The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

I have been doing some drawings at The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, mostly of 1950s domestic advertisements. The idea for this was to give me some graphic language within which to possibly develop some scores/prints with sonic content. I really want to get the visual aspect of my scores/prints right, and 1950s domestic imagery seemed like an appropriate starting point, so I did some drawings.

My own drawing of 1950s domestic imagery

What interests me about 1950s domestic imagery is its enormously enthusiastic tone. 1950s advertisements are governed by the overt desire of the advertiser to sell you their product. Eye-catching typefaces, bright primary colours and polished visions of the improved life you will no doubt experience as a result of buying whatever is in the advert are the main modes of communication, and it is evident that housework was still blatantly and openly categorised as women’s work with adverts pitching directly to ‘housewives.’ Just look at the rapture on this woman’s face when her husband presents her with a sewing machine for Christmas:

Sewing machine advertisement drawing by Felicity Ford

…But before I get drawn into a tangent on the semiotics of advertising, let me return to the point of enthusiasm. Much of my focus with this PhD revolves around the importance of valuing and attending to immediate reality. I am interested in how we perceive some experiences to be worthless, mundane, boring and pointless, while others are ecstatic, enlightening, valuable and important. In looking at 1950s imagery, I was essentially asking myself what role in fostering enthusiasm for everyday sounds might the colourful imagery of 1950s advertisements play? A larger question relating to this would be what are the perceptual frameworks that assign value to, say, a violin concerto, while devaluing, say, the sonic outcome of washing the dishes?

This is not a new question; in this clip I found last week, John Cage talks about the difference between ‘sound’ and ‘music,’ for him.

For my studies this idea of breaking down the distinctions between sound/music is really a key point. Like Cage, I am interested in paying attention to, and drawing the focus of an audience towards, everyday sounds. Hence The Washing Up Recordings that I’m exploring here and which comprise a case-study of everyday or banal sonic events to be reframed or re-explored as the basis for artmaking. One of my approaches to presenting these sounds is the idea of the score/print ‘form’ that I began this post with.The enthusiastic tone of 1950s advertisements is possibly something that can be appropriated for the purpose of developing scores which aim to have a celebratory or affirmative effect. In no other era do we find the intensely detailed technical interest in everyday tasks exhibited in 1950s domestic product advertisements. The advertisements are often critical of such things as inefficient boilers, non-wipeable surfaces and unhygienic or wasteful products and simultaneously rejoice in the scientific developments that have brought us tupperware, formica and hot water on tap. The 1950s advertising focus on the minutiae of domestic labour is quite fascinating, and I am interested in how the everyday details of housework had a public, visual and bold design language during that era. I am also interested in the parallels between the language of instruction inhabiting a musical score, (giving direction to the performer(s)) and the language of instruction inhabiting household management books (giving directions to the Housewife in the 1950s.) Contemporary Composer Jennifer Walshe draws some very interesting parallels here with some of her scores and I will revisit these in another post.I also find 1950s adverts bizarrely compelling and horrific in their rigid gender stereotypes. This was definitely something I wanted to understand better in drawing the adverts and contemplating their suitability as the basis for my scores/prints. Anyone who has read Jane Brocket’s book The Gentle Art of Domesticity will know that its publication provoked a furore of debate about the depiction of women ‘at home.’ Issues to do with economics, life-choices, feminism and class were key to many of the articles and discussions on the subject, but one of the reason so many people found her book offensive related to its apparently uncritical and non-ironic adoption of 1950s domestic ideals.

The book celebrates a sort of hyper-real—or indeed drag—early twenty-first century version of a 1950s domestic ideal.

needled, The Domestic in Drag

This aspect of the 1950s advertisement is one of the elements that makes it less attractive to me as a creative influence. It is certainly not my intention to perpetrate oppressive and difficult gender stereotypes and perhaps using 1950s domestic imagery inevitably leads to a continuity of difficult issues? Is it possible to use such images in a self-aware fashion, removing the elements that consolidate gender roles and emphasizing instead the focus on detailing everyday life apparently optimistically? Perhaps it is naive to think so. Although the images themselves are fun, they have become increasingly convoluted, not only because of retrospective feminist criticisms, but also because of the adoption of 195os domestic imagery for ironic, cynical giftcard design. Designers like Anne Taintor cleverly appropriate this kind of imagery in order to create self-referential parodies that expose and criticize aspects of the ideologies depicted. Brilliant though her designs are, I don’t think this mechanism for self-reflection and social commentary works during a translation into score/print form.

The widespread ubiquity of retro, shabby-chic, kitschy adoptions of 195os domestic imagery makes it difficult to create less cynical encounters with the original designs and ideas. Add to this the problematic gendering and anti-feminist ideals of the original images and you have a convoluted stew out of which it is difficult to see what could be reclaimed for use in contemporary scores where chic or cool are not the desired effects.

So the end result of my perusal of materials in The Museum of Domestic Design was ultimately one that led me to consider using less reference for this particular project. I have decided instead of using clever designs, to concentrate on drawing the washing up myself. I intend to use the instance of drawing as a situation in which to reflect on the sonic possibilities of the washing-up, and a means by which to create a design language that is less focussed on considering intellectually the references that I am borrowing, and more focussed around direct engagement with the subject matter.

I have found it enormously clarifying to consider these things at length and shall continue to use the materials I gathered during my time at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture to inform future decisions regarding the design or not of my work.

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