‘Sooner, or later’: Reflections on Design History studies

January 24, 2017

This post is written by Sophie Châtellier, Andrea Foffa and Vivien Chan, second-year students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course:

Sooner, or later is the name of a student-led publication produced in the final term of our first year on the course, in summer 2016. The publication was conceived as a collaboration between students of History of Design and those of other Royal College of Art courses, such as Visual Communication and Architecture. The production of the 300 copies was overseen by the students themselves, who organised every aspect, from paper acquisition, to printing and finishing. It was distributed among students and visitors to the RCA final show during an introductory event in June 2016.


The cover of 'Sooner, or Later' (2016)
The cover of student-led publication, Sooner, or later (2016)

Sooner, or later is a collection of visual essays that reflect on the concept of ‘design change’ over a number of different topics, from domestic interiors of the British country house to Lara Croft’s silhouette.  For the students, the aim was to question the practice of Design History, and more specifically history writing, and to find alternative ways of responding to their research.

Having recently completed a historiographical essay  -a very ‘practical’ exercise for history students- we decided to move away from academic writing and reading, footnoting and referencing. This project attempted to revisit these academically rigorous and word-heavy essays through the lens of design practice. The drive to ‘make’ something, involving as much or as little text, became the premise of this work.

Sooner, or Later
left: Charlotte Slark (essay title: Burberry and the Chav: The Conspicuous Consumption of the Burberry Check Print)
right: Maria Simoes Coelho (essay title: Loud and Soft: Contrasting Designs in Pianos)

Second-year student Helen Butler explained her design process when translating her essay Reading the Modern: Postmodern Kitchen Object through Theory and Display:

These pieces reflect the cut-and-paste nature of the postmodern objects that first drew me to my essay topic. The collages represent the superficiality of materials, with materials seeming to be what they are not (an antithesis to some definitions of modernism). The images selected come from an endless proliferation and over-abundance of other images, making my own choices in what to assemble the key part of the work. This in some ways echoes the practice of postmodern designers, who emphasise craft, individuality and emotional connections to objects. In the free and referential language of these collages, the viewer is perhaps provoked to imagine that theoretical ‘hyperreal’, with domestic things playing a part. In addition, the bodily connections in these pieces reference the anthropomorphism of postmodern kitchenwares, notably those by Alessi, and the ways in which designers inspired the public to covet their everyday objects.

Helen Butler 'Kitchen Object'
Helen Butler, (essay title: Reading the Modern/Postmodern Kitchen Object through Theory and Display)

Many of us collaborated with design students from Visual Communication and Architecture, and work was generated through sharing, connecting and exchanging knowledge and skills. The resulting object is a visual exploration of these exchanges and reflections on skills and making. The purpose of this ‘graphic exercise’ was not only to synthesise each essay into a visual argument – one of many ways of interpreting Sooner, or later – but in addition to that, through a more flexible approach, we allowed ourselves to experiment with the medium, and explore different aspects of our chosen topic that sit outside the boundaries of historiographical narratives. There is an intrinsic ‘multiplicity’ to this student work: of form, of topic, of intent. For this reason, there is no page order, the book can be ‘read’ in any preferred way, connections and visuals (re)imagined each time, regardless of the themes. The only restrictions given were of a ‘graphic’ nature: the format of the paper (A3) and the printing technique (risograph), which allowed for a limited and set range of colours.

Sooner, or Later
left: Sophie Châtellier (essay title: The Disappearance of the Wardrobe? A postmodern study of storage) in collaboration with Hanna Schrage (RCA, Visual Communciation) and poet Thomas Dodds
right: Vivien Chan (essay title: The decline of Dai Pai Dong and street Food Hawkers in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, after the 1997 Handover) in collaboration with Seo Hye Lee (RCA, Visual Communication)

Sooner, or later is a free publication. If you are interested in seeing or receiving a copy, please email hod@rca.ac.uk

About the author

January 24, 2017

I am Head of Early Modern Studies in the V&A's Research Institute (VARI). The History of Architecture and of Technology are my main research interests. Currently I am working on...

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