A couple of weeks ago an email popped up in my inbox entitled 'In Conversation at MoDA: The 1950s House'. MoDA, or the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, is part of Middlesex University and is home to collections of wallpapers, textiles, designs, books, catalogues and magazines from the late 19th and 20th century, and in particular the work and records of the Silver Studio, a design practice which operated from 1880 to 1963. I visited MoDA many moons ago whilst studying a module on the domestic interior at university and have always wanted to go back and explore further. Their 'In Conversation' events are sessions based around their collections, each having a specific focus, and offer the chance to have an informal talk and see related items, from samples and swatches to decorating manuals. Whilst I love the hands-on nature of my work as an interior designer, from drawing plans to product sourcing, I'm also passionate about the history of interiors and particularly fascinated by 20th century design, so the 1950s house was a topic I just couldn't resist! I decided to ditch my desk for the afternoon and go along.
After a brief introduction from the Head of Collections, our small group; which consisted of those with a general interest as well as PhD students and some just wanting to see the sights and styles of their childhood, explored a range of DIY and decorating magazines from MoDA's collection including titles such as Practical Householder and Good Housekeeping's Brighter Home Decorating. The 1950s was a period when people began to undertake more decorating tasks themselves, without professional help, and these guides offer an intriguing glimpse at the vast array of products available, many of which were new, cheaper alternatives to traditional materials and techniques. Though page after page consist of detailed black and white instructions and advertisements including how to create a collapsible kitchen table or modernise every room in the house with Formica, the covers and centre spreads show the gloriously vibrant candy colours and abstract, spindly patterns of the period. They are DIY precisely illustrated and clearly portray the familial roles as Dad gets stuck in up a ladder (shirt and tie on of course) whilst Mum and the children look on, occasionally participating in the more ladylike tasks! They are also brilliantly optimistic and show how the transformation of housing had great significance in the regeneration of post-war Britain. What's fantastic about Moda's collections is that they provide this insight into what an average consumer would have purchased or aspired to and this is often inevitably under-represented in many museums or historic interiors.
Next we delved into one of the amazing sample books from MoDA's collection of Palladio wallpapers, an artist-designed range dating from 1955 to 1964 and originally produced by a company called Lightbown Aspinall. MoDA's collection of this range is the most comprehensive in the UK and were displayed at their Palladio: the Architects' Wallpaper exhibition in 2016. We were guided through the various designs, which were intended for commercial spaces and marketed to architects in an attempt to encourage the use of this generally domestic product within public spaces. Designed by RCA graduates such as Walter Hoyle and Audrey Levy, and many taught by Edward Bawden, the aim was to use this artistic pedigree to appeal to trade customers and tastemakers, but whilst the range enjoyed critical acclaim, it was not commercially successful. With the artists given free reign, the designs varied widely, but were perhaps unified by the large-scale of the pattern repeat and their boldness and graphic quality, with scratchy, dark black lines outlining abstract, stylised or geometric pattern against blocks of clashing colour. It was great to see and discuss the range of designs, but to have them contextualised as we did so was really valuable, knowing not just what inspired them and how they were produced, but also for who they were intended, how they were marketed, who purchased them and where they were used. It is this full spectrum of information that really brings design history to life.
MoDA's collections are an incredible resource if you are studying the history of domestic interiors, are in need of inspiration for a design project, or just have a general geeky interest! Many items can be viewed online and it's also worth signing up to their mailing list to find out about events and touring exhibitions. They also produce a variety of handy-sized publications that provide an accessible overview of home decoration and furnishings from the turn of the century right through to the 1970s, and are available via their website. The museum is accessed by appointment only, and staff will help you in locating the parts of the collections relevant to your specific area of interest.