Grand Designs

Labor, Empire, and the Museum in Victorian Culture

Grand Designs

Radical Perspectives

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 74 illus., including 8 in color Published: January 2008

Author: Lara Kriegel

Art and Visual Culture, History > European History

With this richly illustrated history of industrial design reform in nineteenth-century Britain, Lara Kriegel demonstrates that preoccupations with trade, labor, and manufacture lay at the heart of debates about cultural institutions during the Victorian era. Through aesthetic reform, Victorians sought to redress the inferiority of British crafts in comparison to those made on the continent and in the colonies. Declaring a crisis of design and workmanship among the British laboring classes, reformers pioneered schools of design, copyright protections, and spectacular displays of industrial and imperial wares, most notably the Great Exhibition of 1851. Their efforts culminated with the establishment of the South Kensington Museum, predecessor to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which stands today as home to the world’s foremost collection of the decorative and applied arts. Kriegel’s identification of the significant links between markets and museums, and between economics and aesthetics, amounts to a rethinking of Victorian cultural formation.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including museum guidebooks, design manuals, illustrated newspapers, pattern books, and government reports, Kriegel brings to life the many Victorians who claimed a stake in aesthetic reform during the middle years of the nineteenth century. The aspiring artists who attended the Government School of Design, the embattled provincial printers who sought a strengthened industrial copyright, the exhibition-going millions who visited the Crystal Palace, the lower-middle-class consumers who learned new principles of taste in metropolitan museums, and the working men of London who critiqued the city’s art and design collections—all are cast by Kriegel as leading cultural actors of their day. Grand Designs shows how these Victorians vied to upend aesthetic hierarchies in an imperial age and, in the process, to refashion London’s public culture.


“A different path to the museum is taken by Lara Kriegel in her impressive Grand Designs. . . . Redirecting the story of aesthetics from famous names (Ruskin and Morris play supporting roles, at best) to the contributions of manufacturers, merchants, and laborers, Grand Designs powerfully revises our sense of the period and its hierarchies.” — Ian Duncan, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

“Carefully tracing the concerns of labor, Kriegel substantiates her arguments with close readings of a wide range of sources, including contemporary accounts gleaned from well over three dozen different journals, newspapers, and serials. Her conclusions propose a complex story of artisanal skill parlayed into cultural capital and offer a challenging reassessment of the politics of the mid-Victorian design reform movement.” — Dana M. Garvey, Victorian Periodicals Review

“Kriegel demonstrates that the Great Exhibition is best seen as part of a trajectory of reform. Anthropologists and literary critics have seen the Exhibit in splendid isolation. Kriegel, as a historian, combines their theories with an attention to causation and sustained narrative. Her work will appeal not only to readers from museum studies but also to historians of Victorian culture broadly defined.” — Lori Loeb, Journal of Modern History

“Lara Kriegel has produced a lucid, intelligent, and highly readable study of mid-century debates about industrial design reform in Britain.”
— Morna O’Neill, Nineteenth-Century Contexts

“This fine study puts forward a persuasive argument that in the mid-century there was an intense concern with design that can tell us much about the social and cultural nature of that world. . . . [A] powerfully argued text.” — Peter Stansky, H-Net Reviews

“[A] bold and focused monograph. The book is a successful grand design itself, as the author buries for the foreseeable future myths about Victorian indifference to the many facets of creating and displaying the beautiful and useful, and its attendant association of the nineteenth century with ugly melodramatic statues and equally hideous painted iron bridges. . . . [An] artfully illustrated and skillfully researched study. . . .” — Peter H. Hoffenberg, American Historical Review

“[A]n ambitious, important book that studies the design reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century, giving special attention to questions of industry and labor. . . . [T]horough and imaginatively conceived.” — Kate Hill, Victorian Studies

“For those nostalgic for the days when imperialism reigned and the museum was not yet a domineering manifestation, Kriegel’s book casts an interdisciplinary perspective onto the enlightened richness of Victorian design while sidestepping more traditional interpretations that once held these industrial products to be merely rashly conceived and poorly executed.” — Jennifer Ferng,, Leonardo Reviews

“In this fascinating interdisciplinary study, Lara Kriegel has woven strands of nineteenth-century economic theory, design history, social developments, and cultural events into a richly textured portrayal of how aesthetics were contemplated and manipulated by various audiences. . . . In a well-written, engaging narrative that flows easily among the various disciplines that inform this study, Kriegel has produced a significant and substantive addition to the literature on nineteenth-century design. The content will be intriguing to scholars of design, social/cultural history, and economic history.” — Marilyn Casto, Enterprise & Society

“Kriegel’s Grand Designs is an important addition to the study of museums as they developed and operated culturally in the nineteenth century. . . . The great triumph of the book is to take seriously the mid-Victorian reformers’ concern to improve the labouring and artisanal classes through education and to examine the means by which they undertook this task.” — Bruce Robertson, Social History

“The book is well illustrated and is an excellent addition to both historical studies of design and social histories of labour—two worlds that rarely intersect in academic discourses but have been made to do so with wonderful deftness by Kreigel.” — Deepika Ahlawat, Journal of Design History

“Lara Kriegel has produced a sparkling narrative which presents a new story about the emergence of mid-Victorian design in which laboring men and their allies take center stage, and also a new way of thinking about the property of skill, a theme which has been central to labor history. Grand Designs is written with real zing. Kriegel combines fascinating detail with an important (yet lightly worn) theoretical perspective which challenges the current orthodoxy.” — Anna Clark, author of Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution

“Too often, debates about design reform, about artisan and fine art education, and about the development of museums, have been allowed to stand as separate narratives. The brilliance of Lara Kriegel’s account lies in her use of new evidence to synthesize these separate stories into a broad cultural history, locating them all in relation to the development of market capitalism. Grand Designs will change not only the way we think about industrial design and education but also the way we teach British cultural history and art history.” — Tim Barringer, author of Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lara Kriegel is Associate Professor of History at Florida International University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xv

1. Introduction

Chapter One. Configuring Design: Artisans, Aesthetics, and Aspiration in Early Victorian Britain 19

Chapter Two. Originality and Sin: Calico, Capitalism, and the Copyright of Design, 1839-1851 52

Chapter Three. Commodification and Its Discontents: Labor, Print Culture, and Industrial Art at the Great Exhibition of 1851 86

Chapter Four. Principled Disagreements: The Museum of Ornamental Art and Its Critics, 1852-1856 126

Chapter Five. Cultural Locations: South Kensington, Bethnal Green, and the Working Man, 1857-1872 160

Afterword. Travels in South kensington 191

Notes 203

Bibliography 253

Index 293
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4072-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4051-5
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