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History of Design Research Seminar Series

The V&A/RCA History of Design Research Seminar Series provides a forum for engaging with new thinking in the history of design and material culture, including cutting-edge research in related fields such as anthropology, economic history, the history of art and architecture, medical humanities and the history of science and technology

In the summer term, the Research Seminars are run in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR, University of London). Details of the 2015/16 seminar series can be found below.

Seminars take place on throughout the academic year and are open to all with an interest in the field. Although places are free and booking is not required, you are advised to arrive early, as space is strictly limited. Please direct any queries to hod@rca.ac.uk

Research Seminars 2016/17

Spring Term 

Thursday 19 January: Zeina Maasri, University of Brighton, on 'Decolonising Modernism: Graphic Design in the Trenches of Arab Hanoi'

This paper shifts the discussion of Cold War modernism to the perspective of Third Worldist anti-imperialist politics during the long 1960s. In this globally expansive revolutionary geography, Beirut – dubbed ‘the Arab Hanoi’ – emerged as a nodal site in and through which an aesthetic of solidarity converged and circulated along transnational circuits of visuality.

5pm, Seminar Room A, V&A Research Department, Victoria & Albert Museum


Thursday 26 January: Dr Annebella Pollen, University of Brighton, on 'From Scouts to Superhumans: Woodcraft Experiments in Living, 1916–1950'

Oppositional outdoor 'woodcraft' groups, established during and after the First World War, sought to align the growing popularity of camping, hiking and handicraft with an eclectic range of experimental philosophies, from back-to-nature life reform to new thinking in psychology and avant-garde art. The purpose of these groups was never merely leisure; the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, the Woodcraft Folk and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry each saw themselves as cultural revolutionaries bent on designing radical new ways of life for the new world to come.

5pm, Seminar Room S230, Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


Thursday 2 February: Professor Emma Tarlo, Goldsmiths, University of London, on 'Hidden Histories of Human Hair in the Global Market'

This talk explores the discrete yet central role played by China in collecting, preparing and transforming human hair for the billion-dollar global market in wigs and extensions. It traces how China has long been playing a largely invisible role in upholding cosmopolitan hair fashions and questions the reasons for this invisibility. Entering the hidden world of Chinese factories, it demonstrates how different ethnic categories of hair are produced and marketed to cater to world tastes.

5pm, Seminar Room A, V&A Research Department, Victoria & Albert Museum


Thursday 9 February: Professor Rebecca Earle, University of Warwick, on 'Promoting Potatoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe'

Eating acquired an unprecedented political resonance during the eighteenth century. The frenetic promotion of the potato as an Enlightenment super-food during the eighteenth century reveals the emergence of new models of political economy and governance, which stressed the importance of a healthy, well-nourished population to the strength and wealth of the state. Using the potato, this paper explores the central role that ordinary eating practices came to play in Enlightened models of statecraft.

5pm, Seminar Room S230, Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


Thursday 16 February: Dr Elaine Tierney, Victoria and Albert Museum, on 'Producing the City: Festival Design and "Middlemen" in London and Paris, 1660–1715'

This paper explores the critical role played by ‘middlemen’ in designing and making urban celebrations. It uses two case studies, the Office of Ordnance’s involvement in major fireworks displays in London, and the intermediary role of the maître d’oeuvres (master of works) in Paris, to show how events depended on organisers with wide-reaching social and professional networks. These ‘middlemen’, with their broad-based expertise, across design, making and project management, are at the heart of my redefinition of the relationship between celebrations and urban environments. Notably, their efforts demonstrate that festival ‘designers’ had expertise that went well beyond personnel with ‘creative’ credentials (e.g. poets, painters, sculptors, musicians), the focus of most previous studies of early modern festivals.

5pm, Seminar Room A, V&A Research Department, Victoria & Albert Museum


Thursday 23 February: Dr Eray Çaylı, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL & European Institute, LSE, on 'Democracy Under Construction: Design, Time and Imaginations of Publicness in Contemporary Turkey'

Discussing examples of architectural activism as well as mainstream practice, this lecture traces the various ways in which publicness has been negotiated through design in early 2010s Turkey – a historical context marked by a construction-sector-led 'economic boom', state-sponsored projects of 'democratisation', and Occupy-style expressions of political dissent. Against the grain of the tendency in related debates to focus exclusively on space as the medium of publicness, the lecture suggests that unpacking the limitations and potentials of these examples requires a close and nuanced attention to time.

5pm, Seminar Room S230, Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


Thursday 2 March: Professor Evelyn Welch, King's College London, on 'Renaissance Skin'

Well into the late eighteenth century, skin was not conceptualised as a barrier; it was understood as a highly porous border. One of the distinctive features that emerges in the late sixteenth century is an increasing anxiety about the vulnerability of the Renaissance body to internal and external threats and the role that clothing and body care played in disease prevention. Key toilette rituals in the morning increased in importance in order to remove the excrements that emerged overnight and to prevent the closure of pores. The role of the barber and barber surgeon was crucial in treating the exterior of the body, applying topical remedies and piercing its surfaces with a range of techniques designed to remove excessive blood or other fluids, including lancing, bleeding, cupping and applying cauteries to the swellings and other signs of disease that emerged on the skin. At the same time, the absorbing power of clean linen was an equally important feature of maintaining health while the display of unbroken skin and the use of masks, prosthetics and patches demonstrated health and disguised the ravages of illnesses such as smallpox. Demonstrating the complexities of approaches, this lecture will show how skin, whether dead or alive, animal or human, provides a focal point for a detailed, deep and broad study of how Renaissance bodies and their boundaries can be understood.

5pm, Seminar Room A, V&A Research Department, Victoria & Albert Museum


Thursday 9 March: Dr Sorcha O'Brien, Kingston University, on 'Electric Irish Homes: Researching Housewives, Electrical Products and Domesticity in 1950s and 1960s Rural Ireland'

Much of rural Ireland only received access to electrical power after World War Two, as the Electricity Supply Board’s rural electrification project expanded the national grid, allowing many rural households to purchase electrical products for the first time. This work-in-progress seminar will look at the way in which these domestic electrical products were imported, sold and used in 1950s and 1960s Ireland, particularly looking at the use of community-based oral history research as a complement to archival research.

5pm, Seminar Room S230, Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


Thursday 16 March: Dr Spike Bucklow, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge & V&A Robert H. Smith Scholar in Residence, delivers the Robert H. Smith Sculpture in Context Seminar, on 'The Church Screen: Colour Schemes and Boundary Marking'

Most colour has been lost from polychrome sculpture. Fragmentary paint remains are suggestive, as is original context. This talk considers the colour schemes of sculptures related to English fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rood screens which lay at the boundary between the nave and chancel and fulfilled a specific architectural function. The talk offers an interpretation of a prevalent colour combination, drawing on the architectural context of paintings, furniture and sculpture.

5pm, Seminar Room A, V&A Research Department, Victoria & Albert Museum


Autumn Term

Thursday 13 October: Dr Josephine Kane, Royal College of Art on 'Thrill City: Urban Pleasure-Seeking in the Early Twentieth Century'

Drawing on research into early amusement parks in Britain, and a new interdisciplinary project exploring vertigo in the city, this seminar explores the appeal of kinaesthetic pleasures – of giant thrill machines, fast flowing crowds, towering iron and glass structures and spectacular landscapes viewed from above – which attracted people from all walks of life in vast numbers at the turn of the twentieth century. The popularity of these purpose-built pleasurescapes suggests that the commodification of vertigo has played a key role in defining urban pleasure and highlights a theme which has been largely neglected in cultural and architectural histories of the modern city.

5pm, RCA Stevens Building, Seminar Room S230


Thursday 20 October: Dr Jennifer Altehenger, King's College London on 'Maoist Things: The Search for Socialist Industrial Design in Communist China'

Drawing on research into early amusement parks in Britain, and a new interdisciplinary project exploring vertigo in the city, this seminar explores the appeal of kinaesthetic pleasures – of giant thrill machines, fast flowing crowds, towering iron and glass structures and spectacular landscapes viewed from above – which attracted people from all walks of life in vast numbers at the turn of the twentieth century. The popularity of these purpose-built pleasurescapes suggests that the commodification of vertigo has played a key role in defining urban pleasure and highlights a theme which has been largely neglected in cultural and architectural histories of the modern city.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A


Thursday 27 October: Dr Tim Ainsworth Anstey, Oslo School of Architecture and Design on 'Things That Move. Essays in Architectural History'

Obelisks and omnibuses; Materials and media; Planets and publications; Trams and tympana Architecture and its history (from Vitruvius to Venturi) have been dominated by how things move. Part of a larger research project, this lecture presents two cases from a collection of essays which seek to explore architectural history through the guiding principle of writing about what moves as opposed to what doesn't.

5pm, RCA Stevens Building, Seminar Room S230


Thursday 10 November: Professor David Crowley, Royal College of Art on 'The Choreography of the Console. The Design of Electronic Environments and their Operators in the Cold War'

Advances in computing, cybernetics and electronics on both sides of the East / West divide in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged the development of new kinds of real and imagined spaces such as the operations room of command and control centres in defence, energy and communication networks; electronic recording and television studios; and, most spectacularly, the decks of spacecraft in science-fiction films. These spaces inferred a new kind of human being – the ‘operator’ interacting with the world indirectly, often via an electronic console. Should these instruments be understood as either an extension of humankind (‘the humanism of control’) or as a step in the progressive marginalization of the human agent?

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A


Thursday 17 November: Professor Bill Sherman, V&A, on 'Method and Madness: Searching for Meaning in the Arensberg Collection'.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Louise and Walter Arensberg filled their Hollywood house with one of the most important private collections of modern and pre-Columbian art in the United States, as well as the world’s largest private library of works by and about Sir Francis Bacon. The collection first took shape in their New York apartment, where they presided over the salon that brought Dada to America, and it expanded rapidly after their move to Los Angeles in 1921. By the time they died in the early '50s, the Arensbergs had acquired some 4,000 books and more than 1,000 works of art — including the bulk of Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre. The couple saw these disparate materials as part of a single enterprise, one devoted to multiple meanings, secret codes, and intellectual games. The ideas, patterns and preoccupations guiding the acquisition and display of this remarkable collection are all but invisible now, and the art and books have been separated not only from the house but also from each other. What do we learn when we put them back together?

5pm, RCA Stevens Building, Seminar Room S230


Thursday 24 November: Dr Geoffrey Gowlland, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo on 'Chinese Concrete, Indigenous Slate: Building Materials and Ethnicity in Taiwan'

This seminar takes up recent calls in the social sciences to take materiality (and materials) seriously, in the context of a study on ethnic relations in Taiwan. It will consider how, among the Paiwan indigenous (Austronesian) people, local and imported building materials, and the acquisition of associated skills, shape indigenous identity and subjectivities, and mediate relations of power.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A

Research Seminars 2015/16

Spring Term


4 February 2016: Paolo Volonte (Politecnico di Milano) on 'The Agency of Objects: The case of glass showcases.'

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A.  


11 February 2016: Anna Wu (PhD Candidate, Royal College of Art) on 'A New World: Chinese export wallpaper in America, 1870–1970.'

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington.


18 February 2016: Professor Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) on 'Connected Material Histories.'

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. 
 

25 February 2016 - Professor Leslie Atzmon (East Michigan University) on 'Encountering Things: Design and theories of things.'

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington.


Autumn Term

15 October 2015: Professor Margot Finn (UCL) on Whose English Heritage? The East India Company at home and new public histories.’

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A.  


22 October 2015: Professor Trevor Marchand (SOAS) on ‘Craft: A polythetic category.’

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington.


5 November 2015: Dr Agnes Rocamora (London College of Fashion, UAL) on ‘The Labour of Fashion Blogging.’

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. 


12 November 2015: Dr Tomasz Gromelski (Wolfson College, Oxford) on ‘“Crooked cartwheles” and “burste handgonnes”: Objects of everyday use and accidents in sixteenth-century England.

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington.


26 November 2015: Professor Liliane Hilaire-Perez (Université Paris Diderot) on ‘Trade Records and Technology in Eighteenth Century England: Evidence from the toy trades'

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. 

Research Seminars 2014/15 

16 October 2014: Lina Hakin (V&A) on Scientific Playthings: Method and case study

Lina will argue in this seminar that considering scientific and technological instruments as playthings opens them up to a kind of research that bridges academic and museological concerns. She will first present the ideas behind this methodology for studying things and the thinking that they allow.  Lina will then illustrate its application in the case of the radiometer, the nineteenth-century scientific artefact that inspired this approach.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A.  A review of the seminar can be found here


23 October 2014: Margaret Willies on The Cottage Garden: Fact and fiction

For centuries the cottager cultivated his or her garden to provide food for the table and herbs for the medicine chest. In the nineteenth century, a revolution took place, as the cottage garden became first a romantic concept, and then a fashionable horticultural style. Margaret Willes, author of Gardens of the British Working Class, looks at the history of the cottage garden and the implications of this revolution, both for the grand garden owner, and for working-class gardeners.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A.   A review of the seminar can be found here


30 October 2014: Gillian Naylor Memorial Lecture

A special lecture on the life and career of Professor Gillian Naylor, former RCA History of Design tutor. Speakers are Jane Pavitt, Penny Sparke, Jeremy Aynsley, Clive Edwards, Lisa Godson and Marta Ajmar.

5:30pm, RCA Lecture Theatre 1. A review of the lecture can be found here.


6 November 2014: Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge) on The Politics of Dress in Renaissance Germany

This paper investigates the role of dress, fashion colours and comportment as symbolic communication at a key political and religious event, the Augsburg Imperial Diet of 1530. It is linked to a reconstruction of an actual garment worn at this event and thus presents a new approach to historical research: a short BBC clip of the reconstruction and dressing of the model will be shown. The talk will also contextualise several medals in the V&A which were struck for this occasion.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. A review of the seminar can be found here.


13 November 2014: Adrian Green (Durham) on Manners of Building: Architectural style in England, 1550–1750

This paper explores the development of architecture in England between the mid sixteenth and mid eighteenth centuries. It argues that we should see the architecture of Elizabethan and Jacobean England as in many ways equivalent to the architecture of the Georgian age. Focusing on the form and style of domestic dwellings and institutional buildings, the paper explores the processes by which architectural style in England evolved and the reasons for those changes in style.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. A review of the seminar can be found here.


20 November 2014: Fabio Gygi (SOAS) on Horror Vacui: Hoarding and accumulation as interior design

Over the last ten years, hoarding (the acquisition and failure to discard objects of little or no value) has been increasingly pathologised as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Comparing the different ways in which cluttered interiors have been conceived of, this talk aims to elucidate the changing meanings of domestic space in Japan and Europe.

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. A review of the seminar can be found here.


27 November 2014: Susan Conway (SOAS) on Power Dressing. Textiles of the 19th century: Lan Na (north Thailand), Burma and Siam

Certain forms of dress, textiles and regalia worn at the courts of China, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand acted as visual statements of power and influence. They conveyed the political, ethnic, economic and social status of the wearer. This lecture will examine this concept in relation to China, Burma and Thailand and the minor courts that owed allegiance to one or other of these Super Powers. 

5pm, V&A Research Department, Seminar Room A. A review of the seminar can be found here.

22 January 2015: David Matless (Nottingham) on the Nature of Landscape: Cultural geography on the Norfolk Broads

This talk will draw on material from a recent monograph examining the regional cultural landscape of the Norfolk Broads. It will consider recent retheorisations of landscape, culture and region, emphasising questions of voice and design. Topics addressed will include narratives of landscape’s past and future, questions of human conduct, animal and plant landscapes, and the status of regional landscape icons, including those shaping discourses of conservation and commercial cultures of leisure.

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington 


29 January 2015: Charlotte Nicklas (Brighton) on the Convenient Mode of Railways: Female travel, dress and propriety in the mid-ninetheenth century
In mid-nineteenth century women’s magazines aimed at middle-class readers, travel figured as an exciting opportunity and evidence of technological progress, as well as a source of anxiety about the mixing of social classes and the acceleration of modern life. Clothing was a subject of special concern, as women needed to appear respectable, even fashionable, despite dust, dirt, and fatigue. Considering textual representations in magazines, along with surviving garments and images, this paper will explore the role dress played in female travel during this period in Britain and the United States.


5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


5 February 2015: Grace Lees-Maffei (Hertfordshire) A Special Relationship: The transatlantic domestic dialogue

Domestic advice literature is a mediating genre which contains a wealth of information about real ideals of the consumption of design in the home. Just as manners are markers of national identity (in that the people of different countries display different behaviours) so advice literature has been a tool in the formation of national identity. Grace will consider the semantic value of the gaps and silences in domestic advice books, the way in which informal manners have been presented as an American national trait, and how to understand the importance of domestic advice literature in mediating national identities, we must also consider its transnational significance.

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


12 February 2015: Marta Ajmar (V&A) on Material Mimesis: Reconnecting the Arts in the Renaissance

This talk will foreground a range of cross-cultural artefacts from Italy, the Middle-East, China and Japan made between c. 1400 and c. 1650 – from pottery to lacquer – and interrogate their multi-layered materiality. It will explore how, through complex processes of material mimesis and structural speculation and simulation, these artefacts participate to a cross-cultural technological value system predicated on stratification and depth, which is both material and temporal, leading us to question conventional geographical and historical frameworks for understanding the Renaissance.

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington


19 February 2015: Maurizio Marinelli (Sussex) on Saving the ‘Vital living past’ of Hong Kong: Stories of urban resistance in the Central District

This paper investigates what constitutes heritage in Hong Kong, focusing specifically on what Maurizio calls the ‘living heritage’ of Graham Street market. Historically, street hawkers and street markets originated, all over the world, as the real first form of retailing: they represent the fundamental link between the rural production and the urban consumption. Today we still use the term ‘street markets’ to refer to outdoor spaces that are made up of a set of implicit and explicit traditions and cultural practices, but they are also living spaces of sociality and connection. This paper will concentrate on the stories of survival, resistance and metamorphosis of the ‘vital living past’ of Graham Street Market.  Maurizio will analyze the role of concerned civil society organisations in the battle against domicide: the destruction of home which also implies the destruction of memory (Porteous, Smith, 2001).

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington. A review of the seminar can be found here


26 February 2015: Bill Sherman (V&A) on The Reader's Eye: Between annotation and illustration

Recent scholarship in the lively field of marginalia (including my own Used Books) has treated readers' marks almost exclusively as a verbal phenomenon – as words, that is, next to other words. But in doing so we have lost sight of sight itself, and I have now begun to recover the ways in which readers responded with images as well as words. Between medieval illumination and modern illustration, there are many traces of reading as a visual mode, signs that we have been slow to see and study and for which we are poorly served by both methodology and terminology. In this seminar I will survey the range of images produced by readers between 1450 and 1750, and will suggest that reading was closely bound up with seeing--and indeed with drawing – across the Medieval/Renaissance divide.

5pm, Humanities Seminar Room 1, 2nd Floor Stevens Building, RCA Kensington.  A review of the seminar can be found here.


Early Modern Material Cultures Seminar Series Summer 2015 – IHR/V&A

15 April 2015: Dr Jerzy Gawronski (University of Amsterdam) on The VOC-ship Amsterdam lost in 1749

29 April 2015: Dr Lesley Miller (V&A) on Selling Silks in Early Modern Europe

6 May 2015: Dr Carmen Frachia (Birkbeck) on Black Slaves in Early Modern Spain: From Commodities to Freedom

13 May 2015: Dr Giorgio Riello (Warwick) With Great Pomp and Magnificence’: Royal Gifts and the Embassies between Siam and France in the 1680s

1 June 2015: Dr William Fisher (New York) Doctor Dildo’s Dauncing Schoole: Sexual Instruments and Women’s Erotic Agency in England, c. 1600–1725

10 June 2015: Dr Sophie Read (Cambridge) on The Immaterial Object: Incense in Early Modern Poetry

Past Research Seminar speakers include: 

Ben Highmore (Sussex), Nigel Wood (Oxford), Patrick Wallis (LSE), Caroline Evans (CSM), Stephen Boyd-Davis (RCA), Djurdja Bartlett (London College of Fashion), Tim Boon (Science Museum), Andrew Morrall (Bard), Teal Triggs (RCA), Louise Purbrick (Brighton), Catherine Rossi (Kingston), Philip Sykas (Manchester Met), Robin Schuldenfrei (Humboldt-Universität), Penny Sparke (Kingston), Erika Rappaport (California).

HOW TO FIND US

Royal College of Art
Seminar Room S230
2nd Floor, Stevens Building
Jay Mews, Kensington
(See map)

V&A Research Department
Seminar Room A, Level 5
Victoria and Albert Museum  
(See map)