Design history, like its sister discipline the history of art, retains a certain malleability that more established disciplines have forgotten. It also has a significance that cannot be undermined. No person does not use that which is designed.
Testing the boundaries of this novel way of looking offers an intriguing opportunity to reengage with how we and historical persons have imagined space and our relation to it. In this vein, my research considers how designers in the latter half of nineteenth-century Britain used space to enact their own fantasies. In short, my research question has been: how can an abstract, indefinite notion be realised through physical design?
On 18 May 2018, attendees gathered at McMaster University for the annual John Douglas Taylor Conference, which was this year a celebration of 'Embodiment in Science Fiction and Fantasy'. My paper, 'The Visual Embodiment of an Abstract Idea: Representing the Fantastic in Late Nineteenth Century English Visual and Decorative Arts' is an offshoot of my doctoral project, 'The Making of Modern Fantasy in the Visual Arts of England, c. 1854-1914'.
On drawing examples from the work of William Burges (1827-1881), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and one of the fathers of modern fantasy, William Morris (1834-1896), I used design sources in order to engage with a range of existing ideas on the subject of fantasy as a mode. With close attention paid to space, I explored how a sense of the unreal is constructed through material, colour and composition, and in doing so began to develop a basic aesthetic theory for the nature of the individual's approach to the artificial worlds of that which is designed.
The response was fascinating. It comes as no surprise that given the overarching theme of SFF, many of my colleagues were from literary and film studies backgrounds. However, particularly given the visual nature of the latter discipline, many of my peers' papers paid attention to representation, as well as notions of looking. Following my presentation, we had a lengthy discussion about the relationship of the curated or designed space to the engagement of the individual with a fantasy work of art.
Positing notions of how we might begin to consider the relationship of 'fantasy' to the visual, I was delighted at the response that came through in the conversation: fantasy becomes protracted in art according to the design principles of its curation. Through supplementary literature (e.g. object labels) or through the cultivation of a space that includes obvious references to the otherworldly character of the created environment, fantasy can be made manifest in reality.
So, the 'designed' context surrounding a work of fantasy art is fundamental to understanding it as such. Engaging with the nature of the space surrounding a work, either that around a single object or the nature of a space in which many objects sit together, is imperative to the understanding of this aesthetic category/genre/mode/phenomenon. Call it what you will. In the fantastical worlds of Castell Coch, Beata Beatrix and Kelmscott Manor (not to mention the sumptuous otherworld of Morris' literary efforts), reality becomes suspended amidst the eclecticism and spontaneity of the design. For a moment, we too inhabit a fantasy world within our own.
I am immensely grateful to the Design History Society for supporting me in my attendance of this conference. The experience was a wholly revelatory one for my current and future work.
Alexandra Gushurst-Moore PhD Candidate, University of York
Headline image: Design for the Summer Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle.