The cult of the ordinary

Today’s curtains and wallpaper could one day make history. Hugh Pearman delves into the past at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture.

Today’s curtains and wallpaper could one day make history. Hugh Pearman delves into the past at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

I don’t know how small a museum has to be before it ceases to be a museum and becomes somebody’s cluttered front room. But if we take a size scale of one to ten, where ten is the Victoria & Albert Museum, then the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture is definitely a one.

This is the public face of Middlesex University’s art and design section, way up in north London near Cockfosters. Well, that’s where it is today, in a collection of north-lit studios collectively known as the Cat Hill campus, but way back it was based elsewhere and had a different name: Hornsey College of Art. To historians of radical student politics, that name has a resonance equivalent to that of the Sorbonne – Hornsey was Britain’s epicentre of student protest and unrest in the year of near-revolutions, 1968.

But this column is not about that. It is about a bequest made to the college the previous year. In 1963 the design consultancy known as the Silver Studio, founded in 1880 by Arthur Silver, had closed with the death of his son and successor, Rex. In 1967 the entire contents of the studio – no less than 40 000 designs – were given to Hornsey, and it is this which forms MoDA’s core collection.

MoDA is all about the interiors of bog-standard homes, especially fabrics and wallpapers, because it was these that the Silver Studio designed. Additional archives from other designers and manufacturers have been added in a similar vein. This is what makes the museum – which consists of just two galleries, plus what the staff can hang along a corridor and a staircase – truly fascinating.

The Silver Studio, and others like it, were the workhorses of commercial design. William Morris’s stuff was expensive, so the Silver Studio produced shameless rip-offs of Morris and others, moving into Art Nouveau, early modern, and any other popular style. It designed for all and sundry – this was what ordinary people decorated their homes with. The quality was amazingly high, most of the time, which begs the question – why isn’t somebody re-issuing it?

The displays are kept sparse, with a big study collection, for when you want to research in depth. I instantly liked MoDA precisely because of its grounded, everyday feel. There are small, period room sets in which you can recognise the possessions of your parents and grandparents. Visitors scribble notes and pin them up – many of them the recollections of people who lived in those times, others the awed or bored comments of today’s students. And all around you, the art college continues to function, giving the place a sense of continuity.

Ever feel unrecognised in your work, like a cog in some anonymous design machine? Go to MoDA, and you’ll realise that your job could be a vitally important piece of social history. The poorly-paid, non-celeb graphic designers of the Silver Studio – including the accomplished Harry Napper and John Illingworth Kay, plus many others down the years – are now among the immortals, their work lovingly conserved.

So as you churn out those production-line designs while the big names soak up the adulation of their peers, remember that what you do could be admired in posterity. Meanwhile, I gather wallpaper’s making a comeback. Here’s your chance.

MoDA website:

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