Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Images of Inspiration

How have designers used photography to inform their work?  Zoë Hendon, Head of Collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture looks at this question in relation to the Silver Studio Collection. 

Where do designers get their ideas from?  These days we are familiar with the idea that designers might look to instagram for their reference sources, but in the late nineteenth century photography was a new technology that enabled creative people to get access to new ideas. 

Design museums often intended that their collections should be a resource for contemporary manufacturers.  But they did not  expect people to necessarily visit in person: they published collections of images of items in the museum for the purposes of inspiration.  This example is from the Museum of Art and Industry in Lyon, France.  

Silks and Specimens of tissue  from the collections of the Museum of Art and Industry, Lyon, 1870-1900
SR210, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Arthur Silver, who established the Silver Studio in 1880, was chiefly a designer of wallpapers and textiles.  But he was so convinced by the usefulness of museums as sources of inspiration that he published his own selection of photographic images from the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).  He called this the Silvern Series and marketed it to manufacturers as a design resource. 

Label for the Silvern Series (here shown as 'Silvein') of photographs from the
South Kensington Museum, published by Arthur Silver in 1889
SD484, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Some of the loveliest photographic images in the Silver Studio collection are by Japanese photographer Kasumasa Ogawa, who pioneered photographic techniques in Japan. 

Image from Ogawa's Some Japanese Flowers, 1894
SR189, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

It is clear that the Silver Studio's designer used this kind of reference material frequently in the development of designs for wallpapers and textiles:

Design for textile or wallpaper by the Silver Studio, 1890s
SD9323, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

Correspondence in the Silver Studio collection also confirms that Rex Silver frequently bought books like this well into the twentieth century in order to keep the Studio's ideas fresh.   

The use of photography as part of the design process has been explored recently by MA student Mercedes Giralt from the University of Sussex, and her thesis makes interesting reading.  There is probably plenty more research to be done on the ways in which photography influenced the design process in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the meantime, students and practitioners continue to use museum collections as a source of inspiration, only nowadays they are able to view images online.  Many images from MoDA's collections are available on our website. A further selection of 500 more images will be made available on the Visual Arts Data Service in the next few weeks - so watch this space!

If you would like to make an appointment to see MoDA's collections in person, please contact us by emailing

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful flowers :)
    Maria V.