Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Archive Stories

In Uncategorized on November 3, 2011 at 14:58

Taking a break from writing my first chapter, I found this recent news story rather amusing. It describes how the release of some police files in the National Archives have offered a ‘true’ account of the infamous drug squad raid on Keith Richards house. Keef’s version of events has become a foundational story well story not just of rock folklore, but  public memory: (the police breaking into his house where he was with Anita Pallenberg, finding 25 cases of drug possession, a loaded ‘French Nobleman’s gun’ and his heroic escape from these charges with a fine of only £250). Not only does the police report state that the quantities of drugs found was ‘very small’, it also describes the gun as Belgian shotgun, in poor condition and not intended for use. The archive records have now rather exposed the mythologised nature of  Keef’s status as rock’n’roll hero and shown him up to be a bit of a fibber.

It reminded me a book by one of my favourite cultural historians, Antoinette Burton: ‘Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History’, (2005), which explores the relationship between evidence and history and argues that archives can act as a really interesting point of intersection between academic discourse and public memory.


The Californian ‘Designer-Craftsman’

In Uncategorized on November 1, 2011 at 22:13

Sometimes it takes an insight into another design culture to bring into focus some fundamental qualities of your own research. This evening, I attended a seminar given by Wendy Kaplan, curator of the Californian County Museum of Art exhibition ‘Californian Design: 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way’ and it threw up some interesting contrasts against my own research of British design culture in the same period.

The exhibition aims to tell the story of the period 1930-1965 as one of ‘exhilerating innovation’, setting the stage for a ‘uniquely Californian manifestation of ‘living in a modern way.’ As the book to accompany the exhibition states, ‘After 1945, a burgeoning,newly prosperous population – intoxicated by the power to purchase after the period of the Great Depression and the wartime rationing of goods- turned the state into America’s most important centre for progressive architecture and furnishings’. This is illustrated via a number of wonderful objects such as the ‘Swinger Camera’ designed by Henry Dreyfus, who moved from New York to Pasadena in 1944 and said, ‘On the Pacific Coast, there are fewer shackles on tradition. There is an unslackening development of new thought. There is a decided willingness to take on new ideas’. In fashion, the play-suit and some new experiments with swim-wear reflected an emphasis on leisure so synonomous with the ‘Californian dream’. Interiors and architecture, some of which have been replicated for the exhibition, also visually articulated a synergy between indoor-outdoor that broke boundaries and made a statement about a new modern lifestyle.

Two things really struck me about what I learned from Kaplan’s discussion of this era in Californian design. First, was the blatantly open way in which designers used exhibitions to sell their design directly to a new middle class consumer. This movement to embrace the commercial is totally at odds with the contemporary designers in Britain, such as Misha Black and Milner Gray. These gentlemen took their ‘responsibility’ of building a reputation for design in Britain, vey seriously and with a great dignity. They saw this goal as more important than personal profit and did not use exhibtions as opportunities for sale. As David Gentleman said at a recent event celebrating the Festival of Britain, ‘we were never under the impression that we would make anything as nasty as a profit’.

The second thing that I took from this seminar was the curious emergence of the ‘Designer-Craftsman’ as the idealised identity for Californian designers at this time. This is a term which, although I have seen, appears very rarely in the language of British designers of this period. Although they may have acknowledged a shared inheritance with the arts and crafts movement, designers at the time of the formation of the Society of Industrial Artists were consciously styling themselves in opposition to the idea of the craftsman. Where the craftsman was seen as an isolated figure, often unshaven and therefore unreliable and ‘bohemian’, British designers sought to establish themselves as serious professional men, who worked in an office, wore suits, Corbusier-glasses and worked in teams of other similarly suited individuals, like in the Design Research Unit.

Such contrasts between design cultures remind you of the very particular origins of any country’s design output, dependent on many social, economic and geographical factors unique to that place and moment in time. Of course, these identities and values are constantly being re-invented and modified, as my research is exploring. I wonder to what extent designers today would identify with the figure of the Designer Craftsman and if the idea of commerciality in design is still treated as a taboo by those who value it most?