Feature: archives – making a comeback
Archives can be dusty basements with overstuffed plan drawers or temperature-controlled museum vaults; but when it comes to design heritage, Kay Hill discovers companies are not just preserving the past, they are putting it to work.
by Kay Hill
In almost any field of design there is a tension between the desire to preserve and the need to modernise – the perennial battle between listed building officers and architects being a case in point. The same is true when it comes to product design.
Paula Day manages the archive of her famous parents Robin and Lucienne Day. “I realised very rapidly after my mother died that there was a company marketing Lucienne Day designs that were recoloured and poorly reproduced, and I thought people should know what my parents actually did,” she says. “Most people’s opinion of them will come from what is in the shops – and if what’s in the shops is a travesty then my parents’ lives’ work is being misrepresented.”
In 2012 she set up The Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, and has created a digital archive of nearly 4,000 images of her parents’ work. For Paula, maintaining the purity of their designs is vital. She has entered into licencing agreements, but only if everything is perfectly recreated, including the colour and scale of fabrics. “My mother never let a manufacturer choose the colour as it works together with the balance of the pattern, making it intrinsic to the design,” she argues. “The success of the Lucienne Day fabrics released by John Lewis as part of its 150 year celebration confirms my belief that her original designs look fresher and more exciting than any update could be. My parents’ design legacy is a treasure chest and you need to be very careful each time you take something out.”
Other designers believe it is acceptable to update archive designs. Louise Young, John Lewis head of buying for textiles, has recently been involved in a project with Liberty: “It was an honour to be given access to the Liberty fabric archive, and with help from the Liberty Fabric design team, to adapt the scale and colour of five iconic prints.” At Pierre Frey, archive curator Sophie Rouart notes: “Patrick Frey feels comfortable to change anything in the archives, to play with the colours or the scale, but he takes care to maintain the spirit of the brand.” And at Cole & Son, managing director Kirstie Carey explains: “We reinterpret and transform historical wallpapers to make them more current. We experiment with scale, re-draw elements or utilise new colour combinations which have a more modern palette to give designs a fresh look.”
Textile designer Sarah Gorst of George Spencer Designs and formerly of Colefax & Fowler has designed wallpapers that are now in the V&A, but notes: “I have kept very little of what I have designed over the past 40 years. We never really thought of ourselves as artists, we were just commercial designers doing a job. You definitely have to tweak designs – a wallpaper that looked nice on a wall in 1900 wouldn’t look good now. I wouldn’t mess with a William Morris, but there were few people of that stature.”
Rebecca Craig, head of design at Morris & Co, has overseen the release of wallpapers such as the Pure Morris range, which uses original Morris woodblocks as a starting point, but uses processes that he could only have dreamed of. “As custodians of the original company founded by William Morris, we are lucky to own within our archive all of the original wallpaper hand blocks and corresponding match pieces, and a wealth of hand-printed wallpaper and fabric samples,” she says. “These are often a starting point for inspiration for new collections but we are guided by the references and colours that we find here to ensure that what we produce is in keeping with the aesthetic and ethos of William Morris.”
Modernisation is also going on in the world of furniture. At Vitra, classic designs are being quietly updated – the Eames Plastic Chair, designed by Charles & Ray Eames in 1950, has had its seat height raised by 20mm and its geometry subtly altered to accommodate today’s taller, larger customers. And the Panton chair, jointly developed by Verner Panton and Vitra 50 years ago, was updated using polypropylene in 1999 and this spring has a new Sunlight colour. Meanwhile, at Knoll, the 100th birthday of Florence Knoll Bassett saw the introduction of a new range based on her 1954 Lounge Collection but with deeper cushions.
“Philosophically I have no issues around resizing,” says Dominic Reid, who is in the process of relaunching the iconic S range of furniture that his parents, John and Sylvia Reid, created for Stag in the 1950s. “But to begin with we are being absolutely faithful to the originals and true to the original production process.” When it comes out in May it will be the first time their furniture has been reissued, and the launch is part of a wider campaign to preserve his parents’ legacy that has seen Dominic collect and digitise an almost complete record of their work.
Lighting has had modernisation forced upon it, explains Carlotta de Bevilacqua, vice-president of Artemide. While classic designs such as the 30-year-old Tolomeo have been updated with new sizes and colour ranges over the years, the real changes, to accommodate low energy light sources, have been carried out almost invisibly. “We try to understand and comply with the project concept, then combine the poetry and intelligence of the original project with technical innovation.”
Whether used to recreate or to reimagine, a design archive is always a blessing. At Brintons Carpets which has commercial designs and patterns from 1790 onward, archives manager Yvonne Smith explains: “The archive is used constantly as a source of daily design inspiration.”