Step into the past

GF Smith is offering a glimpse of the goodies in its archive in a London show, and more and more design collections are opening their doors to the public. Laura Snoad looks at where to go to find inspiration from our rich heritage

As 125-year-old paper manufacturer GF Smith opens up its archive for the first time for an exhibition this week, growing numbers of design archives are becoming available for practitioners to use as tools for research and inspiration.

The GF Smith exhibition, held at the former Sierra Leone High Commission at London’s Portland Place, shows printing innovations from the letterpress to modern digital prints alongside iconic images, including the work of Sir Peter Blake, Saul Bass and Milton Glaser.

Catherine Moriarty, curator and principal research fellow at the University of Brighton Design Archives, suggests that interest in archives among design practitioners is growing, for both archiving their own creative products and as an aid to their work.

Moriarty says, ’Through contextual information, archives explain how people worked together and solved design problems in teams. Often in museums an iconic design is shown as the work of a single creative genius, but that’s not really how it works.’

The Design Archives records the story of the design establishment through what would amount to almost 1000 linear meters of visual and textual documentation. It houses 18 collections, including material from the Design Council, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations and individual designers such as FHK Henrion and Hans Arnold Rothholz.

Physically, the archive is accessible at the University of Brighton site on an appointment-only basis, but some material is also available online via the Visual Arts Data Service.

Vads allows users to browse more than 100 000 images from educational establishments, museums and private collections, including the Design Council Slide Collection, which is now housed at Manchester Metropolitan University after London’s Design Centre closed its doors to the public in 1994.

Images on Vads can be used without a fee for educational purposes and can be licensed for commercial projects, depending on the collection and usage. Vads collection manager Amy Robinson says, ’Vads increases access to collections, many of which are not easily accessible physically, hidden away in archives.’

One such collection belongs to the Museum of Design in Plastics, which is based at the Arts University College at Bournemouth. The museum has a keen focus on contemporary product design, a strong collection policy, and boasts a number of Tom Dixon designs among its holdings.
The museum’s Vads presence has increased the potential for designers to use the collections, says head of Modip Susan Lambert. She says, ’Images could be used to get a dialogue going with colleagues. You could think, “How can this be improved? How can I approach my work in a similar way? How could the materials from one item be used differently?”’

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising allows designers to research the visual history of brands, through its collection. The museum has an online picture library with more than 20 000 items from the collection, as well as a physical site in London’s Notting Hill.
Although designers often use the resource to source pictures for graphic design, the museum’s founder, branding expert Robert Opie, suggests that it holds huge potential for branding consultancies during a project’s research phase.

He says, ’Whenever designers change a brand too fast and the heritage gets lost, sales take a dive. Brands are robust creatures, but can be easily destroyed by overenthusiastic change of what consumers look for to recognise it.’

Branding group PI Global’s chief executive Don Williams agrees. He says, ’Designers need to understand that our role is not to radically alter consumers’ perception of brands unless the brand is so ill it needs major surgery. Even then we throw everything away at the brand’s peril.’
PI Global uses the museum for inspiration when developing well-known brands. Williams says, ’What archives do is provide designers with instant equity reference and a clear picture of how equity has evolved. You can see what is crucial to retain and what is superfluous.’

St Bride Library on London’s Fleet Street provides a similar resource for graphic designers. Dating back to the 1890s, the library houses more than 50 000 books, and 3500 catalogues and directories relating to graphic design, typography and printmaking, as well as larger artefacts.
The library is used by designers for a variety of purposes, including insight into printing processes, inspiration or to clarify a font idea. The library allows users to photocopy many items and photography is available on request.

Librarian Nigel Roche says, ’Designers are often looking for something amorphous. They’ll have a half-evolved idea that they can’t quite express coherently, but can alight on something close here and use the library to find more.’

The library recently commissioned a group of young designers, including Adam Chelstov, Jackson Lam, Åbäke and Jérôme Rigaud, to produce a book – called Fount – using archive material from St Bride’s collections, such as work by William Morris and Eric Gill.

Rigaud says, ’The collection at St Bride is completely amazing. History is essential for culture. I’m not an artist in my ivory tower, proclaiming my ideas are 100 per cent original.’

Roche agrees, ’We’re always plumbing, dredging the past for things that will have a second life. You only have to look at type design to see that fashions are cyclical.’

Key design archives

  • Design Archives at the University of Brighton
  • Design Museum Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
  • St Bride Library
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum Archive of Art and Design

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