The Royal College of Art made a bold move in appointing Claire Catterall to curate its centenary exhibition. Even bolder was its subsequent display of confidence in letting her tackle the job with only the minimum of briefs and no interference.

It would have been easy to opt for a long-established curator who would have produced a professional and predictable result. Instead, in choosing Catterall, who graduated as recently as 1987 from the RCA’s joint MA course with the Victoria and Albert Museum in the History of Design, the college has bought itself a youthful enthusiasm and freshness of approach which bodes well for the exhibition’s critical reception.

Bent on eradicating any hint of the tediousness which lurks in even the most successful exhibitions, Caterall has mounted a show which is light, open and accessible, and which tells its story by making the objects and the environment around them speak for themselves, spurning labels and long textual explanations.

“The college, especially now, is a most exceptional place,” she says. “I want the exhibition to say that, to explain that for the students it’s the magic of being here which is so important. They feed off the whole experience, off each other’s talents and off many inspirational teachers. Thanks to its reputation, designers from other countries are prepared to spend time here – people like Antonio Citterio and Mario Bellini. I wanted to infuse the exhibition with this feeling of magic and opportunity.”

Because she read history at Manchester University before entering the more specialist field of design, Catterall has a proper sense of the historical perspective from which the RCA’s past 100 years must be viewed. She took a three-month course in nineteenth and twentieth century Decorative Arts at the V&A after her time at Manchester. Since completing her MA in Design History she has worked in the National Art Library at the V&A, and then as a curator at the Design Museum. As she says, her involvement with the V&A has stood her in excellent stead while researching this exhibition. For in the beginning, the two institutions were closely linked, and many exhibits from the early years were lent by the museum.

Catterall has come to her task with enough experience to face any problems with equanimity. She curated both the Eileen Gray and the CFA Voysey exhibitions at the Design Museum, she knows about working to a low budget, caring for historic exhibits, and fulfilling environmental and security conditions to get government indemnity. But she carries no excess baggage from a long past. Aware of the opportunity which the RCA has put in her lap, she has rewarded it with an approach which is new, uncluttered and open-minded.

And working with designers who are also recent RCA alumni – Graphic Thought Facility and Russell Warren-Fisher – that is precisely the style of exhibition she has striven to achieve.

Latest articles