It’s a common cliché: archives are dusty, boring places where scientists delve into special and unusual topics. This interview with the director of the University of Brighton Design Archives, Sue Breakell, does a reality check – and shows: Design archives in particular are lively places where not only important social issues are negotiated, but also where a discipline can find itself.
By Carl Friedrich Then
Archives are the memory of a society. They help to create an awareness of historical processes and how the present has come to be. This can be particularly important for the still comparatively young and fast-moving discipline of design. For archives not only help to understand the past beyond numerous creativity myths, but also to consciously locate it in the present. The situation regarding design archives in Germany is complex, not least because of the federal structures, and would be worth a separate article – institutions such as the Bauhaus Archive and the Werkbund Archive are in a state of flux, or, like the archive of the HfG Ulm, are mainly present as exhibition venues.
The University of Brighton Design Archives., on the other hand, are in calmer waters. Emerging from the archives of the British Design Council in 1994, this institution now also looks after the archives of the ICSID (today WDO World Design Organization) and the ICOGRADA (former World Association of Graphic Design): Organisations that networked the international design world in the second half of the 20th century with conferences, events and numerous publications. In addition, the archives of several important personalities from the fields of design and architecture can be found there today – including the estates of designers whose fate and work are closely linked to German history and its ups and downs. For example, the typographer and graphic designer Anthony Froshaug (1920 -1984), who taught at the HfG Ulm from 1957 to 1961, but also the emigrant FHK Henrion (1914-1990), who was born in Nuremberg and, after a stopover in Paris in the 1930s, became an important figure in the British design scene – known, among other things, for his designs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines or British European Airways. Also to be mentioned here is the set designer Natasha Kroll (1912 – 2004), who lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1936 and taught at the Reimann School. After emigrating to London, she worked not only for British department stores, but also for the BBC and for various film productions: in 1974 she won the BAFTA for her set design of The Hireling, which had already won the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or) in Cannes in 1973.
What distinguishes the Brighton Design Archives above all, however, is the close cooperation with the University of Brighton and the degree and doctoral programmes offered there, especially in design, as well as the connection to the renowned Centre for Design History. In addition to regular exhibitions, lecture series and discussion rounds are also offered. The team around Sue Breakell is concerned with reflecting on the archive in its structure as a medium of knowledge, primarily in exchange with archivists, academics and creative people. In this context, the most recent lecture series Archive as Method took place, which is part of the larger initiative Archival Cultures of Design. It is events like these that show how multi-layered the work of an archive can be understood. For archives are not just service providers. Their structure and the way they are run have a fundamental influence on the knowledge stored in them.
Synergies with the Past
Before becoming head of the Brighton Design Archives in 2009, Sue Breakell worked at the Tate Archive for several years. She points out that archives are far more important in the art scene than in design: “The idea of the archive has been used very productively by artists for many years to address complex issues in a multi-layered way. Certainly, the fields of art and design are different, but I would be happy if the potential of archives were increasingly used by designers as well”. For it is precisely the surviving documents and artefacts that stem from a creative practice that offer the space for a lively, tangible and thus vivid interaction with the past: “In my opinion, archives of creative disciplines have something particularly stimulating and inspiring about them, in the sense that they make encounters with creative moments, connections and settings of the past possible. This enables collaborative work beyond temporal boundaries for historians, curators but also creatives. The archive helps us understand not only individuals, but also the development of a discipline, its actors and the points of connection and networks that linked them.”
A recently completed project with the graphic design students of the University of Brighton shows the synergies that arise, for example, in the education of young designers, as Breakell reports: “Recently, we gave our graphic design students an assignment that Anthony Froshaug had already given his students in Brighton in 1970. We wanted to see how they dealt with an assignment that was given so long ago. Both in terms of how it makes them reflect on the history of their discipline and the historical context, and in terms of what questions this assignment will bring in 2023. Of course, it is also important to use the task in its original form in order to get a feeling for the time and the person. It is precisely here that it then becomes apparent how multi-layered the relevance of archives can be, especially in times of digitalisation. Contents, contexts and materialities can be experienced and accessed in a completely different way through them. Another task for the students was to design an exhibit for an exhibition that responds either to something in the archive or to the idea of the archive itself. We were very touched by the results, because the work of the young designers allows us to see the archive and the collection from a completely different perspective. I think we are giving the students a special experience that they will hopefully remember later on.
The Archive as a Mirror of Society
This connection to teaching and research is integral to the work of the Brighton Design Archives. But Sue Breakell emphasises that it is also important to understand the archive not only as a one-dimensional place that merely enables knowledge to be retrieved. For the archive itself shapes and structures the knowledge deposited in it. This happens firstly through the decision about what and how something is collected in the first place and often enough also has to do with what financial resources and how much space are available.
Another role is played by national contexts that determine precisely such parameters: “In some places, design archives have developed out of a motivation to assemble collections based primarily on formalistic criteria that manifest national narratives. Elsewhere, collections were created by practitioners who lived in places and contexts that made other histories and narratives almost impossible. Each context brings with it particular conditions that shape design as a practice, and thus the archives that go with it. We can learn from this and ask ourselves what role archives should play for us and for the society of a global future.”
Archives are products of a society and its political condition, which also raises some questions for the Brighton Design Archives that Breakell wants to address: “Our collection has its focus on British design and global design organisations of the 20th century. So they speak of a mid-century period when many things still seemed possible. Design at that time promised to contribute to building a better world. But institutionalised archives, as we are, also have many blind spots, because archives also only reflect the power structures of the world in which they are founded and operated. In this respect, we also get questions from our students again and again: Why don’t we find more women in the archives? Where are the LGBTQ+ voices or the voices of the global South? – As for other archives, the task for us is to explore these questions together and use our collections to respond to the demands of students, scholars and practitioners.”
Not just Storage Boxes: the Archive as a Place for Dialogue
Archives are therefore not only places of storage, they also provide a space for important discourses in which society, but above all one’s own discipline, can be reflected upon. With the help of documents and artefacts, one can vividly experience how designers have responded to creative challenges in the past. In addition, a collection also reveals which narratives and discourses were conducted in the past and which groups were excluded from these narratives. The Brighton Design Archives attempts to do both. The connection to teaching and research at the University of Brighton, the cooperation with the Centre for Design History, but also the proximity to the British Design Council are of course an advantage here. But especially event series like “Archival Cultures of Design” show the potential of an archive when it tries to network internationally in order to question itself, other archives and the discipline of design in a global context.
Those who do not necessarily want to travel to Brighton can also visit the archives digitally. To do this, you can make appointments with the archive staff via email, where selected documents and materials can be viewed with the help of a visualiser.
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