Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Talking about Wallpaper

Conducting the interviews for the Sonic Wallpaper project was a rich and thought-provoking process. I am grateful to everyone who participated and shared their responses to the wallpapers I'd short-listed from the MoDA collection

Annie, Colleen and Felicity discussing wallpaper at MoDA; image © Richard Lumb and used with the permission of MoDA

I learnt through the interviews that when we discuss wallpaper in terms of atmospheres and memories - and not purely in terms of designs, fashion and history - powerful narratives emerge. The agency, imagination and creativity of the home-maker become apparent when he/she is presented with wallpapers and combines this with their experiences of homes and rooms and life lived therein. Through a process of considering and responding to wallpapers, a design which at first glance appeared bland or unassuming became a canvas on which to project the memories of a flat once lived in; a forest-like pattern inspired fantasies involving woodland and the quiet stillness of a chilly Autumn morning; a psychedelic print evoked the vision of a party where everyone is a bit shallow and stylishly posed; and bold, blousy flowers inspired a discussion on showing off, intimidation and social-climbing.

Wallpapers, shortlisted for Sonic Wallpaper interviews. Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

As we talked, the pile of wallpapers became a repository of domestic dreaming, memories, wishes, observations, and polemic. Mundane memories were also evoked; the recollection of an irritating paper which wouldn't hold the wallpaper paste properly surfaced, along with another person's nightmarish memory of trying to scrape Artex off a ceiling.

Joceline considering wallpaper at MoDA; image © Richard Lumb and used with the permission of MoDA

Exploring MoDA's wallpapers also revealed desires for certain kinds of domestic spaces. Yearnings were exposed for spaces such as a garden room where there are plants and light to sit amongst; a room specifically allocated for the creation of chutneys and preserves; and a writing attic, where inkwells, pens and crisp cartridge paper a stacked inside a bureau. These longings were detailed, rich, complex and imaginative, connecting a sense of self with the organisation of domestic space.

I was amazed by how exploring the wallpapers at MoDA through the Sonic Wallpaper interview process frequently transgressed from a discussion re: wallpaper into questions concerning lifestyles and domestic activities.

Tom consulting the wallpapers. Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

The next phase of the Sonic Wallpaper project will involve developing these narratives through sound, to create Sonic Wallpaper. Interviews will be edited and developed into sound pieces so that the thoughts and spaces imagined by interviewees can be conveyed to new audiences, and used to add depth and fresh perspectives to a touring exhibition of MoDA's wallpapers. I am very excited about this phase of the project and about translating the rituals of home-decorating into audible content and wallpaper you can listen to!

Sound can describe memories, eras, times and spaces in ways that pictures and images can't. While you can look at a floorplan or indeed a sheet of wallpaper and "visualise" how a space will appear, it is only when you hear a recording of walking through the space papered with it that you might begin to understand how air and molecules resonate within that space, or even how long the experience of walking through it might take.

Memories can be contained in the passing minutes and hours that a sound-recording captures. You can look at something in the blink of an eye but the blink of an ear is slower and we do not hear in snapshots. Soundwaves move from wall to wall inside our living rooms, capturing the size and depth of those spaces, the quantity and nature of the furnishings within and so on. So my challenge now is to conjure - in sound - the rooms, spaces and atmospheres which my interviewees have described, through a series of field-recording exercises, so that their descriptions relate to a Sonic Wallpaper or a Sonic sense of space, and not merely to wallpaper as a visually-designed aspect of home-decorating.

Some people describe imaginative listening as a process of "auralisation," an aural equivalent to "visualisation," whereby we imagine places acoustically, rather than picturing them. I like that idea. I look forward to listening to and recording such things as the drips of moisture falling inside a conservatory; the round, glassy sounds of stacking jars against one another on a sturdy wooden shelf; and the delicate, wet scratchings of a pen against paper in a tiny attic. There will be other sounds, other spaces to "auralise" and they will be revealed in little glimpses here, throughout coming weeks.

The next phase of the project will involve my putting all our conversations onto my iPod, and walking around for days at a time listening over and over to the interviews. I shall reach for the ear's imagination, and try to imagine the soundscapes attending my interviewees' fancies and discussions regarding domestic space. The wallpapers which end up in the final MoDA collection will be selected according to the Sonic Wallpapers which they have inspired, and the experience we create for exhibition-goers will be led by this, rather than by a desire to showcase the most arresting visual designs.

That was the most interesting revelation from the Sonic Wallpaper interviews; I learnt that the most arresting visual designs are perhaps not always the most interesting from the perspective of how we imagine and consider and remember and create our domestic spaces. It is the creativity of the home-maker and the imagination of the resident in domestic space which I hope to reflect in my Sonic Wallpaper designs, because those rich things are what you find when you scratch the surface of wallpaper and search for what is underneath, and they - for me - are best described in sound.

Tom and Anthony with their favourite wallpaper designs, respectively to decorate The Study, and The Beatnik Bedroom. Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

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