a conversation with Prof. Paul Stirton...

posted on 30 Nov 2012 20:36 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Your connection to the BGC goes back a number of years before you were appointed as Professor and Editor of West 86th Street. Can you tell us a little about that?


PS: Yes, I was senior lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow when I was invited to come to the BGC as a visiting professor in 1999. I was doing research on the Anglo-American artist and designer James McNeill Whistler, while my partner was working on the furniture and designs of E.W. Godwin, his friend and associate in the Aesthetic Movement. It was my partner, Juliet Kinchin, who made the first contact; she was invited to contribute to the BGC’s exhibition catalog E.W. Godwin Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer (1999). By that time, we had begun working on a book together on Godwin’s writings, so we were both invited to come to the BGC as visiting professors for a year. It was something of a revelation because, although we had heard of the BGC, we did not know much about teaching and higher education in the US. It was a fantastic year, and we were delighted to be invited back two years later for another year. Perhaps because we were teaching mostly design history in Glasgow, the BGC did not seem unusual to us; in fact, it seemed like the most natural place in the world to pursue our interests.

EPS: Now that there has been a couple of years worth of West 86th, can you tell us how you think the Journal is evolving? What do you have planned for upcoming issues?
PS: The first two years have been fairly tough since I felt we had to start, almost from scratch, to re-launch the journal. Our previous journal (Studies in the Decorative Arts) had a great reputation but I was keen to establish a new identity, and a new editorial policy. Some of this was achieved just by changing the look of the journal, and beginning to publish with University of Chicago Press, but I would like to think that West 86th now has a broader range and attracts contributors employing more diverse approaches. My aim has always been to make West 86th reflect what we do in the BGC, so I am keen to include the finest scholarship on artifacts from all periods and cultures. I think we have achieved some of these aims already, since we have published articles on topics as wide ranging as 10th Century ivories to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and from Pre-Columbian Mexico to modern Persian ceramics. I was very pleased with the series of articles by Deborah Silverman on Belgian Art Nouveau and the colonial experience of the Congo because it went back over quite familiar ground but did so in a way that drew on a range of new sources to re-interpret some important designs by Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta. A curator at the V&A in London told me recently that he thought it had been worth re-launching the journal for that article alone. I would like to think we have achieved more than that alone, but it is a measure of where we are with the whole project. In forthcoming issues we plan to publish articles on American furniture at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the ancient knowledge systems of Chinese craftsmen, and translations of texts by the architect-designer Lina Bo Bardi on the folk arts, Modernism, and national identity in Brazil.

EPS: What are some of your current research interests? What are you working on now?
PS: The main focus of my research is Central European design with a particular interest in Hungary. I have recently published articles on the diaspora of Hungarian artists, designers and intellectuals after the First World War, which has drawn me into the field now known loosely as “cultural transfer.” I am currently writing a chapter for a book on this subject, using the Hungarians Laszlo Peri, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Frederick Antal, as my examples.

EPS: You’ve spent many years teaching in your native Scotland. Tell us a little about what you like about teaching here at the BGC?
PS: The university sectors in Britain and the US are very similar but they differ in several key ways. As a professor in Scotland I had to teach across a wide range of periods and levels. This can be stimulating but it draws you away from the core issues of your research. Perhaps the greatest advantage of teaching here at the BGC is that we are able to teach courses that grow directly out of our research. For example, this semester I have been teaching a course entitled “Other Europes,” about architecture and design in Central Europe between 1880 and 1956, with a particular emphasis on Hungary and Romania. We also teach in small groups that allow us to explore quite complex and subtle topics in detail. I always find that I learn a lot from my students, especially on topics that I thought I knew well. Just the process of explaining certain problems and discussing issues with the students makes me think again about objects, designers or periods that I had previously thought were quite clear in my mind. That is what makes teaching such a lively and creative activity – it forces you to examine your own ideas.