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Design and Material Culture

Deepika Srivastava

Deepika is a researcher, writer, and budding cultural manager, with feet in India (hopefully soon in London/ Europe!) and arms around the world. Professionally, she is trained as a design historian from The Royal College of Art, and interior designer from the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (C.E.P.T. University) in Ahmedabad, India. Her work profile lies at the crossroads of arts & culture project coordination, design journalism, and fiction writing

As an arts & culture project coordinator, the two questions which most intrigue her are - how to engage new audiences and how to create new financial models to increase profitability of the culture sector? As a design journalist, she is keen to write about design through the lens of a social scientist, and focus on presenting design as a relationship between people, communities, societies, and societal structures. As a writer of fiction, she hopes to reflect on how people navigate their everyday life through social issues. 

Over the last year, she has been a part of some panel discussions and talks as well. In March of this year, she gave a talk as an early career expert in heritage and design, as part of the ‘Great Minds in Heritage & Historic Houses’ series organised by Centre for Historic Houses, O.P. Jindal Global University in India, which had speakers from cultural institutions around the globe such as the V&A, Sotheby’s, Smithsonian etc. She was also one of the panelists inMapping the Hostile Environment in Higher Arts Education in the UK’, an initiative organised by Cypher Billboard, London, to develop a billboard poster which highlights the issues faced by international students pursuing the arts in the UK. For RCA2021, She is chairing a live panel discussion on ‘Digital (Dis)comforts: The future of material practices?’, with Suhair Khan, Strategy Lead, Google & Google Arts & Culture, and Kay Watson, Head of Arts Technologies, the Serpentine Galleries, as panelists.



The sentiment and passion underlying her work is the need to make design and culture accessible not just to new audiences and consumers, but also to professionals who want to enter the field, or are already in the field. She is keen to do this through her writing, and the arts & culture programmes she engages in developing and managing. 

She is currently employed at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, India, as a Project Associate on one of their consultancy projects, USTTAD, with the central government of India. USTTAD is the acronym for Upgradation of Skills and Training of Traditional Arts/ Crafts for Development. The project, initiated by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, focusses on the revitalisation of endangered arts and craft communities in India through design intervention, to help them adapt their skills, processes, and products, to suit the demands of the contemporary market. Her role here is to coordinate the ongoing research and execution efforts, and develop an open-source database management system which is accessible to all stakeholders involved and can be transferred to the archiving system of NID. She is also volunteering as an editor with the collective, Women 21st century. This is a global, digital project focused on mapping feminist practices at the intersection of art, culture, science, and technology.

Her academic work at the MA centered around themes of South Asian culture, contemporary spatial design, and the networks of practice of a women-led architecture studio in contemporary India. For professional development, she focused on developing her writing practice and working on institutional projects at the V&A and RCA.



Here are two digital curation projects she developed with her V&A/RCA MA History of Design cohort over the last year. Through these, she learnt skills of working collaboratively, and in collaboration with external parties such as graphic designers and software developers, as well as addressing the question of "audience in the digital".


DIGITAL DISCOMFORTS

"Quarantine, lockdown, social and physical distancing, pandemic: words we usually only encounter in dystopian literature and movies have become the defining motto of our lives. As we adjust to life under new rules, we, as the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art’s History of Design programme, like everyone else, have had to radically alter our approach to studying and working."

This project was developed as part of RCA2020. It explored issues around remote working, design education, disparities in digital access of daily use apps such as Google maps, dating apps, as well as archives and libraries. It also looked at how digital engagement affects neurodiverse individuals and groups, and the public spaces. This was done through mind maps and recorded conversations which were designed to reflect day-to-day interactions.


MATERIAL HISTORY/ VIRTUAL WORLD

This project was developed as part of the 2021 symposium organised by the MA cohort and presented their research. Live panel discussions around issues concerning the discipline of design history were also organised.

Following are links to the work she exhibited:

Her page

Dissertation: Reassessing architecture practice in contemporary (post-1991) India

Panel discussion: What is Design History?

Panel discussion: Missing Perspectives

Publication Article: Representing the value of design (pg. 76)

Medium:

online media
Photographing and auditing theatre posters
Auditing 20th cen. East Asian wicker products
Photographing 18th cen. French textiles
Photographing, auditing, and barcoding ancient Indian jewellery
Museum of Childhood, V&A — This is a snapshot of the corridor leading to the test exhibits. Since the project came to a halt suddenly due to the pandemic, I couldn't get the pictures of the test exhibits themselves.

During her MA, she volunteered on two projects at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in the month of February.


Collections Management, Blythe House, V&A:

The Victoria & Albert Museum is preparing for a decant from their current location in Blythe House to the upcoming V&A East.

As part of this project, she assisted Collection Move Officers in auditing, photographing, and barcoding objects in storage at the V&A and helping them prepare for the move.

This introduced her to the archiving practices of large cultural institutions as well as museum collections management software. Exploring through eighteenth-century textiles, nineteenth and twentieth-century theatre posters, ancient Indian jewellery, and 20th century East Asian wicker products, also became a way to see the world just before the nerve-wrecking lockdown!


Audience Interpretation, Museum of Childhood, V&A:

The Museum of Childhood of the V&A is undergoing transformation, with its galleries getting refurbished. To gauge what the audiences want from the new galleries, they have developed some test exhibits.

As part of this project, she was involved in interviewing and conducting visitor surveys of these test galleries. She further compiled these surveys into reports to be used by the exhibition and design team to work on the exhibits.

This was a dream project as a design historian as it allowed her to be the mediator between the designer and the audience, while developing skills of audience assessment and interpreting responses to then communicate them to the exhibition design team.

Medium:

text and images
Snapshots of the bracelet in the V&A Collection — Opening mechanism and materiality: The bracelet has three components – two hoops which are hinged together and a central bead, which is soldered to one hoop. It is inset with five rubies, one of which is studded in a screw, which divides the bracelet in two halves. Observation reveals that each single hoop could be made in two components, while the central bead could have three components. Source: Author, Deepika Srivastava
Three Nair Girls of Travancore, by Ramaswami Naidu, 1872, Victoria & Albert Museum — Source: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O120574/pair-of-bangles/
The Bride, D.G. Rossetti (1865), Tate Britain — Source: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rossetti-the-beloved-the-bride-n03053
Trichinopoly bazaar from where the Prince of Wales purchased the bracelet — Source: William Howard Russell, ‘Journey to Madras’, in The Prince of Wales' Tour: A Diary in India, 2nd Edition (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1877), p.315.

FROM A ROYAL ORNAMENT TO A COLONIAL CURIOSITY TO A DISPLAY OF SKILL:

THE JOURNEY OF A PAIR [GROUP] OF SOUTH INDIAN GOLD BRACELETS


As part of her first academic assignment at the MA, she conducted archival research on a pair of 19th cen. gold bracelets from South India, which are a part of the V&A's collection. This was an amazing journey that required her to browse through the archives of the British Library and the National Art Library at the V&A, as well as conduct interviews with experts such as author and historian, Manu S. Pillai, and V&A curator, Nick Barnard.

Writing this essay was also an exercise in understanding how to construct narratives of objects as they move across time, geographies, and people.

Below are some insights from her research:

This pair of gold bracelets, made in 1850 in Madras, is worked in the technique of repousse, regionally called Swami. The use of gold and rubies, with the makara-head iconography indicate that these bracelets were a symbol of power and wealth, and were worn largely by the elite. In India, its users include the Nayar women of Travancore, who most often got them from their royal husbands, the Travancore Rajahs. Unlike the rest of India, where women wore bangles as a symbol of marriage, the Nayar women wore these bracelets to reflect their aristocratic power, as they belonged to a matrilineal community where the power of inheritance lay with the female. These bracelets were also presented as a gift to kings in other parts of South India by subjects of lower rank.

These bracelets were popular among the British public at the time and were available in exhibitions and dealers’ shops. Through these places they also reached artists like D.G. Rossetti, who featured it in his painting, The Bride. A pair was also bought by The Prince of Wales from a bazaar in Trichinopoly, during his trip to India, and was presented as a gift to Queen Victoria. Though originally produced as part of a hereditary craft, due to their popularity, this style was also appropriated by jewellery companies of British-origin, such as P. Orr and Sons. In this case, production happened by native craftsmen under European supervision. Similar bracelets are also available in the collections of the V&A (a pair was acquired from May Morris in 1938) and the Royal Collection Trust (gifted by Queen Victoria), as well as the National Museum of New Delhi



Medium:

text and images

"As a design student, I have always wondered why just 3% of the world’s buildings are designed by professionally qualified architects? Why does media discussion mostly focus on designers and designed goods? Why is the voice of the consumer and collaborators in the design process missing? And, what can we do to bring forth these hidden voices? Could one way be to change how architecture and design is written about in the dominant media?" 

As part of Material History/ Virtual World, this year’s annual symposium of her MA , she conducted a survey, Rethinking Design Journalism to understand how practitioners across various streams and subdisciplines within design perceive the journalistic coverage of the discipline.

She received about 70 responses from young and established practitioners from India, UK, USA, Indonesia, Israel, and Australia, and from institutions such as the BBC, Design Museum, Royal College of Art, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Due to the nature of her network, almost 90% of the respondents were from the UK and India, and nearly half within the two geographies. There was a consensus among participants about the need to focus on process, the aspect of collaboration, users, and the need to relate design with current affairs, public policy, and politics

The sections below represent the findings from this survey. The findings are structured around three open-ended questions:

  1. Is there enough mainstream discussion of design? Why/ Why not?
  2. What are some other ways to cover design?
  3. Potential news stories


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This was asked as both an open-ended and closed-ended question. In the close-ended question, 84% respondents said that design is not discussed enough in the mainstream, 11% said they were not sure, and 5% said that it is discussed enough

The above images are some curated responses from the open-ended question. 



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Here, the participants were invited to reflect on “how else” design could be covered. Often, the coverage in mainstream media focuses only on designers and the finished designed product. Also often, this coverage is relegated within the sections of home, lifestyle, or real-estate. 

This is reflected in the coverage of design in the Indian mainstream media. This is supposedly the case around the world, though broadsheets published in the UK and USA such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Financial Times cover design.

Above are some curated answers which reflect the overall temperament of the responses given by all participants.



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The participants were asked to mention a story that they would like to be featured in their daily newspaper. The responses ranged from wanting more focus to be on users, the need to integrate design with day-to-day life, giving clues on specific topics, presenting design as a collaborative practice, and so many others. 

Above are some curated responses, which present the ideas reflected by the various participants.



Overview of Dissertation Research

This video presents in brief, Deepika's dissertation research titled, ‘Reassessing architectural practice in contemporary India: Case of Mumbai-based SJK Architects’. The study of individual architectural practices is usually approached through the format of the monograph, wherein the focus is solely on the architect, their ideology and the design of the built form. This dissertation explores a methodology to approach contemporary architectural practice in India through the lens of factors influencing and determining the day-to-day operations of practice. In doing so, it suggests an alternative methodology to study contemporary architecture practice, which moves away from the usual approach of the monograph. 

The research is conducted by taking as a case-study, a Mumbai-based woman-led studio practice, SJK Architects, established in 1990. Factors which influence practice, such as location, organisational structure, media coverage, external collaborators, and nature of commissioning clients, are profiled through published academic and media works, and serve as a device to understand SJK Architects. These factors are then contextualised within the practice’s response to gender and development of architect-client relations. Insights for this are drawn from an interview with the design directors focussing on how these factors overlap with the stage of the client brief development. It is a first-of-its kind research to explore a method to bring forth the aspect of collaboration in mainstream architectural practice in contemporary India. 

Such an approach situates the study of architecture within the societal landscape in which professional practice occurs. One of the key factors which emerges is the importance of the practice’s location in India’s financial and cultural capital, Mumbai. Also, with its focus on gender and its impact, the dissertation presents a way to understand how the dynamics of gender play out in the day-to-day operations of women-led architecture practices and its relation to the changes that occurred in India after economic liberalisation in 1991.


Here are the links to the interviews done with the design directors of SJK Architects, as primary research:

Part 1: Overview of SJK Architects and initiating client brief development

Part 2: Collaboration with Sunita Namjoshi

Part 3: Collaborations with contractors and users of the building

Part 4: Further insights on collaboration with Sunita Namjoshi

Part 5: Hotels at Tirupati and Bodhgaya and conclusion


Coworker.com directory — A snapshot of the directory at coworker.com shows how the website is accessed. The city can be searched at the top, there is a navigable google map on the right, with the filters on the left. Source: Webpage of Coworker.com directory

This essay explores the viability of coworking spaces for creative industry professionals in India. This is done by focusing on design aspects such as infrastructural provisions within the workspace, and sociological aspects such as geographical location of the creative’s workspace and the informal nature of employment in the creative industries which often limits the financial growth of such professionals. 

The argument is presented in two sections. The first one, ‘Mapping coworking spaces in Mumbai and Bengaluru’, analyses the online directory, coworker.com, and compares the range of infrastructural provision for coworking spaces in the two cities, to present a picture of how they respond to the needs of creative industry professionals. The choice of these two cities was made as Mumbai is the creative and cultural hub of India, whereas Bengaluru, the IT hub. The second one, ‘Are coworking spaces viable for creative industry professionals?’, borrows from reports about the creative industries, articles about contemporary trends, to analyse the workspace needs of such professionals, and how coworking spaces can fit in to address them.   

This essay was selected as one of the top 10 essays for the CEPT Essay Prize 2020, organised by the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT University), India, and will be published in its annual publication.



Medium:

text and images