was all about sex, death and decadence.This week the focus was on the British version of the style, with Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris making an appearance.

As is often the case with television, the programme concentrated on big-name designers, those who set the trends rather than followed them. There was not much mention of how, or indeed whether, Art Nouveau filtered out to the massmarket. Here at MoDA, the Silver Studio collection provides evidence of the attempt to reinterpret ideas and motifs derived from Art Nouveau, and make them acceptable for a wider audience. Clearly, a style that had its roots in the bordellos of Paris was going to require some watering down before it became acceptable for English drawing rooms...

This curtain fabric was designed by the Silver Studio in 1897. It features the flowing sinuous lines and stylised floral motifs of Art Nouveau, but given a slightly more naturalistic feel, and without the overtones of sex and decay...
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (ST4298)

The Silver Studio became adept at producing designs for wallpapers and textiles which hinted at Art Nouveau, but which were less sexual and subversive, and therefore more 'mainstream', than the work of the designers featured on the BBC4 programme.(Much more of the bower than the bordello, one might say!). They were catering for the sort of customers who wanted to show they were aware of fashionable trends, but who didn't want to embrace them in their entirety.

It's interesting to consider how the designers who worked at the Silver Studio got access to these new and exciting ideas. After all, if Art Nouveau ideas originated in France, how did they filter across the channel, to a small design studio based in Hammersmith?

The Silver Studio's designers seem to have been avid collectors of visual source material, and this aspect of the collection is something that we have only recently begun to explore.

Image from a publication called 'Style Nouveau: fantasies florales'
published in Paris, probably at the turn of the century
(Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, SM175-1)

The Silver Studio's collection of portfolios include many French and German volumes. They contain wonderful illustrations which embody the new spirit of Art Nouveau including flowing lines, and stylised flowers and other natural forms. These volumes must have seemed fantastically exotic and exciting when they were first seen by the Silver Studio designers. I like to imagine designers receiving new books with eager anticipation, perhaps tearing the wrappers off the parcels sent by the book dealer. I hope they would have been excited about the new visual ideas embodied within them, and keen to incorporate these ideas into their own work.

I've only just begun to map this fascinating 'collection within a collection', but it seems to me to that these volumes, and the many others like them were an important part of the means by which Silver Studio designers familiarised themselves with new ideas. By doing so, they were able to interpret fashionable trends for designs for wallpapers and textiles for the wider market.