The Brighton Postgraduate Design History Society, an informal peer-to-peer research network, held the Hidden Histories: New Research in Material Culture and Design History on 9th June in the Centre for Research & Development at Grand Parade. Generously funded by the Research Student Division, the day comprised eight papers given by members of our forty-strong society.
Divided into two sessions, the first session, Acknowledging Gender, considered hitherto unrecognised female contributions to twentieth-century design and production. Catharine Rossi presented her engaging and thought-provoking research on women furniture designers in postwar Italy, entitled ‘Existence and Experience: Women and design in post-war Italy’. She offered a convincing argument for the underresearched experiences of women designers working in an intensely male-dominated environment. Marilyn Willis’s paper, ‘Hidden Skills of an English Housewife: An examination of the marginalisation of domestic hand-knitting in the 1930s’ also sought to reveal the hidden roles of women as highly skilled makers and designers. Through her exhaustive interviews and archival research, Marilyn unearthed the richness, complexity, and high levels of skill expected of women that characterised 1930s domestic hand-knitting practises.
The second session, Consuming Novelty, focussed on the simultaneous influences of science, technology, morality and consumption on design. Charlotte Nicklas presented part of her ongoing PhD research into the nineteenth-century development of aniline dyes. Her paper, ‘A Knot of Bright Ribbon in Your Black Hat: Black and white in the age of early aniline dyes’, addressed the development of a colourfast black and its social significance as a colour conveying the virtues of thrift and economy. David McGladdery followed with his presentation entitled ‘Moral Panic and Slot Machine Design’. He gave a convincing and frequently humorous narrative of the moral attitudes towards the coin-operated slot machine, the resulting legislative consequences and designers’ attempts to subjugate these laws through innovation.
The first afternoon session, Performing Identity, examined ways in which individuals and groups negotiate social and personal concerns. In her paper, ‘From Female Impersonation to Fashion Design: The contribution of glamour-drag and performance on the work of the London Couturier Norman Hartnell, 1921-1939’, Jane Hattrick suggested how Hartnell expressed his sexual identity via the adoption of the contemporary ideal of femininity through his female impersonation on stage. The experience gained in this process can be seen as an apprenticeship allowing him to experiment with the spectacular and performative qualities required for dressing his later high profile clients. Annebella Pollen continued the discussion of performance in her paper, ‘Seen with a compound eye: Polyfoto portraiture’. Her presentation provided a compelling analysis of a contact sheet of 48 photos taken of an anonymous female sitter in one of the once-ubiquitous Polyfoto studios around the country. The anonymity of the found contact sheet contrasted with those of sitters who were personally known to her. Although these photos may illuminate social systems of codes and behaviours, ultimately the ‘capturing of natural character’ in portraiture is a utopian ideal.
The final session of the day, Quantifying Experience, investigated how archives and databases can serve as repositories for both artistic practise and academic research. Rona Bierrum examined the ‘presentational methodology of database and network art’, involving the documentation, interpretation and display of public opinion and information. This methodology attempts to synthesise aspects of mathematics and art, numerical and visual ideas. Rona’s presentation also explored the tensions between both elite and democratic art and democratic and mass art. Torunn Kjolberg’s paper, ‘“I loved it dearly”: creating an archive of memory in the museum’ was based on the memory tag experiment, a part of the Fashion and Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865-2005 exhibition at Brighton Museum. The research highlighted the multiplicity of memories evoked by visitors and personal responses of visitors.
Students and staff from across the Faculty of Arts & Architecture, as well as from institutions such as University of the Arts London, Kingston University, Sussex University and Southampton University attended the event and provided a supportive forum for the presentation of new work, encouraging critical responses and debate. The PDHS thanks all who helped to make the day such a success particularly Chris Pierce, Michael Wilson and catering staff and care takers.
Charlotte Nicklas, June 2007