A wonderful new Foundation has been set up to further public knowledge of and access to the design legacy of Robin and Lucienne Day, the British designers who conquered the post-war design world with their fresh modernism and potent energy.
I was first approached to build a catalogue system. It became apparent though that the artefacts (photographic prints) themselves would first need to be digitised in order to include them in the catalogue.
An initial assumption was that they could be scanned on a flatbed or roller scanner, but I advised that they have integral value as photographic objects in themselves, and could be damaged by the act of placing them in a scanner and touching the surface.
We needed to retain the level of conservation, digital accuracy and quality present in museums, whilst overcoming a couple of hurdles: they shouldn’t leave the premises because of the danger of loss or damage, but we didn’t have an in-house professional department to carry out the photography. I brought in the services of the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care based at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, who are experienced in digitising valuable and potentially fragile paper objects. They could provide a “mobile unit” (including the photographer Gwen Riley-Jones) which, with a bit of adaptation of the Foundation’s office from workspace to photography studio (with blackout sheets and lighting umbrellas), would deliver the museum quality that was needed.
The final digital resources are a minimum of 300dpi, 24-bit colour depth, uncompressed TIFF, with ICC colour profile embedded into each image file. The camera used was a Phase One iXr, designed without a mirror to minimise vibration and reduce the number of moving parts in the camera. It creates a very clean, detailed image quality. The final digital images became digital artefacts in themselves, and were created with digital developments in mind to sustain the resource into the future.
Many of the photographic prints in the Archive are interesting from a history of photography point of view, as well as from the history of the designs of Robin Day and Lucienne Day. The photography took a very intensive five days, which would have been much longer if we had indulged our urge to pore over each of the artefacts; so much to see!
Instead of being housed in the original filing cabinet, where they could curl or be knocked about, I have re-packed the photographic prints into conservation-grade archive boxes, with each filing location noted in the Archive’s catalogue, so that they are easily accessible for exhibition. We also retained records of the original filing cabinet folder because this was allocated by Robin Day, and gives an interesting insight into how Robin Day himself categorised his own designs.
The custom-made Archive catalogue system consists of a web-based database with a browser interface for viewers to search and see the catalogue entries, and a different browser interface to add and edit entries. The interface (web page display) can be viewed from any online browser (currently only authorised users). It is built in industry-standard html and mysql code so that it can easily move with future developments and be compatible with, or export to, other systems if needed. This web development is a large task and the temptation is to nail all of the requirements at the outset but I realised that a more useful approach would be one that would allow alteration and flexibility in response to the academic needs of the Archive as well as the more mundane practical needs. Much of this could only be addressed once there was “something on the table”. Some basic requirements acted as a starting point – to accession all of the artefacts so that they had a permanent catalogue number, to display thumbnail images of each item – and then functions and layouts were added (a detail page, the ability to search by Robin Day’s original folder name) as it progressed, and it is still evolving for some time to come.
A key part of the Archive catalogue is the ability to search for items in a casual way (with a word search) and also in a structured way with categories that have been defined from an academic point of view. The Foundation has engaged the Design Historian Lesley Jackson to help to solidify this important intellectual aspect of the Archive’s interpretation, which will underpin the great design legacy of Robin and Lucienne Day.
The Archive’s not open to the public at the moment as it’s still in development, but you can get more information about the Foundation here: robinandluciennedayfoundation.org