The Ulm Model: Raven Row

Raven Row is undoubtedly one of my favourite galleries, located in east London near Spitalfields Market in two adjoining eighteenth century townhouses on Artillery Lane (aptly known as Raven Row until 1895). It is eccentric without being pretentious, large enough to get lost in but still feels intimate, and always host to something curious. Its current exhibition ‘The Ulm Model’ is no different, educating visitors about the lesser known German school of design which only operated for a short period between 1953 and 1968. This exhibition was exactly what I wanted from my Sunday afternoon… a relaxed cultural fix without feeling protracted or contrived. The curation is simple and uncluttered, and specially designed display structures showcase items ranging from weighing machines to crockery, electric razors, traffic lights and petrol cans. As well as the objects themselves, the exhibition also includes drawings, models and prototypes created by the schools’ students as well as sections dedicated to some of their more progressive work for corporate clients, namely Braun and Lutfhansa. The key pieces that captured my attention include Dieter Raffler & Peter Raacke’s multi coloured plastic shell suitcases, Hans Roericht’s TC 100 stacking set of teapots, cups and saucers, as well as Hans Gugelot & Dieter Ram’s record player designed for Braun. The original wooden floorboards, fireplaces and other period features of the building juxtapose against the modernist design of these objects nicely, and exploring the various rooms and corridors of this gallery unsure what you might find around the next corner adds another element. Whether you are a design geek or neophyte, I’d suggest taking advantage of this exhibition and paying a visit before mid December while these German works’ are collectively on display in London.

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The colourful plastic suitcases on display
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One of many Ulm designs for Braun
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Great shapes and materials used by Ulm

For more information visit their website

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FOUND: The Foundling Musuem

I feel I’ve been a little slow on the uptake with summer exhibitions… but so pleased I got to see ‘Found’ at The Foundling Museum last week before it closed on 4th September. Curated by Cornelia Parker, the list of over sixty participating artists’ reads like a who’s who of the contemporary art world including Phyllida Barlow, Mark Wallinger, Richard Wilson, Jeremy Deller, Mona Hatoum, Marin Creed and Gavin Turk amongst others. Inspired by the 18th century tokens mothers left with their babies as a means of identification at the original Foundling Hospital established by the philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, all of the artworks within this exhibition are created from found objects kept for their significance. Things get off to a strong start as a trumpeter dressed in typically brightly coloured fabrics by Yinka Shonibare greets visitors in the foyer. A temporary exhibition space in the basement contains over thirty pieces, whilst another fifty are dotted throughout the rest of the building intertwined with the permanent collection and period rooms – and this is where much of the success and indeed joy of the exhibition lies! Moving up the central spiral-stairwell a contemporary painting by Rose Wylie is hung alongside old masters, in the grand Court Room with Rocco ceilings and Hogarth paintings you’ll find Gavin Turks ‘Nomad’ installation of a dirty sleeping bag positioned to echo the shape of a human form sleeping within it, and a small iron sculpture by Anthony Gormley of his own child as a baby is displayed on the floor in a corridor! Despite strong competition from all the artists, I feel the prize for best ‘found’ item should go to Cornelia Parker herself who rescued Jimi Hendrix’s staircase from Handel/Hendrix House in London’s Brook Street following its restoration – and is aptly on display in the basement for this exhibition.

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Yinka Shonibare’s installation that greets you in the foyer
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The beautiful central spiral staircase

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Jim Thompson House & Museum: Bangkok, Thailand

Just beyond one of the most westernised areas of Bangkok (Siam – home to huge malls, international shops and fast good giants) the roads begin to narrow, the houses start to become dilapidated and you find yourself in the old city once again. It is down one of these side streets, alongside the canal that Jim Thompson House is situated. Jim Thompson was an American who served in Thailand during World War II and returned to Bangkok after leaving the service to settle permanently and establish his silk weaving business. In addition to his worldwide recognition in the silk industry, he became something of a legend posthumously after going missing in the Malaysian jungle in March 1967 never to return… the House comprises six traditional teak buildings which were dismantled and brought to the current site and reassembled to form Thompson’s home surrounded by lush gardens. All visitors are given a tour of the site, and this timed tour is the only way to gain access to the interior of the House. The exterior is largely authentic; elevated above ground to avoid flooding during the rainy season, roof tiles fired in Ayudhya (the old capital) to a centuries old design, and painted with a red preservative paint common to historic Thai buildings. The interior showcases some of Thompson’s western additions – such as a bed and dining table in contrast to most Thai’s who would sleep and eat on the floor, chandeliers from 18th and 19th century palaces and interesting furniture including a Mai Jong gaming table, native drums upturned to create table lamps, and a ceramic frog women could squat over and urinate in without having to leave the building in an era before plumbing! Whilst I appreciate the need for conservation and monitoring footfall, the rigidity of a tour left little time to explore the interior and appreciate its idiosyncrasies.

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Exterior of the House
Original doors
Original carved door
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Original silks from Thompson’s weaving business on display in an annex building

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Dennis Severs House: 18 Folgate Street

Dennis Severs House is a magical place, even more so at this time of year when their annual Christmas installation decorates all five floors of the Grade II listed Georgian terraced house. Situated on Folgate Street, behind Spitalfields Market (East London) the house was purchased by an American artist named Dennis Severs in 1979. At that time the building was in a dilapidated state and Severs began an extensive refurbishment programme, decorating each of the ten rooms in a different historic style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Not content with refurbishment alone, Severs also added the fictional story of the Jervis family, originally Huguenot silk weavers who inhabited the house from 1725 to 1919. Visitors ring the bell to gain entry to the house and are asked to remain in silence for the duration of their visit, as a scintillating combination of sound, smell and sight arouse your curiosity and help guide you on your own journey. With no electrics, the house is lit entirely by candlelight and each room is absolutely bursting with furniture, trinkets, half eaten food, portraits, old masters paintings, clothes, jewellery, musical scores and more! Visitors begin their descent back in time in the basement cellar and kitchen, then upstairs to the ground floor eating parlour, up another flight of stairs to the withdrawing room and smoking room, upstairs again to the chamber and boudoir, before a final climb to the top floor which is rented out to lodgers and in a much more ramshackle state than the rest of the house – and end back on the ground floor in the back parlour. The house motto is ‘Aut Visum Aut Non!’ translated as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ – and if you fail to be transported back to the Victorian age through the bewitching experience presented here, then you are truly missing out.

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The House of St. Barnabas: Soho

After a demanding work week in central London, the last thing I wanted to do on Saturday morning was head back into Soho… however a truly engaging tour of The House of St. Barnabas was just the antidote I needed to pull me out of my quite frankly foul mood! Situated on the corner of Soho Square (originally Fryths Square in the 17th century) and Greek Street, it is an imposing yet understated building from the exterior. As I pulled the oversized doorbell to gain entry, I was greeted by Dr. Adam Scott who led an enigmatic tour of this fascinating house. Architecturally it has been altered and extended numerous times over the centuries and today incorporates Georgian, Victorian and Rococo features as well as a neo-Gothic chapel on a Basilica floor plan. In terms of tenancy, it has been a private home to aristocrats and Members of Parliament, offices for the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers and Metropolitan Board of Works in the early 1800’s, was purchased in 1862 by Dr. Henry Monro and Roundel Palmer as a House of Charity to help those in need, and remained a hostel until 2006. Today it is a social enterprise integrating a members club which funds an employment academy serving the original purpose of helping the homeless get back on their feet. Unusually for Soho it also has a garden which is not only home to the plane tree immortalised in Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ but also contains an aluminium and LED light installation by Keef Winter – just one of many artworks dotted throughout the house. Feathered creations by Kate MccGuire, sculptures by Cathy Lewis, and works by Banksy, Hirst and The Chapman Brothers all sympathetically decorate the building. The house will no doubt continue to evolve, remain resilient in the face of developers and maintain structural stability as Crossrail tunnelling continues directly below it.

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The Historical Experience: Benjamin Franklin House

A narrow Georgian townhouse at the back of Charing Cross train station has been standing since 1730, provided lodgings for Benjamin Franklin (face on the $100 bill, Founding Father of the United States, scientist, diplomat, inventor of unusual musical instruments and more!) for sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and has been a museum since 2006. To enter, visitors ring the doorbell much like you are paying a visit to someone’s home, are led along a corridor of original wooden floorboards and panelling, and down the stairs to the basement where the ‘Historical Experience’ begins… a small orientation room comprising information boards, an artefact display cabinet, and even human remains from the anatomy school which also operated from the building help introduce you to the House. After a short video, Polly (the landlady’s daughter and close friend of Franklin whilst he was lodging at the House) leads visitors to the Kitchen where flagstone flooring, a Victorian cooking stove, and views of the sunken basements are cleverly integrated with projections and voices that Polly continues to interact with throughout the House to help tell its’ stories. Visitors are then led upstairs to the Landlady’s Parlour, Card Room and finally Franklin’s Parlour – all complete with authentic features from the floorboards, to the shutters on the windows, marble fireplaces, and even the green paint on the walls specially mixed to match flecks of the original paint revealed through spectro-analysis. Typically I find costumed interpretation horribly uncomfortable, however it is immediately obvious that this House employs a professional actress and provides a theatrical ‘experience’ executed to a high standard. Likewise, the fact that it is largely unfurnished lends itself to this type of visitor offering, and it was refreshing to focus on the original features rather than trying to navigate your way through a cluttered house full of replica furnishings.

For more information visit their website