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MoDA: Interwar Suburban Style
An ambitious conservation and cataloguing project by MoDA, 2008

Interwar Suburban Style

Designs from the Silver Studio Collection

Introduction: project description

The Silver Studio was a commercial design practice, which between 1880 and 1963 completed more than 20,000 schemes for items such as furnishing fabrics, wallpapers, tablecloths, rugs and carpets. They sold these designs to manufacturers of wallpapers and textiles in Britain and abroad.  As well as samples of wallpapers and textiles the collection includes over 40,000 original mixed media designs on paper (pencil, watercolour, gouache, charcoal, chalk, oil pastel, and coloured pencil) for wallpapers and fabrics.
MoDA’s textile samples were successfully re-housed and catalogued during a three year-long project ending in 2005. In 2006, we began to tackle the treatment, re-housing and cataloguing of the large number of paper designs. The intention was to preserve their integrity for the future and to improve access to the collection for students and researchers.

Scoping the problem

These original designs were never intended to be kept for posterity. The designers often used tracing and copy papers which are susceptible to discoloration and embrittlement over time. They employed water based media on those papers, whose smooth surfaces are not always conducive to maintaining a purchase on pigment layers once dry. Cockling of the primary supports due to the application of paint layers is also common throughout the collection. Friable media such as pastel, pencils, and charcoal are often found in the design layers. The fragile state of the objects and the collection’s large size meant that only a small proportion had been conserved and catalogued.

Before this project the majority of the designs had been housed in over-full acidic boxes with no protection against acid migration, offsetting or abrasion. A light covering of surface dirt was present throughout the collection. The importance of the designs, the nature of the materials, and the poor housing conditions dictated that we prioritised this part of the collection in our forward plan from 2006.

Establishing methods and costs

We initially carried out a sample survey on twenty boxes of designs. We decided on two re-housing methods – designs with stable media (not friable, cracked, or degraded) could be housed in melinex sleeves, then placed in archival boxes. Items with less stable media could be hinged to museum board with a protective window mount to prevent surface abrasion when placed in archival storage boxes. Both of these methods would allow cataloguers, researchers and staff to handle and view the designs.

AHRC funding

We secured a grant of £40,000 from the AHRC’s Project Fund. From the survey we were able to estimate that it would take two conservators and two cataloguers three months to conserve and catalogue 3,000 designs, and we therefore chose a representative sample of designs from the 1920s and 30s.

A project manager co-ordinated a team of graduate volunteers; we offered a generous subsistence payment and ran the project during the summer period when qualified candidates were available. This enabled us to achieve the large number of ‘person-hours’ required for this task within the budget available These future museum-sector employees gained valuable experience of collections care, as well as general experience of working in a museum environment.

Conclusion

The team successfully completed the conservation and cataloguing of just over 3,000 Silver Studio designs. This represented a considerable improvement in access and preservation of one of the most significant parts of our collection. The use of volunteers, supported by MoDA’s staff, meant that the project’s aims could be met with the funding available and provided a valuable training experience for those involved.