Friday, 19 May 2017

What does this wallpaper sound like?

There are some people in life who have the ability to make you stop and really think about things differently. For me, FelicityFord is one of those people, so it is both a privilege and a delight to be working with her on the Sonic Wallpapers project. I first met Felicity when she came to MoDA a few years ago to do some of the research for her PhD. So when I was thinking about how to develop an exhibition idea that would fit with our new way of working (Online, On Tour and On Request), I commissioned her to work with us again. My hunch was that she would bring an exciting and fresh perspective to our collections, and also to the means by which we exhibit them (for example by taking advantage of social media), and she is proving me right on both counts.

Felicity Ford, sound artist extraordinaire

MoDA's exhibitions have always been interested in the place of wallpaper as part of our shared memories of home; of spaces both remembered and imagined. So this project is in a sense a continuation of that same approach, combined with the fact that we are increasingly talking about the collections as a starting point for creative practice. The Sonic Wallpapers project is picking up this theme brilliantly, asking "What does this wallpaper sound like to you?". Felicity is now at the stage of collecting field recordings to accompany the interviews she did with participants, and documenting the whole process on her blog. She writes really well and her posts are both thoughtful and thought provoking. It's also great to see the interesting comments that readers are leaving in response. Visit the blog yourself and tell us what you think.

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

For me, working with Felicity is enormously inspiring because she reminds me what a richness of thought can be associated with even the most apparently ordinary things. As curator of these collections I sometimes get bogged down in all the practical and administrative aspects of my job. In the past year, especially, I have been concerned with solving problems to do with moving and storing boxes of stuff, rather than with the potential of the objects to inspire creativity, or to prompt memory or day dreams So I'm really pleased to see Felicity engaging with our collections in such an inspiring way: it's a reminder that - after all- our role as a university museum is to provide inspiration for creative practice, and to offer opportunities for public engagement that are both innovative and founded on excellent research. It's what we're really here for.

Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Why not tell us about the sounds you associate with wallpapers you remember, or that you have seen here?

Sonic Wallpapers Update Feb 2012

We're really enjoying working with sound artist Felicity Ford on our Sonic Wallpapers project. Felicity has blogged about the process quite a bit already, but we decided it was time for an update here too. She had so much to say about the project that we couldn't fit it all in one post. This the first part of the interview:

RL: You were interviewing people for a week at the end of last year; how did that go and what did you make of interviewees' responses?
FF: How people feel about wallpaper is quite personal, and I wanted the interviews to have that informal nature of discussions about decorating which people have in their own homes. For this reason we decided that I would interview people already known to me so that they would feel relaxed enough to share their real views on the wallpapers. We also decided that some people would come in pairs so that I could try and capture the specific dynamics of two people arguing about a wallpaper design! One fear I had was that some of the wallpaper samples would be so outside of what people are used to looking at that they wouldn't be able to say much about them, but in fact this didn't happen at all. Instead, everyone went into a lot of depth about what I showed them from the MoDA collection, and everyone commented on how inspiring it was to look through such a varied and unusual selection.

RL:You spent most of January listening through and editing guest responses to MoDA wallpapers; was that straightforward? Were there many surprises?
FF: I had over 9 hours of interview material in the end, and these long, rambling conversations had to be pulled into some kind of order, so it was a time-consuming process and it took a while to listen through to everything. I decided the most efficient thing would be to match up all the comments relating to individual designs, and - through that process - to start understanding which wallpaper samples contained the most interesting potential for making sound pieces. I now have a massive audio file which has twenty sections in it, each one relating to one of the samples which has made it into the final shortlist!

The most surprising aspect of the interviews is which wallpaper samples evoke the richest responses. Some designs which seem at first glance to be quite unremarkable stimulate very interesting conversations, whereas some of the more outlandish designs which catch your eye have almost the opposite effect. Listening through to the audio, I realised we all have a tendency to look at a piece of wallpaper and build a narrative around it; very rarely did anyone discuss paper purely in terms of its design or formal qualities. I was also surprised by how evocative everyone found the smaller samples - particularly the ones with a faded, vintage appearance. Nearly everyone commented that such wallpaper pieces were hard to think of as samples for a room, because they seem a bit like an artefact - or a trace - from someone else's life, and not at all like a page in a fresh sample book.

RL: Shortlisting MoDA wallpapers – what was thinking behind reducing the number of wallpapers from 50 to 20?
FF: This was entirely led by the sound-editing process. Wallpaper pieces which only generated a couple of comments were culled because I want the sound pieces to offer several perspectives on each design. I also culled wallpaper samples which hadn't really provoked discussions which I could imagine recording sounds for. It's very important to me that there is a strong relationship between the sounds and the wallpaper; where I couldn't see how to build this, I rejected a wallpaper.
This process was not straightforward, and some of the designs which I personally love from a visual perspective were reluctantly expelled from the shortlist, because there just wasn't enough usable interview material to work with. I was also sad that one design (see image below) featuring many nails printed on it didn't make it, as I had been looking forward to recording the sounds of scattering nails on the floor after one interviewee commented that the design made him think of this! On the other hand, some of the wallpaper samples which I wasn't initially thrilled about working with have become much more interesting to me, because of the things people have said about them.

Tacks designed by Alan Shillingford
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (BADDA 4755, 4756, 4757)

This project is all about exploring the MoDA wallpaper collection through sound, and what people said about the wallpaper samples really had to lead the selection process. Listening to other people's perspectives on the wallpaper samples made me see them differently, and I hope that this will be true for people who hear the Sonic Wallpaper pieces at the end of this project.

RL: Once you had edited the responses and culled the papers the next stage was to match everyday sounds – have you started this process?
FF: At the moment I am making lists of sounds which need to be recorded to best animate the things said in interviews. I love lists of sounds; I think they are very evocative, and the more I reflect on a list of sounds, the clearer I become about where I need to go to actually record what I can hear in my head. One sound-list associated with a wallpaper design so far reads:
  • thorns - perhaps the sound of teasels? "sparkly" "spiny"
  • twigs snapping underfoot
  • the sound of wind in pine trees
  • the specific dead air of a closely-planted wood
  • peeling bark off a birch tree - just that very thin layer
  • air, the slight tinkle of a dog-collar jangling you'll see it's quite specific, and I need to consider quite carefully what sorts of places might yield up some of these sounds, and to look at maps so that I don't end up going to a woodland area which is right beside a motorway, for instance, because in that case the sound of cars would dominate and not conjure up the imaginary world inspired by this particular wallpaper design at all! All the interviews refer to earlier periods in history in one way or another - because of the historic quality of MoDA's wallpaper collection. I think the process of recording sounds needs to be in accord with this. If someone talks about a wallpaper reminding them of an old, Victorian house, the sounds which follow should evoke that period, and the acoustics of a space which is not kitted out with 21st century technology (photocopiers, electric kettles, mobile phones etc.).

As you can see Felicity has been very busy. Catch the second half of the interview with Felicity next week. For more info about the project go to Felicity's Sonic Wallpapers blog.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Signs of the spring

Watercolour study of a tulip, 1909, Winifred Mold. (SD26505)
This naturalistic study of a tulip forms part of the Silver Studio’s collection of Winifred Mold’s sketches and designs, for dress and interior fabrics between 1910 and 1940. 

Winifred Mold was one of a small number of female designers employed by the Silver Studio during that period. Many of her finished designs were worked up from such naturalistic studies:

Winifred Mold printed textile design 1927. (SD8824)

(For further information on Winifred Mold, please refer to:Protheroe, Keren. Bloom and Blotch: The Floral  Print and Modernity in the Textile  Designs of  Winifred Mold and Minnie McLeish 1910-1930 ,  unpublished PhD thesis, Kingston University,  2013.  Also: The Silver Studio and Women Designers - Keren Protheroe at MoDA).

Tulips figure as a popular flower throughout the history of Silver Studio design, often used as a highly stylized floral motif:

l-r:  Design in crayon  and charcoal c. 1895 (SD11198); The Tulip Garden Frieze, 1902 (SW649); Art Nouveau design, c. 1905 (SD26789); Design for a printed furnishing by Lewis Jones for the Silver Studio, 1932 (SD447). 

The flower’s perceived six petal symmetry makes it particularly useful for adaptation into many repetitive pattern design formats, and its elegant simplicity works well in popular ornate Art Nouveaux designs, as well as for pared down 1930s imagery.

The tulip itself gained legendary status as a commodity in Europe during the 17th century, when it was imported from Turkey to Holland. This formed the background of the popular novel  Tulip Fever (Deborah Moggach, London: Vintage Books, 1999) and is a featured subject of Anna Pavord’s study of the flower and its origins: The Tulip (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

So, the growing and marketing of the cut flowers and bulbs has long been synonymous with Amsterdam, and the tulip has become a public park staple – an emblem marking the first bloom of spring for many European towns and cities. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Women’s Advertising and Mid-century Magazines at MoDA

It is currently Women’s History Month (March 1st - 31st 2017), so MoDA’s Collections Assistant Dorian Knight has been researching the history of women as portrayed in the museum’s collection of mid-century magazines.

Looking backwards through the magazine and advice literature of the era, the late 1940s and 1950s can seem both enchanting and glamorous times to be a woman. Publications such as Good Housekeeping and Modern Woman show women invariably smiling, posing in colourful frocks with immaculate hairstyles in front of cakes, custard and jellies and with children who are often groomed to within an inch of their lives. 

Take Time To Be Young (produced by Good Housekeeping in association with Hoover Ltd), circa 1955, front cover
Object number: badda4149

Furnishing with Formica (produced by Good Housekeeping in association with Thomas de la Rue & Co), circa 1955, front cover
Object number: badda4144

However, as the design historian Grace Lees-Maffei writes in her book Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA Since 1945 (p.2),  'advice literature needs careful handling. It cannot be taken as direct evidence of  past experiences.' Instead these magazines and publications can be seen as tools used for social conditioning. Indeed, looking through these types of magazines at MoDA an uncomfortable subtext emerges. In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge wrote an influential report outlining improvements for the living conditions of Britain’s citizens under the new Welfare State. Enshrined in this report were two assumptions that have shaped women’s lives into the present day. The first of these was the importance of marriage, and the second was the importance and role of housework. Both of these concepts are explicit in the literature of the era.

In the magazine Woman’s Own, columnist Monica Dickens wrote; ‘marriage is the goal of every female who seeks happiness . . . It was not intended by Nature that a woman should have to fend for herself. The instinctive desire of woman is to attach herself to a man who will be her provider.’ It is no surprise considering those remarks that qualities considered feminine, such as beauty, sex appeal and the ability to cook were heavily deployed in contemporary marketing and advertising within the pages of magazines. 

Good Housekeeping, October 1949, issue 4, volume 56, p. 113
Object number: MJC/63/119

Good Housekeeping, May 1959, issue 5, volume 75, p. 27
Object number: MJC/63/205

This view was endorsed by the widely available 1951 publication ‘HOW TO GET YOUR MAN! For women only.’ Strategies outlined in this booklet include; ‘it is often necessary to lose in order to win. Men do not take kindly to being beaten by women at games’; ‘Don’t talk cleverly to him . . . Men are terrified of brainy women’; ‘be childlike and feminine at all times.’ In this highly gendered world-view, a woman who didn’t try her utmost to find a man for marriage was risking great unhappiness and likely future destitution.

The second theme implied in Beveridge’s report was the importance and role of housework. The decline of domestic servants after the Victorian period put new pressures on middle class housewives. In 1951, 22 per cent of married women had jobs, but being a stay-at-home mother was very much the norm, and it was very hard work. Mass Observation reports from that same year indicate the average amount of time suburban housewives spent on housework was 15 hours a day, often on a rigorous timetable. All evidence suggests that many women took their cleaning and cooking duties extremely seriously, as a sense of righteousness and morality was bound up in housework. Beneath the gleaming veneer of perfect homes was this punishing and isolating schedule. It is perhaps no surprise that the politician Edith Summerskill described the housewife as ‘one of the loneliest people in the country.’

Good Housekeeping, May 1959, issue 5, volume 75, p. 166
Object number: MJC/63/205
These magazines and pamphlets can now seem antiquated and ridiculously old fashioned in their portrayal of women and stereotyping of gender.  However 2017 is still a world where the gender pay gap exists, women from all walks of life are repeatedly judged on appearance rather than merit and the recently elected American president can publicly boast about sexually harassing women. It is therefore worthwhile using historic collections such as MoDA's magazines as a benchmark to reflect on gender equality, how far this cause has come since the 1950s and how far it has yet to go.

If you are interested in our magazine collections then follow us on Facebook (@MuseumofDomesticDesignandArchitecture) and Twitter (@MoDAMuseum) to see more. 

Alternatively, book an appointment at MoDA by emailing and come and see these magazines for yourselves. 

If you want to read more on the topic of women, magazines and the 1950s, we highly recommend Virginia Nicholson’s recently published ‘Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes (London: Penguin Books, 2015) as an accessible introduction to the topic.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Uncovering the secrets of MoDA's katagami collection

Mamiko Markham is one of the participants in MoDA’s current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese stencils in the Art School.  Her research uses both ordinary and infrared photography to examine the katagami stencils in MoDA’s Silver Studio Collection to determine geographical origins, dates and makers.

Here she describes her technique and some of her findings so far. 

The katagami stencils at MoDA date from the late nineteenth century, and were orginaly used for printing kimono fabric.  They are marked with stamps and calligraphic marks which tell us who made them, and where and when.  But these marks are not always visible to the naked eye, which is why infrared photography can help.  But even when we have a clear image of a mark, it requires careful analysis to understand exactly what they mean. 
I feel it necessary to draw attention to the difficulties faced in recognizing the stamps and writings on the Katagami.  The Japanese language has three alphabets, Kanji – the ornate script, plus the two phonetic 51 character alphabets, Hirogana and Katagana. Hirogana and Katagana have a number of characters which are similar in appearance, but present no problem when in context in prose; but could be confused in brief markings. The number of Kanji taught in school and required to read most of a newspaper is around two thousand.  A well-read person (such as a professor) may know in excess of five thousand. Unicode fonts contain in excess of 76,000 kanji, many of which are considered obsolete.

marks on one of the katagami stencils in MoDA's collection, revealed by means of infrared photography

Unfortunately a lot of the kanji in the Katagami stamps are now obsolete. This is further compounded by the stylised nature (font) of some of the stamps. All kanji is derived from script described by brush strokes and even when printed in a non brush-like style, the number of “strokes” in a kanji can be counted. The stroke count can be used to help narrow down a kanji search, but at times, it is still necessary to search through several hundred to several thousand kanji.

The calligraphy (hand painted script) is very problematic. Like hand-writing it will be stylised; coupled with not knowing whether one is trying to understand current or obsolete characters. If these obstacles were not enough, deciphering kanji is further complicated due to the “readings”.  Almost all Kanji have many different ways of being pronounced. My name for example, having three syllables ma-mi-ko, has more than 52 different ways of being written!

Mamiko will tell us more about what she has discovered from her research in a later blogpost.  

Monday, 30 January 2017

#Silver50 Object: 'Some Japanese Flowers' by Kazumasa Ogowa

As we continue to showcase the Silver Studio Collection held by MoDA, and its many uses over the last 50 years, this week's #Silver50 object is 'Some Japanese Flowers', one of three rare, intact, bound volumes of  Kazumasa Ogowa's collotypes stored in MoDA's Silver Studio Archive Collection.

Photograph of an Iris from Some Japanese Flowers
All of the Ogowa volumes were sewn in the Japanese style for the European market in the late nineteenth century, or meiji period. This was a time when trading with Japan became possible and had a significant impact on artistic production in that period. For more information on this, visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History on Japonisme.

Ogowa was a pioneer of the collotype reprographic technique for mass produced photographic images. Our edition of Some Japanese Flowers contains monochrome collotypes, but the publisher also developed a colour collotype method which he used to produce a deluxe version of the volume. One edition of that is owned by the Getty Museum in the US. The Getty Conservation Institute has done an in depth study of the collotypes in its collection, and the museum also republished their own version of 'Some Japanese Flowers. Photographs by Kazumasa Ogowa' for sale commercially.

SD5653, peony design for printed textile next to Tree peony from Ogowa's Some Japanese Flowers

It is easy to see why this particular volume would have been desirable to have to hand for Silver Studio designers creating interior fabrics for a contemporary domestic market intrigued by Japanese style and exotic botanicals. In fact, the influence of these images seems to have stood the test of time in the work of current interior designers who still market fabrics using the iconic Ogawa illustrations from 'Some Japanese Flowers' commercially. Check out the V&A shop amongst others.

The appeal of Japanese botanical art has also endured in Europe and is currently being explored in the
‘Flora Japonica’ Exhibition at Kew Gardens, on until March 5, 2017. The role of photography in botanical illustration is also considered in an on-line video on the exhibition website.

Related publications that may be of interest:
Early Japanese images, Terry Bennett, 1996.
Encyclopaedia of 19th Century photography, John Hannavy, 2013.

MoDA's volumes are referenced in the following publications:
Decorative Arts Society Journal 36 - The Silver Studio Art Reference Collection,  Zoe Hendon, 2012.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

"I Am A Magazine"

Last week students from across Middlesex University's Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries came together to work on an innovative learning project in the Grove Atrium, entitled I Am A Magazine. 

Students from a range of subject areas including Fine Art, Graphics, Fashion Communication & Styling, Photography, Theatre Arts (and more) came together for this inter-disciplinary project.  Their brief was to critically examine magazines in Middlesex University’s magazine collections (drawn from MoDA and the Library). The magazines were a springboard to create new work: students were asked to respond to their content, iconography, discourse and materiality and to the wider context of magazines as communicative tools, as creators of communities and culture.  

Middlesex University Photography tutor, Alison Tanner, helps students get started on the project

Magazines from both MoDA and the Middlesex University Library have frequently used in learning and teaching by students, but this is the first time they were brought together in one large scale project, involving nearly a hundred students.  I Am A Magazine aimed to provide the space and opportunity for disciplines to collide, mix and interweave. 

deep in discussion about the project...

What students produced during the project was up to them: outcomes included a stop-frame animation, a period room-set and several photographic pieces.  But this was a project in which the process was as important as the product: students were learning skills of team work and negotiation, of working with students, equipment and techniques outside of their usual subject areas.

The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture has an extensive collection of magazines relating to all aspects of home furnishing, DIY, homecrafts and womens' interest.  They are available to everyone, by appointment in our Study Room.  

Students and creative practitioners from Middlesex and elsewhere frequently use MoDA's collections for visual inspiration.  (One example was the Share Academy project we ran a few years ago).  If you are interested in seeing them yourself please email us to make an appointment (