Wednesday, 17 May 2017

TVAD Visiting Researcher 2016-2017: Afterthoughts

Rebecca Houze, Ph.D
Professor of Art and Design History
Northern Illinois University

As the academic year draws to a close with the usual frenzy of final projects and spring critiques, I have been reflecting on my travels over the past several months as a Visiting Researcher for the TVAD (Theorizing Visual Art and Design) research group, which is hosted by the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Creative Arts. It was enriching this year to meet so many energetic students and faculty in a wide range of disciplines, from contemporary craft to architecture, and from graphic and product design to heritage studies.

In the autumn term, October 2016, I had the opportunity to meet with students in Antje Illner’s contemporary craft seminar. I presented there a short talk on Emilie Bach (1840-1890), founder of the Imperial-Royal School for Art Embroidery in Vienna in 1874. Bach was very active in the Austrian reform of design education in the last part of the nineteenth century, and sought to revive historical needlework patterns from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She advocated for craftsmanship, quality, and creativity in the face of industrialization, and believed that education was the key to cultivating taste. The students in the seminar asked questions that led me to explore Bach’s personal and professional circumstances in more detail in preparation for a paper on this topic. I presented it at the conference, "Design Discourse: Jewish Contributions to Viennese Modernism," at the MAK—Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, organized last fall by Elana Shapira, Design Historian at the University of Applied Art in Vienna.

 "Corner and detached subject in blanket stitch," in Emilie Bach, New Patterns in Old Style 
(Dornach: Thérèse de Dillmont, 1890)

My TVAD lunch talk, “Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary Before the First World War: Principles of Dress,” presented highlights from my book of the same title (Ashgate, 2015). The book is the result of my research in the museums of applied art and ethnography in Vienna and Budapest over the past fifteen years. It argues that the modern movement in Vienna was energized by an Austrian-Hungarian love of textiles and of dressing up at the end of the nineteenth century, which shaped museology, educational programs, and the history of art, as well as innovations in modern design. The conversation among students and faculty following the talk sparked hypotheses about the role of psychoanalysis and of architecture in that milieu, a reminder that “Vienna 1900” was a dynamic center of intellectual and artistic activity that continues to fascinate us today.

I also had the pleasure of speaking about my more recent book, New Mythologies in Design and Culture: Reading Signs and Symbols in the Visual Landscape (Bloomsbury 2016) with design students in School of Creative Arts Associate Dean Research Steven Adams’ design workshop, and with those who attended my evening Design Talk, as part of the series convened by Julian Lindley. This project took as its point of departure Roland Barthes’ familiar 1957 book, Mythologies, a collection of short, brilliant essays on French popular culture at that time. The essays in New Mythologies examine some our most potent popular symbols today, such as the Nike swoosh, the McDonald’s golden arches sign, and BP’s “Helios” logo, and urge readers to be critical, responsible producers and consumers of our contemporary designed world.

Parody of BP Logo designed by Laurent Hunziker, 2010. 
Winner of Popular Choice in the Greenpeace UK Rebrand BP Competition.

A highlight of my fall visit was meeting faculty and students in UH’s DHeritage program, and hearing the students’ presentations of their research in progress. The day-long symposium was particularly interesting to me as my own research has moved increasingly in the direction of heritage studies in the past several years. My current project looks at relationships between the built environment of world’s fairs and of new national parks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in both Europe and America, where they were designed as powerful expressions of national identity.

As you might imagine, I came back to Chicago from my fall visit to UH consumed with new questions and ideas for future projects! It was thus a privilege to be able to return to the School of Creative Arts again in February 2017.

My visit to campus in the spring term continued conversations that had started the previous fall. It was a distinct pleasure, for example, to attend Grace Lees-Maffei’s lively Graphic Design & Illustration module, and to lead a “New Mythologies” workshop in which groups of students deconstructed familiar icons, such as the Beats headphones logo, the Pringles potato chip trademark, and the international accessibility (wheelchair) symbol. Eva Sopeoglou, with whom I share an interest in the ideas of nineteenth-century German architect and art historian Gottfried Semper, invited me to talk with her First-Year Interior Architecture students and doctoral student colleagues, who, in February, were in the midst of organizing an exhibition on urban revitalization in the historic train depot district of Old Hatfield. I shared with them a part of my current project on historic architecture and open-air museums of cultural heritage in the American southwest.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon, Arizona, designed by Mary Colter, 1904

That same week I attended two fascinating presentations: Artist Femke De Vries’ TVAD talk, “Dictionary Dressings,” and the 2017 Hertfordshire Association of Architects Annual Lecture, “Zaha Hadid Architects: Recent and Past Project,” gloriously illustrated and delivered by architect Jim Heverin. DeVries’ presentation derived from her installation and book of the same title, which is a creative exploration, indeed subversive reading, of textual clothing definitions. If a glove is a “covering of the hand,” for example, then a “glove,” she asserts, might logically be understood as a pocket or a bandage.

Most exciting was the opportunity to participate in UH’s History Department Conference at the seventeenth-century Cumberland Lodge. Staying in the gracious, elegantly appointed country house, which looks out on the green expanse of Windsor Great Park, gave the weekend a dream-like quality. The talks were challenging, the food was delicious, and the company was stimulating and entertaining. Among the most memorable talks I attended were John Styles’ address on the history of fashion, Ceri Houlbrook’s discovery of shoes hidden in the walls of historic homes, Bridget Long’s paper on needlework education for girls in the eighteenth century, and Emma Battell Lowman & Adam J Barker’s talk on writing Canadian history in the “settler colonial present.” Particularly moving was the screening of the powerful film by Tim Slade, The Destruction of Memory, based on the book of the same name by Robert Devan. The film traces the destruction of cultural artifacts and heritage sites as acts of war in several contexts, including in the ongoing war in Syria.

Windsor Great Park

Dorney Court

In addition to presenting and attending academic talks, workshopping papers in progress with members of the TVAD reading group, and making the acquaintance of new colleagues during both my fall and spring term visits, I also had the opportunity to see local sites and landmarks, including the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, the origins of which date to at least the mid fourth century, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities, designed by visionary urban planner Ebenezer Howard in the early twentieth century, and the charming fifteenth-century Dorney Court in Buckinghamshire.

The Spirella Building, previously a factory for the progressive Spirella Corset Company, Letchworth Garden City, 1912

Ebenezer Howard medallion, Welwyn Garden City

Understanding history relies upon intellectual discourse, which often takes place at conferences and symposia—traditional physical meeting places for the exchange of ideas. With our many new technologies for communication today, international travel for such meetings may seem less necessary; however, the ambiguous space between individuals at a video conference simply cannot compare with the spontaneous conversation in the corridor, the lounge, or at the dinner table. I am grateful to the School of Creative Arts for inviting me to participate in its TVAD research group, a generous and inspiring commitment to fostering academic exchange.

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