Yohji Yamamoto womenswear catalogue 1986 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Nick Knight / Trunk Archive

Yohji Yamamoto womenswear catalogue, 1986, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Nick Knight / Trunk Archive

When it was founded 150 years ago, the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was conceived as an encyclopedia for designers of the future. Britain was keen to arm its creative minds with the best resources to inspire great design thinking and innovation.

Over time, the library has collected an astonishing range of material, from illustrated books from the 15th century through to newspaper periodicals, fashion design, photography, graphic design and pop art. The library is still utilised by designers and artists in London today, from Vivienne Westwood to Tracey Emin.

The State Library’s current exhibition Inspiration by Design offers an insight into the National Art Library, showcasing their collection. We were lucky enough to speak to Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word & Image at the Victoria and Albert Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, when he visited Melbourne for the exhibition opening.

How does the National Art Library influence designers and artists?

I think it is often surprising what people find engaging creatively. If you want to influence car designers, for example, you don’t have an exhibition of cars. They are more likely to find inspiration in medieval paintings or a tribal print. You can’t anticipate what it might be.

And it’s not always the graphic material, it’s also the setting that inspires people. If you live in a bedsit in London, and come into a beautiful historic library to work, it’s likely you’ll be inspired – if you see people around you working hard, it’s also pretty contagious.

Grasset poster

Eugène Grasset, Advertising poster for inks manufacturer, 1892, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What’s a piece that you find inspiring in the exhibition?

You might not look twice at the fashion photograph of Jean Shrimpton, but that composition is very powerful in its simplicity, almost like a prison mug shot – yet they are wearing the latest fashions. I think a really good artist will see qualities in pieces that appear the least engineered or contrived. It’s often a sign of genius to make something look simple and inevitable when it isn’t.

French photograph of Quant models

John French, Mary Quant fashions modelled by Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond 1962, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Melbourne is a city with active communities of artists, photographers and designers, what can these people expect to get out of the exhibition?

I would recommend looking at the process drawings because they take you right into the mind of the artist or designer. In the exhibition there is a Mary Quant drawing with notes on the side, for example. Beatrix Potter’s drawings are also annotated – and you can compare the difference between an early Peter Rabbit drawing and one published later.

Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit book

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1901, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We are all so accustomed to seeing the finished product, you don’t always realise how the artist got there, and perhaps how difficult it was to get there. Seeing the preparatory work, you can see so much variation, and the mistakes. These artworks will show a visitor that genius doesn’t just come at first stroke of the brush.

It would be great if a design student came to this exhibition and saw something they could use in their own work. The show is called Inspiration by Design – and we want people to be inspired. It’s all about visual ideas and broadening your visual imagination.


The State Library’s free exhibition Inspiration by Design is open every day 10am–5pm (until 9pm Thursday) until 14 June 2015.

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