On a grey, misty November morning at the tail end of last year, when the Buckinghamshire countryside was enveloped in drizzle, the entire School of Applied Art at the Royal College of Art – more than 80 students and staff – left Kensington Gore and headed north up the M40 in two coaches.
The day was to be the start of an extraordinary project initiated by InnovationRCA: the School of Applied Art was on a journey to Waddesdon Manor, which sits on a picturesque hill top on the edge of the Chilterns, to undertake a special assignment. The students were invited to design an artefact for exclusive sale at Waddesdon Manor, inspired by their visit to the historic house. We were intrigued to see what the resulting work would be.
The house was built in 1880 by Ferdinand de Rothschild, solely to entertain parties of weekend guests and hold his extraordinary art collection. Waddesdon is reputed to have cost almost £2 million, an enormous fortune in the late 19th century, and at the time it was the last word in luxury. Ferdinand counted the Prince of Wales and many other luminaries of the period amongst his friends, and loved to entertain with great style and flamboyance.
The house doubled as a showcase for his vast collection, which included wonderful Sèvres porcelain and paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Guardi. In the 1950s Waddesdon was given to the National Trust complete with its priceless contents; but the Rothschild family still retains a very keen interest in it, and adds to the collection. In recent years Ferdinand’s treasures have been joined by a fabulous chandelier by Ingo Maurer, and sculptures by Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas. How would the RCA students choose to respond to this extraordinary and unusual place?
On their return from Waddesdon, the students set to work in ceramics, glass, goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery. Their design proposals were submitted in late February 2008, and were reviewed first by an expert panel of College professors and tutors and then by Fabia Bromovsky (CEO of Waddesdon), Pippa Shirley (Waddesdon Head of Collection) and myself.
An exceptional standard
We were thrilled with the results – the standard was exceptional and lived up to the College’s reputation for excellence. Ten outright winners were chosen: these will be put into production and will be available for sale in the shop at Waddesdon from mid-October 2008. A further six submissions were highly commended. Ideas included ceramic spoons, spun-glass bowls, architectural jewellery, gift-wrap graphics and even a baroque-inspired door wedge.
We were all hugely impressed by the way in which the students engaged with the project – many made return visits to Waddesdon to research their ideas further – and there was a wonderful variety of source material used as inspiration. Marie Retpen was interested in the characters involved in the history of the house; others, such as Glen Wild, took a specific design detail and used it to evoke a more generic spirit of Waddesdon. And even that grey, misty morning of the original visit provided inspiration, in the form of the wonderfully atmospheric ‘Ghostcards’ proposed by Flora Vagi.
People who go to a National Trust property like Waddesdon have a right to expect that the retail offer should echo the rich aesthetic experience of the house. All the RCA artists and makers who made submissions rose magnificently to the challenge of the original brief – of providing a contemporary design response to the historic – and we are delighted that this autumn our visitors will have the opportunity to buy a unique memento of their visit.
Rosey Blackmore is Head of Buying at Waddesdon. More information on the RCA project, contact Rosey Blackmore