Middlesbrough: A centre for design lovers

Guest post by Sarah Laurenson.

In October 2014, a group of historians and researchers visited Middlesbrough for a conference, titled ‘Victorian Cities Revisited’, to explore and share knowledge and ideas on place, space and industrial heritage. Sarah Laurenson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh with a background in design and craft practice, reflects on her experiences during the visit.
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When I stepped off the train from Edinburgh late at night, I knew very little about Middlesbrough. I was attending the conference as part of my research into nineteenth-century craft and design, which involves thinking about how industry and production shaped everyday life in Britain’s towns and cities. I was expecting to hear some interesting papers, and maybe meet a few like-minded folk.

© Sarah Laurenson

Over the next two days, I was utterly charmed by Middlesbrough itself. I discovered a fascinating town steeped in history, and packed with interesting examples of design. My first taste was seeing the Victorian architecture on my morning walk through the heart of the town to the Gothic Town Hall, where the conference was held. One of the first things I learned was how Middlesbrough rose from almost nothing to become a major industrial centre in a very short period of time. In 1801 there were four houses and about 25 people living in the area; just 90 years later, the population had grown to around 90,000 as a result of the rise of the iron industry. The whole town is a product of nineteenth-century industry.

c/o Teesside Archives. CB/M/E 24In the afternoon we took a walk to the Tees Transporter Bridge – one of several trips organised as part of the conference, including tours of Teesside Archives – and learned about its design and construction. The landmark is one of the longest of its kind, and is still fully operational more than a century after it opened in 1911. It carries vehicles and passengers across the River Tees on a gondola suspended on steel wires from a rail system 160 feet above the water. We also came to understand how the Transporter has become iconic of Middlesbrough and the surrounding area as a great blue steel monument to a rich history of industry. Currently undergoing major renovations as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project, the Bridge will reopen with a newly renovated Visitor Centre in the near future.

On the second day of the conference, I took a walk to the Dorman Museum to see the Christopher Dresser Collection. Often named’ the father of modern design’, Scottish-born Dresser (1834-1904) is considered to be the first independent industrial designer and was a household name in his lifetime. Dresser is known for embracing the machine, in-keeping with his ideas that good design should be simple, functional and affordable, at a time when other important designers looked to the past and ancient hand techniques. The exhibits of Dresser’s own designs – wallpapers, textiles, ceramics, glass, metalware and furniture – along with objects that inspired him during his travels to Japan, document Dresser’s life, work and travels.

Dresser © Sarah Laurenson Dresser © Sarah Laurenson

Baker Street  © Sarah Laurenson

Arriving back at Centre Square (but not before I had a look in a few of the lovely independent shops on Baker Street), I headed into mima to discover one of the finest collections of contemporary jewellery in the UK. The newly-opened jewellery gallery has 200 pieces on display by designers including Wendy Ramshaw, Felieke van der Leest and Gijs Bakker. An exhibition charts the growth of a movement known as ‘New Jewellery’, which began in the 1970s through collaborative working and exchange between artists and designers from Britain, Holland and Germany. The movement was centred on the use of new and old materials and techniques to challenge the very concept of jewellery. The gallery is an absolute must-see for any budding jewellery designer. In fact, I think it will become a place of pilgrimage and an important learning resource for designers and makers of all sorts of things. It blew my mind.

mima © Sarah Laurenson mima © Sarah Laurenson

The keynote lecture of ‘Victorian Cities Revisited’ was delivered by Professor Robert J. Morris, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh’s School of History. Titled ‘Place and memory in the industrial city’, Morris’s talk gave insights into his own experience of Middlesbrough (including his first job as a pay clerk in the very Town Hall in which we were sat). He spoke of how this ‘town without a history’ invented an identity based on a sense of its huge achievements. Over the next hour, we considered the ways in which other industrial centres have transformed unused plant and mills to create new spaces for hotels, design studios and museums, and the exciting possibilities for Middlesbrough to continue redefining itself through its many assets: the bridge, old coke furnaces and the water front.

I spent my last hour in Middlesbrough back in mima’s jewellery gallery before returning to Edinburgh feeling more than just a little bit fond of this unassuming gem of a town. It is a centre for design-lovers of all kinds – students, researchers, designer-makers, craft workers, fabricators, engineers. I’m certain that my first time in Middlesbrough certainly won’t be my last.
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Sarah Laurenson visited Middlesbrough as part of her PhD research on the Leverhulme funded project, ‘Artisans and the Craft Economy in Scotland, c.1780-1914’ led by Professor Stana Nenadic at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

Victorian Cities Revisited: Heritage and History Conference’ was a two-day conference organised by Tosh Warwick of the Heritage Lottery Fund supported Tees Transporter Bridge Visitor Experience Project and the University of Huddersfield. The conference was funded with support from the Economic History Society and Middlesbrough Council.

All images © Sarah Laurenson, except Tees Transporter Bridge, which is courtesy of Teesside Archives (ref:  CB/M/E 24).