Stephen Knott

PhD Collaborative Studentship GSM&J/History of Design, 2008–12

I studied as a historian at UCL from 2003 to 2006, undergraduate, and then did an MA part-time. I was also working at the Royal Academy on their architecture programme. My study was from an historian perspective and not very artistic.

It was only when I got into the revival of craft in the late nineteenth century that I started to work more with visual material. It was around then I started to want to do a PhD. I applied to UCL to do it, but realised by then I was becoming a bit institutionalised – it would have been eight years minimum in the one place, from my early to late twenties. So, I kind of put the application in, but with the thought that there was something else out there.

Then I was browsing the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website, and found they have this Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded collaborative doctoral award in partnership with the Royal College in Modern craft, History, Theory and Practice, and I decided to tailor my application to this.

When I came to interview at the College that July, it was the first time I’d ever been. So my first year, was very much about learning the RCA's history and reputation. The History of Design department has got a close association with the Victoria and Albert Museum but has a strong research tradition of its own.

My proposal was about amateur craft and hobbyists, the history of doing things in your free time and why you do that. Being within the Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork and Jewellery department meant I could think about that more in the context of artistic practice – like how artists might be amateurs, or how can we learn from amateur practice.

One of the things I got to do was spend four months in the GSM&J department as a non-specialist, getting involved in applied arts, going along to get some experience of following a brief, rather than writing. It was kind of an experiment as I didn’t have any practical skills whatsoever.

 At the end of the first year, (Professor and head of GSM&J) Hans Stofer said I should, in the spirit of collaboration, really spend more time in the department, getting involved in projects and briefs, leaving aside my research but with it in the back of my mind. For several months, it was really about getting involved in studio culture. Another of the interesting things I did on the course was get  involved in Department 21, an interdisciplinary project that ran for a year.

After being immersed in practical work, I was much more comfortable with using images in my research, and found it easier to talk about my work, referring to a more general area of hobbies and artistic practice, rather than thinking just in historical terms. It really taught me how to communicate in a more visual way, and to be simpler in communication.

It also moved my research away from the early twentieth century and late nineteenth century to looking at contemporary art practice, and pitching my research as more of a general theoretical piece with a kind of history involved. It was then one of the most pleasurable bits of writing. I was able to be more playful and less rigid about historical sources and concerns.

There are five mini case studies at the end of my thesis that show craftsmen and designers interacting with some form of amateur practice – from 1950s paint-by-number kits and suburban chicken keeping to amateur railway modelling. Just going on historical case studies, I’d have been incredibly niche. By including more contemporary questions of amateur influence or crowdsourcing, you’re talking to a much broader, contemporary audience.

All of this became integral to my experience at the RCA, making what often is considered to be a solitary experience into something that was engaging, collaborative and varied.

"I will take these experiences with me into my future research, where I plan to maintain interdisciplinary broad-mindedness as I teach and explore issues relating to modern craft."
Detail of Times Square, Reeves Painting by Numbers Kit
Detail of Times Square, Reeves Painting by Numbers Kit, Stephen Knott, PhD
Acrylic on quality textured Artboard