Saturday, 30 October 2010

'Re-use and Re-think' - taking inspiration from the Midlands unique cultural heritage

Having returned from a shopping trip with our children over the weekend I was struck (again) by how many successful UK fashion brands have grown out of our rich and often anarchic culture. There's quite an array of British fashion companies making me consider just how much innovation is coming out of what might sometimes be seen as our 'fuddy duddy' heritage.

We spent the day with little effort browsing (and indeed buying from) stores retailing lifestyle brands such as, Seasalt, Joules, Lazy Jacks, Mini Boden, White Stuff, Jack Wills, Howies - an impressive range of youthful, culturally-inspired clothing.

These businesses are revelling in and largely inspired by sporting or coastal cultural heritage (surfing, skiing, sailing, love of the outdoors, motorsport), drawing on quirky, eccentric, humorous attitudes, together with a nod to craft values, to portray a contemporary picture of an aspirational (mostly) British lifestyle.

Whilst many of these brands have originated in the South West, if we focus on interiors and homewares then more businesses originate in the wider Midlands, such as Lady Bamford's glamorous Daylesford Organic in Gloucestershire boasting produce, 'straight from our farm to your fork' or Baileys Home and Garden in Herefordshire with its strong eco-friendly ethos and "the qualities integral to our 'repair, reuse, rethink' philosophy." Perhaps it goes without saying it also includes brands such as Aga Rangemaster, Imperial Bathrooms,'Bringing Bathrooms to Life for Life', Samuel Heath bathroom accessories , 'for a life less ordinary', and other companies I have mentioned previously!

Design inspired by cultural heritage runs through these businesses, with each focussing on slightly different markets in developing their contemporary relevance, with much of their uniqueness and character coming directly from the passions of their entrepreneurial founders.

Seeing this made me wonder how many more businesses could be inspired by the extensive archives? For example, those held within the Birmingham Central Library and across the Midlands in museums, libraries and even in businesses themselves if they could be digitised and made more accessible as a source of inspiration.

As the Birmingham Young Poet Laureate, Megan Bradbury, has said, "When you go to a library you are potentially discovering a new world, I could read something that changed the way I think about things because books can influence people."

Situated on Chamberlain Square (but not for too much longer) Birmingham Central Library is a treasure trove detailing hundreds of years of design endeavour.

The Central Library houses extensive industrial archive collections including those of the Soho Manufactory comprising Boulton & Watt's personal papers, considered by many to be 'the most important archive of the industrial revolution anywhere in the world'.

Soon this massive archive, with 3 million photographic images and over 6,000 archive collections, will be re-located into its new home, a £193m new build designed by Dutch architect, Francine Houben of Mecanoo.
Francine was inspired by the city's industrial heritage, drawing on the new Library's location on the site of the Cambridge Street Winfield Brass Works, the largest operating in Birmingham during the 19th century, reflecting this in the building's striking external filigree metalwork.

Francine has been keen to show something of the City's proud heritage by capturing its 'grain and soul'. She sees the library as the 'social heart of the city' and so she has wanted to create a building that 'touches the senses', integrating the existing architecture of Baskerville House and The Birmingham REP3a.jpg into a connected experience. There will be one foyer and entrance for both the new Library and the REP. "I hope that with our building we will bring a coherence to Centenary Square," she says.

The Central Library's Shakespeare Collection includes the first Folio Edition of Shakespeare's works, published in 1623, worth an estimated £3-4m. It also includes criticism, photographs of productions, albums, press cuttings. Who could deny the fundamental impact of Shakespeare on our culture? Sitting alongside the Library's collection are those of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust- if these were connected digitally, for example, this would represent a huge cultural resource unequalled anywhere else in the world.

The Hardman Studio archives of stained glass and brassware include the designs commissioned by Pugin for the Houses of Parliament including all the stained glass and brassware which formed such a key element of Sir Charles Barry's visionary work and Pugin's Gothic inspired interiors.

The most valuable pieces are contained in the John James Audubon Folio, 'Illustration of Birds of the USA', valued at between £5-6m for 4 volumes covering limited edition plates recording these natives species.
The photographic collections chart the history of photography itself and including archive collections of Midlands MP, Benjamin Stone, born into an industrialist family in 19th century Birmingham and covering 100,000 images and prints from all over the world. Roger Fenton's archive includes his pictures of the Crimea and Vanley Burke's is a record of the Afro-Caribbean story in the City.

The Parker collection of Toys and Games was a personal collection which has been added to by the Library and contains many interesting and unusual examples of early childrens' games.

Brian Gambles, Assistant Director, Culture, Birmingham City Council, stresses how important it will be to make these extensive archive collections more accessible to both business and communities in the new building. "We are investing significantly in a new Digital Asset Management System which will allow existing web portals to provide visual inspiration to designers, engineers, business people and communities. We're looking to build a thematic approach through a series of spaces to break down barriers and democratise learning for those otherwise unable to access information. We even plan to have live streams of theatre performance - given our co-location with the Birmingham REP in our new building."

Of course new books are being published too which reflect on our prestigious cultural heritage. One written recently by written by Professor David Roberts of Birmingham City University and published by Cambridge University Press, celebrates the tercentenary of the death of 'Thomas Betterton, The Greatest Actor of the Restoration Stage', renowned, in particular, for his Shakespearean roles. One of Betterton's great performances was, according to Professor Roberts, inspired by an earlier actor who had performed alongside Shakespeare, 'The Master', himself.

Betterton was alive to the continuity of interpersonal knowledge represented in theatre performance, seeing it as a vital sense of culture existing in the minds of the audience and leading to the development of strong relationships and bonds between theatre goers and the company - a sentiment we might associate with strong brands today. Betterton himself was a keen collector of Shakespearean memorabilia hunting out details relating to him and owning the famous Chandos portrait. He had a powerful sense of tradition, also believing in the central importance of hard graft and discipline in his Duke's Company, but always prepared to innovate, for example with moveable scenery, to bring a renewed sense of drama to classic texts which he recognised would continue to live on in the collective imagination of our shared culture.

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