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Design and Material Culture

Tomas Brown

I am interested in mending as a temporally and geographically extended design process, and in the integration of history and practice. I came to the History of Design MA from a background in philosophy, where I explored issues surrounding free will and the ethics of building conservation over the course of my undergraduate degree. Early experiences as a King's Undergraduate Research Fellow attached to the Unlocking History project, and at the 2019 Encounters on the Shop Floor symposium shaped my understanding of history not just as a propositional, theory driven exercise but a materially grounded practice.

Over the course of the MA, I have enjoyed working across a range of archives and subjects - from bone boxes tooled in Napoleonic prisoner of war camps, to the practice of stitching ceramic sherds together with brass. In January 2020 I was selected for an exchange with the Bard Graduate Centre, and worked with eminent conservators while taking part in their teaching surrounding digital archaeology and issues in conservation.

My research focuses upon repair as a design activity - how repair can be understood as a process that pulls together all sorts of material and human agents - from users far in the future, to a chip or fracture far in the past. Repair enthuses me as a way of pushing at the limits of what design history considers design practice. It is unrecognised labour; studies of it key with the work of feminist artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!, and histories of itinerant practice in travelling communities. The work of recognising unrecognised labour has been a big part of my time at the RCA. My work has explored how the historiography surrounding 19th century ceramic mending resulted in the erasure of material evidence from museum collections, and highlighted the rich making practice in Napoleonic POW communities.

COVID 19 has demanded an inventive and experimental approach to my research, and I continue to strive to become an agile and reactive researcher. I co-founded the WORD ON THE STREET project, a rapid response archive of ephemera from the 2020 lockdowns. Having received the Clive Wainwright Memorial Fund prize, I am developing a personal project Ware / Care: Experimenting with the History of Mending, which will shortly be announced on my Twitter and Instagram. This work will reconstruct household repair methods from the turn of the nineteenth century in a contemporary context. I have come to understand that a tactile understanding is essential to my approach to history - I am looking to take this forward into PhD study.

BGC, 2020, Conservation Photography Workshop

As part of my time in New York with the Bard Graduate Center, I studied under conservator Jenifer L Mass, and became interested in their Cultures of Conservation project. This experience informed my dissertation, The V&A/RCA Conservation Pedagogy and Repair Design between 1987 and 2008, which explores why it began to be (and stopped being) necessary to teach repair as a design practice at the RCA. This has involved working with an exciting uncatalogued bank of material in the RCA archives and finding an identity for myself as a researcher within a living community of research participants. The line between the conservation professional and the designer, and the question of how we should understand histories of maintenance as opposed to innovation has been central to this work.