First Year Experience: The Story Shelf

This first year Communication Design student shares how he became inspired by our Director’s correspondence and used it to re-imagine storytelling! To see more of what our first year students got up to as part of their “Being Human” project, see a short video by Martin Clark here.

When I was at the GSA Archives, I looked at specifically the correspondence of Fra Newbery. To be honest, at first I thought it was a wee bit boring, because it was just daily happenings of the art school, of which he was headmaster. And then I started looking into specific letters in detail and just finding wee hints in the way that he phrased things. I found it quite funny, because just from a generational point of view, the way we say things are a lot different. And then I went back to the beginning of the book where it had the index to it and I realized I hadn’t even thought to look at the index to consider what I was looking for! 

At first, I thought the people that he had more correspondence with meant that he had more of a relationship with, but actually this wasn’t the case. It was actually the people that he had less correspondence with he seemed more affectionate towards. Maybe because he had more time for them he would contact them in person? So I began to think about how letters were formed and why there was less contact with some people through type and what the story behind them was. This gave me the framework for my project, which was the idea of storytelling. 

Letterbook of Francis Newbery, Director of The Glasgow School of Art (GSAA/DIR/5/6)

I looked into my gran’s collection of over 250 thimbles, which are really nicely presented. So I thought of this as like her personal archive, which was quite hard to interpret in some ways because it’s so complete and I had the challenge of recreating it with a new narrative. I spent ages trying to break it down, playing about with it and just doing some very simple illustrations. And then about a week after the archive visit, I went back to have a think about it and got the idea of thinking about each thimble individually, rather than taking it as a whole.  

I went back to my gran’s collection and photographed sixty thimbles individually and decided to write a story for each one. I’d interviewed my gran about it and asked her what the story behind each of the thimbles was and she could only tell me about five, because there were so many! So that actually gave me the idea of creating a story for the thimbles that she didn’t know, because I thought that would be quite interesting to fill in the gaps. This allowed me to be quite playful and creative and just come up with fun quirky stories, either about my gran or about how the thimble got there, or something completely random. I’ve got about sixty stories, all ranging from just a sentence long to about 150 words. 

I ended up with a big document of stories which I needed to work out how to present. So I went back to the idea of how the thimbles were presented in their case, in this beautifully crafted, specially designed cabinet. I thought about the idea of creating my own cabinet to hold these stories that I’d written. I had a conversation with a tutor about how type can be used to create shape and tone, and began typing out the stories and laying them out in these different columns, creating blocks of text that became more tonal in a sense, to make them look like the thimbles. I then looked into actually recreating the shelf itself and I just measured out the blocks of each individual part, looking into the rules of shelving and how to separate and build a shelf from the text.  

The idea was that the size of the story would dictate the size of the negative space beyond the shelf. I wouldn’t necessarily put the story on the shelf, but it would sit as two parts so you’d have the text just below the complete shelf so that it’s almost like an index in itself, like Fra Newbery’s letter books. The idea is that the viewer finds a story to fit the shelf, rather than the shelf dictating what story is placed there.  

Images courtesy of Stephen Keane – many thanks Stephen!

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