V&A Dundee

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Q&A with Maeve Redmond

We caught up with designer Maeve Redmond and asked her a few questions about her compelling commission in our Scottish Design Galleries.

Maeve created ‘Plain and Ornamental of Every Description’, a beautiful piece of graphic design in our permanent galleries that unpacks the wider context around a 19th century trade catalogue by cast iron manufacturers Walter MacFarlane & Co.

We set you quite a challenging brief for this commission. You were asked to respond to themes explored in the Scottish Design Galleries, and especially to think about the internationalism of Scottish Design. With such a broad remit, where did you start?

To demonstrate Scottish design’s international influence, I was keen to find one story that could work as an analogy for a wider industry. Eager to engage the expertise of the curators of the Scottish Design Galleries, I wanted to see which stories were missing from their overview. The content they were unable to practically include in the gallery was mostly large-scale architectural works.

There are many routes this project could have taken, but when I discovered the intricate, hand-drawn and photographic catalogues of architectural cast iron produced by Walter Macfarlane’s Victorian-era foundry, and how they marketed themselves around the world, I was intrigued.

What was it about Macfarlanes as a company that caught your interest?

Established in 1850, Walter Macfarlane's was not the first, but was arguably the most prolific, producer of cast iron in Scotland operating for about a century. They produced everything from rainwater drainpipes and bandstands to an entire palace, with designs both ‘artistic and sanitary’. The designs from their Victorian prime are intricately ornate and represent a style that is long out of fashion.

Their 600 page catalogues of designs were marketed to customers around the world and it was these historic documents that brought the company to life for me. The company took advantage of technological developments in lithographic printing, which made it cheaper to produce. Customers were able to customise and order whatever they desired, and the company proclaimed ‘all overseas wants can be supplied.’ The catalogues are full of fascinating language, which talk about the ‘infinite possibilities’ of cast iron, ‘plain and ornamental of every description’ and it was this that became the starting point for the commission.

It is important to acknowledge how Scottish design industries benefitted from and were integral to the global trade routes established through the colonialism of the British Empire. By extracting the marketing language of the company, we can see how they operated within the global, social and political issues of the day. Macfarlane's understood their market. It was a modern company in the most contemporary sense.

What artists and designers inspire you? Were there any in particular that you were thinking about when working on this commission?

I am inspired by many designers, including American designers Paula Scher, Edward Tufte and Muriel Cooper; Dutch designers Mevis & Van Deursen, and British designer Abram Games.

I also admire artists who work with typography, such as Lawrence Weiner, Allen Ruppersberg and Sister Corita Kent.

Whilst working on this particular commission, however, I was mostly considering the anonymous and uncredited designers, draughtsmen and copy editors who put together these extraordinary catalogues.

Did you have any previous interest in cast iron? If not, what were the most interesting things you learned about it?

When I began this research, cast iron and its history was entirely new to me. It was a privilege to access the V&A’s collection and investigate a new subject through the medium of graphic design.

I am conscious that I am not a historian, nor a museum curator. Rather, I organise information through visual means. I employed my skills to visualise the content I uncovered in my research; I was particularly interested in surviving structures produced by Macfarlane's.

In the Victorian era, cast iron was ubiquitous in architectural design, and still makes up a large part of street furniture (such as bandstands, gates and lamp-posts) in cities around the world. Macfarlane's imprinted their trademark on every casting and the symbolic permanence of the ‘trademark’ developed in my work as a reflection of the structures that survived. They are architectural stamps of that historical era.

Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry created the entirely new suburb of Possil in Glasgow. The foundry was vast with a dedicated tram network that brought people and materials to and from the river, dockyards and railways. There is now no trace of the foundry itself, so the trademark becomes an important bridge to the past.

What role did research play in the development of the work?

Research was fundamental to the project. Initially, this was undertaken at Glasgow University Archives and the Mitchell Library. Beyond the history of the foundry, a comprehension of the social and political issues of the time was essential to understand the impact of Macfarlane’s work in context. For example, increasing populations in cities around the world, as well as the Victorian concern for hygiene, meant that architects sought to maximise light and space. Cast iron allowed the use of many more windows and open spaces than were afforded by wood and stone. In the words from Macfarlane’s catalogues: ‘The increasing tendency of population to congregate within confined areas, as in cities and towns, naturally calls for a new class of outdoor arrangements for recreation.’

I was keen to find an expert on the subject of Scottish cast iron, and was fortunate to have a chance encounter in the Mitchell Library, which led me to a historian, David Mitchell, whose doctorate focuses upon the work of Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry. He shared an image of the foundry with me that became important to include.

You were very keen to maintain the authenticity and integrity of the Macfarlanes catalogues within your work. Can you explain how you did this, and also your approach to working with original source material more generally?

Working with the context of a museum introduces concerns for accurate representation. For this commission, the reproduced pages of the catalogues are presented with their captions and page numbers intact. An original copy of the catalogue is displayed in a nearby case, so I wanted to present these pages of the catalogue fully and to scale.

Macfarlane's photographed their structures when they were new; documentation that I find rare and unusual for the time. I paired these pages with contemporary images of existing corresponding structures to demonstrate the longevity of these designs in cities whose built environments have drastically changed since. Working with archive material in this way allows for forgotten narratives to be retold.

My method of combining graphic elements with archival content to tell a story originated in a collaborative project commissioned by Panel, titled Barrie Girls in 2013. Barrie Girls began with a set of photographs of women from the archive of Barrie Knitwear, Hawick. We created graphic prints that expanded the narrative potential of these particular images.

In 2015 I began another project with Panel, The Persistence of Type, which conflated ‘type’ as lettering with ‘type’ as female roles described by advertising. Working with images from the archives of the Forth Studios design agency, as well as magazines and micro-film of local newspapers, the exhibition and continuing publications play with a set of motifs from the context of brand promotion in Scotland during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

You tried several different layouts for the work before you found the right one. Part of the challenge around this was grappling with so much content. Can you describe your process and how you came to the final composition?

Geography was an important consideration in the composition to demonstrate both the scale of Macfarlane’s operation and how sought after their work was internationally. I decided against creating a strict map, but broadly arranged the examples into northern and southern hemispheres. The red arrows reference the Empire’s shipping routes.

In this sense, Macfarlane’s trademark ‘on every casting’ is central to the work. It refers to the primary theme of the project: design issued from Scotland and shipped around the world.

Underpinned by this loose geographical ‘mapping’, the display works as a hierarchy to explore connections between the different structural projects. Once you are clued into Macfarlane’s style and range of products, you begin to recognise their work where it exists today. For example, The Magdalen Green bandstand in Dundee, which I did not include in the final outcome, is near identical to a drawing from the catalogue and an existing bandstand in Adelaide, Australia.

What was your approach to typography?

Quotes such as ‘all overseas wants can be supplied’ are extracted from Macfarlane’s own advertising and from Empire trade magazines of the time. These evidence the typographic methods and fashions of the day.

The large-scale title ‘Plain and Ornamental of Every Description’ is set in Franklin Gothic, a late 19th Century American typeface, designed to answer demand for large-format, sans serif typefaces for the expanding advertising industry of the time. These typefaces recall their original historical use.

Who produced the work for you, and how did you decide on the methods of production?

I wanted to work with a team that could both manufacture and install the work with an understanding of the quality required for exhibition displays. Eastern, based in Musselburgh, were as excited as I was to work within V&A Dundee's building in the run-up to the museum opening. We closely discussed the material options and display hierarchy to create the physical layers of information required.

What software do you use in your work? Do you always work digitally, or are there parts of the process you have to do by hand?

I typically use Adobe software alongside hand-drawing, scanning and cut and paste. For this project, a big part of the process was working directly to the size of the wall in the gallery, pinning my content onto a 4-metre wall in my studio and later testing type and element sizes at full scale. If the work is intended to exist off-screen, in print or installation, it’s essential that part of the design process happens off-screen too.

Were there any contemporary themes you wanted to explore through the lens of this historical subject?

The advertising methods employed by the foundry have clear parallels to contemporary trade and the global economy. Glasgow is often sited historically as the ‘workshop of the Empire’ and through advertising, Macfarlane's maximised the great benefits afforded to them by operating at the centre of the British Empire.

It is important to recognise what design industries like Macfarlane's were built on and what exploitation of power may have taken place to make their global impact possible.

Capitalist structures born from the Industrial revolution created a top-down hierarchy in the design industry. Scotland’s abundance of natural resources were utilised and people were drawn to cities through job opportunities. While the exploitation of the Empire and resulting dominance of markets gave British companies the opportunity to be successful internationally, investigating the impact that the Empire had on industry is essential to understanding how we can and must work ethically.

Questions that I wanted to explore were: Who was the individual profiting from the foundry’s success? Who is the man in power? ‘Mr. Manufacturer!’ Walter Macfarlane Jr. is pictured standing in the foundry yard at Possil. One thing that is clearly missing from the material are the stories of the people who worked in the foundry to produce their designs.

Scotland has an excellent history of producing quality design, innovation and manufacturing. As heavy industries fell away during the 20th century and Scotland’s textile, ceramic and ship building industries collapsed, the design disciplines that existed alongside them also diminished. By looking at this historical industry we can see how much the role of design in the modern world has changed, with outcomes now more closely aligned with service and experience.

How do you see your work sitting within the context of the Scottish Design Galleries? How does it complement or contrast with the other objects on display?

Despite the content referring to one story and one point in time, the work demonstrates an approach that could be applied to any object in the gallery, such as Turkey Red, Paisley fabrics and Jute bags. It is fascinating to think about the hidden stories behind every object in the museum and the wealth of stories that are associated with each object on display.

Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry is one example of how Scotland’s design history is intrinsically linked with industry, empire and trade. While our colonial past, and how Scotland benefitted from it, is not something to celebrate, Scottish design has had a huge impact around the world, often in exchange with ideas and inspiration from other cultures. The framework offered by a company like Macfarlane’s allows us to investigate some of the reciprocal exchanges of ideas and products that, in turn, influenced Scottish design.

By presenting complex material distilled into a graphic composition, the work aims to disrupt the expected display of the museum gallery while you walk through the space. Material that might usually be confined to a book is instead displayed in a way that allows the viewer to walk up to it and investigate its connections. My hope is that the work opens-up the contextual themes of the Scottish design gallery to a wider audience.

Maeve Redmond is an independent graphic designer based in Glasgow. She works primarily with artists, writers and cultural organisations to design books, publications, billboards, campaigns and websites. Maeve also collaborates with curators and artists on commissions to exhibit work resulting from her design practice.

For more information visit Maeve's website and Instagram.