Recently I spent some time at the Royal College of Art, archiving some papers from an important Design History project: the Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior. It set me thinking about what I had learned from one of its inspiring products – the online Domestic Interiors Database.

Many years ago, back in the dark ages when people still invested in travel guides and got taxis by flagging them down in the street, I worked as Research Coordinator for The Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior. The five-year project brought together senior and young academics from three London institutions (Royal Holloway, V&A and Royal College of Art), to explore the histories of the home interior.

Database of Domestic Interiors

As well as many conferences, publications and exhibitions, a major aspect of the researchers’ work was to create an online Database of historical representations of interiors (in the West). They additionally hammered out a definitive thesaurus of themes and terms specifically for the subject. This Domestic Interiors Database still exists, and contains an extraordinary plethora of images and texts with extensive interpretation and commentary. There’s a smorgasbord of material, from woodcuts like “A Pigeon and the loyal companion, or adultery“, to film such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets“, to books such as “A Handful of Dust” and even an Alexa forerunner.Database of Domestic Interiors - Active Event Display

Learning from a legacy application

An enormously interesting aspect for me is just how much web, search and database technology has changed since the Database launch in 2006, after 5 years’ research and development. The learning curve these academics went through has taught me a valuable lesson to apply to ensuing archive and database project development.

From a web-design point of view, the Database was not envisaged as a promotional tool for the content or the organisations involved. The home page displays a few tiny thumbnail images, without links, to give a taste of what’s inside. Now, of course, we could create a richly animated tapestry of images, and an app-like interface. That was not possible then partly because bandwidth was such an issue – seriously, we were still dialling up our internet then.

User experience

Looking at the Database functions, the search page is the only way to access material. It’s completely free of suggested searches, ingoing links or sections. You have to be a determined researcher to keep with it. Search results are initially displayed as a “reference list” with very few details, (there is extensive detail behind each record, though, once you click through). The Database’s name itself, although literally correct, does not do justice to the exciting and illuminating material within.

Pioneering collaborative design humanities

None of this undermines the fact that the work of the Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior (CSDI) was pioneering in its mission of a collaborative design humanities approach, resulting in an intensely rigorous catalogue of cultural artefacts. In its final report on CSDI, The Arts and Humanities Research Council (the funder) awarded it the highest commendation possible of “Outstanding“.

Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance

The core project of the Centre also resulted in a rich and entertaining book – “Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance”.

Imagined Interiors, V&A publications

The contents page (download pdf) reveals the project themes and the writers who brought the subject to life, including Professor Jeremy Aynsley, Rebecca Preston, Flora Dennis, Rod Mengham, Harriet McKay, Sir Christopher Frayling, Elizabeth Miller, Viviana Narotzky and Charlotte Grant, with many others.

I got a measure of satisfaction from packing up CSDI’s administrative material into the RCA’s archive boxes. But the best part of the job was re-visiting the Centre’s online Database and print publications, and considering them afresh.