17 March 2019 -
Despite spending a long career as a museum curator in Sydney from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, including developing a major public collection of domestic furnishings at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, it has taken my current PhD studies at UNSW Sydney to afford me the chance to really engage with the international design history field. Being awarded a Conference Bursary by the DHS to attend and deliver a paper at the 2018 conference Design and Displacement, held at Parsons School of Design in New York by Sarah Lichtman, whom I found to be warm, welcoming, encouraging and inspiring, was an important moment of transition for me in terms of placing the work I do within the context of an international field of researchers.
The field of design history in general - and my own area of expertise, twentienth-century interior design and furnishings - is small in Australia, and generally exists within museums, rather than universities, where academic study is limited. The DHS Conference Bursary greatly assisted my travel from a long distance, but also, more valuably, lifted my sense of relative isolation – engendered by the scale of the field in Australia.
Since my background has been as a curator at a historic house, contextual histories, rather than connoisseurship, has always been the backbone of my work. The conference theme of Design and Displacement, with its sub-theme of the impact of disruption caused by the movement of refugees, was immediately attractive, as considering these ideas is at the core of both my recent published work on post-war émigré designers in Australia, and my current PhD thesis, which examines the role of the client in Australian design history. My paper "A Distinctive Blend: European refugee clients and the Australian post war interior" provided an opportunity to analyse one such client family's design commission by the designer Noel Coulson, while addressing some larger arguments about ways to understand previously marginalised forms of decoration, and arguing for a more inclusive notion of the modern interior. In our session "Interiors: Public and Private", chaired by Professor Penny Sparke, ideas about interior design and displacement were explored in a range of ways by the other panellists, from PJ Carlino's absorbing paper on the feminisation of office spaces in the early twentieth-century, to Emily Orr's history of Wanamaker's department store, and Peder Valle's wry account of multiple layers of recreated historic interiors at the National Museum.
While the keynote speakers provided the call to arms of inspiration to the assembled designers and historians, equally valuable were the smaller connections and pathways afforded by the stimulus of individual papers in each of the panels sessions I attended. Many papers I listened to contained an 'aha' moment of recognition of the commonality of the threads of twentieth-century design history across Australia, Scandinavia, Japan and the US. In various presentations I was reminded that sub-themes, like influential department store display rooms, popular magazines and backgrounds in theatrical set designing, were global phenomena in modern interiors, and that the activities of designers around the world had much in common with Australian practitioners. Similarly, it was edifying to find lively academic interest in broader themes of regionalism, the marketing of twentieth-century modern design, the marginalisation of practices, and the value of recontextualising modern interiors.
Beyond the conference panels, conversations with colleagues were engrossing and rewarding, providing the starting point for some very generous and helpful new friendships with historians around the world. Additionally, the organised visit to Paul Rudolph's Modulightor was an uplifting experience; I also took the opportunity to see the exhibitions Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at MoMA, and at the FIT, Pink: the history of a punk, pretty, powerful colour. In Australia, design exhibitions are rarely seen on this scale, with a high level of both funding and research clearly evident. The chance to see these exhibitions was something I deeply appreciated.
Aside from presenting my own research to an international audience, my participation in the 2018 DHS Conference has encouraged me to feel 'in the field' of design history, rather than on the margins of architectural history in Australia and in my faculty. Penny Sparke and Jeremy Aynsley made it clear the value the Society places on the new research of PhD students and, having made so many personal and professional connections, I returned to Australia and my work with energy and determination to build on my contribution to the field.
PhD Candidate in Design History, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW Sydney
You can follow my work on Instagram @catriona_quinn