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Engaging collections with BA Product and Furniture Design

  • Written byGina Lampen
  • Published date 15 June 2021

Second year BA Product and Furniture Design students at Chelsea College of Arts recently completed their Unit 7 project which offered them the opportunity to respond to a live brief and work with an external partnership organisations.

The students had the choice of two projects: Illuminating the Page with The Museum of the order of St John and After Before Times with English Heritage's Kenwood House.

Students focussed on engaging visitors in each institutions's collections and presented their final proposals directly back to the partners.

Rachel Job, Collections and Engagement Assistant at The Museum of the Order of St John, told us:

"We have worked together with the design students at UAL for several years now, having been approached by the BA Product and Furniture Design course leader, Jason Cleverly, who was looking for a museum to collaborate with.

"This year we invited the students to design display solutions for our historic books, inspired by an online exhibition of our project librarian's favourite items. These rare and unique books are difficult to display as they must be behind glass, allowing only a small part of the book to be enjoyed. Furthermore, they can't be displayed for long because they are sensitive to light and their bindings will be damaged if they are left open for too long. We have been very impressed by the students' imaginative solutions to this tricky problem!"

Here to tell us more about how they approach their briefs, we spoke to students Eliot Everton, Charlotte Jubin and Matilde Vendrami about their final proposals and what they have learnt from working on a live project.

Eliot Everton is an artist, designer and maker who develops and makes unusual, out-of-the-ordinary art, products and furniture. He creates unique designs specific to the client and purpose.

Eliot chose to respond to the brief After the Before Times with Kenwood House, focusing on the surrounding landscape and grounds.

Eliot tells us more:

"I decided to approach the brief focusing on the exterior of Kenwood House looking primarily at the grounds in Hampstead Heath. This decision was based on the uncertainty of not knowing when the Covid-19 Pandemic will end. Therefore, with visitors still able to roam the outdoor grounds, I decided to bring Kenwood House to the outdoors and focused on the landscape mostly designed in the 18th century by Humphry Repton. I wanted to pay tribute to his work at Kenwood House and his cultivating plans that shaped the landscape into the beautiful scenic views we see today.

"Humphry Repton, is famous for his innovative "Red Book, which is a showcase of his design proposals that he would show to his client containing a 'before' and 'after' water colour painting, revealing how his designs would benefit the landscape. Repton often played on the idea of a big reveal, and I decided to homage this idea in my own work and bring it to life for the visitors to keep them engaged and educated about Humphry Repton's work."

My final proposal was an interactive puzzle sculpture, comprised of 5 x 2 meter slides that overlay each other to reveal Repton's 'Red Book' painting of Wood Pond at Kenwood. When lined up correctly, the slides reveal the landscape painting that was created in the 18th century by Repton and can be pulled back to show how the pond looks 3 centuries later.

"Working with the client Kenwood House gave me valuable insight into the historical and cultural elements of the 18th century villa. Not only was it a great experience to work in coherence with a real life client where they have different requirements, it also allowed me to grasp a more in-depth view of Kenwood's values."

Charlotte Jubin is interested in industrial design and new, environmentally responsible ways of manufacturing materials. Experimenting within her practice, her designs incorporate researching into new techniques and materials, to provide her with a solid practical grounding as well as finding aesthetic inspiration.

Charlotte chose to respond to the Illuminating the Page brief with The Museum of the Order of St John, proposing a book stand installation that would immerse visitors in the museum's collection of unique books and documents.

Charlotte explained more about her project:

"I was asked to create an installation in the museum that would create interaction between the St John's fantastic book collection and the visitors to the museum. I was looking to find a solution to enable contact between the fragile books and the visitors.

"At the start, I had multiple ideas around immersing the visitors in the installation. I wanted to respond to the multiple demands of the client as well as design for a bigger audience. My proposal was intended to concentrate the stimulus of the visitor on the particular and special object of the exhibition. To create this engagement, I designed a book stand and a copy of the book to be displayed which enabled the visitor to touch a copy of the book and zoom in on the specific details in the work. I made multiple models and drawings that gave examples of the aesthetic and the mechanism used for my product."

"My outcome is a book stand which mixed the aesthetic of the Jacobean style and the identity of the museum as well as the book. The books in the collection can't be touched or shown to the public because of their fragility. Therefore, I designed a magic lamp concept where the visitor needs to slide a magic lamp between the pages to discover the contents of the book. The proposal takes the form of a Fusion 360 model that offers and idea of what the book stand could look like and where it could be installed in the museum space."

"Working with a real live client gave me the opportunity to work on a professional commission while having the help of my tutors to guide me. It was a greatly beneficial exercise receiving their feedback and seeing how to adapt the project to meet their requests. For my part, I had to make few changes to my proposal that allowed it to move forward. It was good in practicing how to engagingly present your work in a way that appears attractive allowing them to visualise, as the client needs an insight into what it could look like for them.

Matilde Vendrami's practice incorporates the conceptualising of social problems and themes with experimenting with different techniques and materials to create impactful designs.

Choosing to respond to the brief After the Before Times with Kenwood House, Matilde created a sculpture which would encourage visitors to stop and think about the history behind the collection.

Here she describes her work:

"I have been inspired by the movement of Slow Art, so my aim was to encourage visitors to take time and be fully present when looking at the collection within the museum. I wanted my design to capture visitors, stopping them from rushing between artworks.

"From the collection, I considered the marble bust of Elizabeth Finch, first countess of Mansfield. Initially, I was interested by the technical side of the artwork and was amazed by the creation of carving. I developed digital sketches of the object trying to break it down, developing different collages showing the stages of carving marble.

"I presented my ideas of representing the stages of carving to the client, and after a discussion they clarified that they mainly work with the history behind the collection, with less focus on the object itself. Therefore, I moved forward from this and changed my focus onto the history of the piece."

"Throughout history, artists were asked to create celebratory portraits like this bust to represent the power, importance, virtue, beauty, or other qualities of their subject. Historically, portraits have almost always been flattering: cultural figures and businessmen commissioned artists to create a flattering likeness of them, reflecting their position in society. Painters who refused to flatter tended to find their work rejected. Particularly during Neoclassicism, portraits abandon expressions of reality and covered any blemish or sign og old age. With this in mind, my idea was to abandon that balance and proportion by distorting the face of the bust, representing the truth or reality that would have been hidden behind its beauty.

"To introduce the distortion, I played with Anamorphic perspective - a specialty tool which affects how images get projected onto the camera sensor - and looked into how this technique can be interactive.

"I then started experimenting, trying to distort the object in different ways. The anamorphism is nothing more than a strongly distorted image that acquires its "true form" when the observer arranges themselves in a particular position. I have done experiments on distortions trying to study the portrait and face regarding standard conventions using Photoshop. I then used free and open source 3D image software called Blender to distort the statue and added a mirror cylinder to reflect it. I also used Blender to set up the scene and render the proposal."

"The outcome of my project was a completely distorted sculpture that reveals its real shape when reflected into the mirror cylinder. The sculpture changes its form depending on the position of the viewer, the distance and angle. The idea is that the visitors would be able to look around both the sculptures in the display and they will see 3 different kinds of portraits: the real bust, a reflection of the face based on today's idealisation of a face and a distorted abstract portrait.

"I learnt a lot from this project, especially as I had the chance to work with a real client. I gained experience in how to direct my project to meet specific requirement, listening and modifying my project to the client's needs and suggestions. It has also allowed me to have a more practical approach considering things like costing, health and safety, how it will be built, project times and people involved - these are the type of details I was not used to considering before.

"In response to the client's needs with this project, I created a display that brings visitors to think about the history related to the collection, creating an interactive and engaging experience with the attention of a wide audience."

Learn more about BA Product and Furniture Design at Chelsea College of Arts