Born in Edinburgh, educated in London and now residing in Manchester Jenny Steele is an artist concerned with the dispersive nature of architecture. Steele concentrates the focus of her architectural investigation on ‘Seaside Moderne ‘; a brand of design that is situated in the Modernist oeuvre, expressing the optimism of post-war ideology through the curvature and geometry of Art Deco. Steele’s practice is informed by research and executed in a multidisciplinary approach which includes sculpture, print, illustration and installation.

In 2017 Steele presented ‘This Building for Hope’ a solo exhibition that took place at The Midland Hotel, Morecambe. The show developed on Steele’s interest in 1930’s architecture found the UK with extensive research conducted in South Beach Miami.

The two transatlantic locations seem disparate and polarised in the mental images they conjure, one bringing into mind sun, glamour, glitz and celebratory and the other drizzle soaked tween-ness. However, the work reveals important historical ties between the two lands whose coastal architectural programs were intended to rejuvenate their national economies. ‘Seaside Moderne’ sought to breathe life into holiday resorts with the architectural vanguard of the time. Daring pastel colours adorning exciting architectural forms imbued the likes Blackpool, Morecombe and Brighton with ‘South Beach desirability’ and it had great effect. Included in the show is ‘The Fountain - North Beach’, a sculpture of metal, card and screen print. It stands triumphant in form, bedecked in glorious pastel personality, acting as a cenotaph to the heyday of British summer holidays. ‘This Building for Hope’ includes dozens of artworks situated throughout the interior and exterior of the hotel, sculptures, banners, prints and window displays echo, repeat and reinforce 1930’s designs with the recurrence of motif and symbols.  Waiting to be discovered by those who visit and pass by, and much like the architectural programme from which it draws inspiration ‘This Building for Hope’ breathes life into our appreciation for British seaside culture.

This idea of exploration and detection is an aspect of Steele’s practice which can be found in other works such as “Why be Exotic in Private”, a 2018-2019 installation at The Foundry Gallery, London. This work contained panels of confectionery coloured designs and patterns forming an environment to search though. The work is akin to a hall of mirrors reflective of holiday simulated escapism; a fiberglass veneer of funfair and fantasy worlds giddy with saccharine aesthetics and kaleidoscopic shapes.

All of Jenny Steele’s work has a spirit of celebration and joy, avoiding cynicism which is an all too familiar sentiment in contemporary art. Amongst other things her work speaks of British identity encapsulated by our memories, architecture and history. Aspects of history are often fetishized and much of British identity if formed by such fetishization. Steele’s preoccupation with ‘Seaside Moderne’ is a brilliant examination of how post-war optimism pollinated throughout the western world taking form in interior design and architecture and instigating a cultural exchange of optimism. Her work offers artefacts and aesthetics which are so potently nostalgic but unravels the international ties that make up the discursive roots of our identity. Her work does something that is brilliantly timely and crucially important, it exemplifies how British nostalgia should not be an isolationist meditation but instead a celebration of rich intercontinental bonds impregnated with hope.

Jenny Steele’s practice is staggering in volume, such a prolific output can only be touch upon in a single interview but the following should help glean a little more into such a relentless maker and explorer of ideas.


Interview: Jenny Steele

Q1) You appear to have moved around the UK a lot in your life and career. How have your past experiences helped shape your current practice and interests?

I was born in Edinburgh and lived a few of my early years in the Black Isle in the North East coast of Scotland, and my first memories were of living on a peninsula with a beach on either side of our house. Even though we moved back to Edinburgh for the remainder of my childhood, I think those first years definitely created an affinity and nostalgia for the sea and coastal locations. I studied my undergraduate at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee, pretty much pre internet, so it was a relatively quiet and focused approach to making, with only the studio, library books and your peers. Undertaking an MFA at Goldsmiths, was incredible in that there was so many ongoing examples of exhibitions to see first-hand at any one time. It was also a good, but hard to stomach at times, dose of tough love, by that your work and your output was down to you, and no one was going to come and discover you and save you! Following my MFA, I was heavily involved in teaching in FE and HE in London so my art practice lapsed and I moved to Manchester with a view to teaching less, as living costs (and studio costs) were significantly lower. I now no longer teach in HE, but I definitely learnt a lot about planning and organisation during that time which really helps me with my work. In London, in the latter years, I lived in Brentford, next to the Golden Mile, which is a road of incredible 1930’s industrial architecture which I think drew my mind to this period more definitely. The Underground, also has an incredible abundance of mid war or ‘deco’ stations which I had the pleasure of experiencing regularly.

Q2) Your work is multidisciplinary and incorporates many different aspects of art, including, interior art, furniture, textile, surface pattern, print, sculpture. What are the benefits of being multidisciplinary? And is there anything that you find prohibitive?  

I really enjoy the flexibility of working across mediums, and processes and outcomes, depending on the project and ideas that are concerned. It allows me to try out many ideas, which I have a lot of! I am really interested the period in visual arts between 1900- 1940’s where it was very common for ‘fine’ artists to create designs for companies and there was no stigma attached to this. A great example of this was the company ‘Edinburgh Weavers’ in Carlisle that commissioned modern artists such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth to create fabrics that were widely available for people to have in their homes at a reasonable cost. I also like creating affordable items for people to purchase, such as prints, tea towels or scarves, in that way print reproductions make art more accessible. I think print is a very democratic medium, it can be made available to many, rather than the exclusive one off artwork only attainable by the most wealthy.

Q3) There are certain architectural movements that seem to be a mainstay for artists to draw from Brutalist, Bauhaus, Revivalist, High tech architecture are commonly used as signifiers and themes for investigation. I can’t think of many other artists drawing from Art Deco and ‘seaside moderne’ so what draws you this type of architecture and what ideas from ‘seaside modrene’ does you work seek to reactivate.

‘Art Deco’, was a retrospective term that came about in the 1960’s when the style became popular again in a revival period. The name refers to The International Exhibition of Modern and Decorative Arts in 1925 in Paris, which the French government instigated to share the European ‘style moderne’ across all design and visual arts.

I am particularly interested in Seaside Moderne architecture, so architecture that was built in coastal environments during the 1930s for pleasure and enjoyment, during the mid-war leisure boom. ‘Art Deco’ or early modernism mid war, employed a great deal of optimism in its design, with wide, open, light spaces, decorative pattern, and uplifting motifs such as the fountain. Following World War I, there had been international trauma, death and devastation so private companies and governments utilised this style to create spaces for people to relax and enjoy themselves. During the 1930’s, there was also the first allocation of the national annual holiday, so combined with improved rail travel, seaside resorts were flooded with local tourists looking to relax away from work in factories and offices.

In my work, I’m always looking to create (which doesn’t come about always consciously) spaces or work that uplifts myself and others. I’m not interested in focusing on the ills of the world (and I’m aware there are plenty) but I want create a work or exhibition that leaves the viewer feeling more positive, curious and in wonder at the possibilities of spaces and our environment. Seaside Moderne architecture, and it’s accompanying stories and intentions has provided the best muse or location for this in my work so far.

Q4) How does your research into defunct architecture shape your view of contemporary life? (What does the loss of optimism in architecture say about our times?)

Some of the architecture I research isn’t defunct at the time, such as The Midland which was renovated by Urban Splash in 2008, and is thriving now as a business due to a management team that celebrates and shares its heritage as equal to its role as a hospitality site.  However, it is important to me when I can to draw attention to buildings that need caretakers, or support renovation of any particular building. I’m particularly interested in 1930’s Seaside Moderne architecture, so whatever state that may be in, I seek to highlight and support it in some way. In the UK, and in other countries, there has been over the last decade, a great deal of revived interest in this architecture, and it’s renovation has been used to try to restart depressed economies of coastal towns. Some examples of this are The Midland in Morecambe, The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea and Dreamland, Margate. Currently the Rothesay Pavilion (Isle of Bute) is near to completion for reopening as a visual art and community centre in late 2019, and other 1930’s lidos such as Saltdean Lido are working tirelessly to fund and renovate this architecture for the local community, and to bring visitors from further afield to regenerate tourism. I feel there has been a positive change in attitude to preserving modernist architecture in the general consciousness, thanks to advocacy organisations such as the C20 Society and The Modernist Society, who are based in Manchester.

Q5) For ‘This Building for Hope’, you visited Miami and researched its architecture extensively, what comparisons can you make between Miami and the UK terms of past, present and future?

Both in the UK and the US in the 1930’s, there was a mid-war leisure boom, so significantly more people were travelling to the seaside on their newly allocated holidays. The US government in the early 1920’s were encouraging people to move to Miami and holiday there, as it had previously been a barren swampland. It was recreated in the early 20th Century as a tropical paradise, with palm trees and animals such as flamingos, which were brought in, as they were not indigenous to the area. In the 1920’s there was a large hurricane which wiped out the majority of existing Miami Beach architecture, and so in the 1930’s hundreds of Seaside Moderne or ‘Art Deco’ buildings were constructed to create a new, holidaying tropical paradise.

Similar to the UK, seaside holidaying in Miami fell into decline in the 1960’s onwards as flight travel became more affordable so people wanted to travel further afield. During the 1970’s -1980’s, Miami Beach became very run down, and became synonymous with gun crime. It was mainly inhabited during this period by homosexuals and holocaust survivors, those who did not ‘fit into’ society’s norms at the time. It was due to a committed group of volunteers, The Miami Design Preservation League, in the late 1970’s who campaigned to prevent the buildings from demolition that the area is now a thriving again. Amongst many other advocacy activities, the MDPL painted the buildings in a new tropical palette, which has since been used as a backdrop for TV programmes such as Miami Vice, and many films such as Scarface.

There are clear comparisons between British Seaside towns and Miami Beach in the narrative of decline and revival, however our towns are spread across the edges of our small country and have perhaps a longer way to travel to revival in some cases. We also do not have the year round warm weather as a pull!

Q6) Earlier when describing your work, we touched upon a theme of exploration/discovery experience. It’s a similar functioning to exploring cities and towns and alludes to the psychogeographical effects of cities/architecture. Is psychogeography something that you are cognisant of when developing your work?

I’m always interested in how a building or place can make you feel positively, and this is why I am am drawn to these sites time and time again. The seaside and the spaces of Seaside Moderne architecture both have uplifting qualities – spaces to relax and unwind away from the stresses of everyday life. I recently wrote a book chapter with Dr David Jarratt, on ‘The Seaside Resort, Nostalgia and Restoration’, that was commissioned for the book Practicing Place: Creative and Critical Reflections on Place by In Certain Places. Dr Jarratt, whose research focuses on ideas of ‘Seasideness’ in relation to tourism and nostalgia, mentions the benefit of experiencing ‘blue space’ and how this improves our wellness. We also discuss in the article how this particular sense of place at the seaside creates positive experiences through reliving memories, and nostalgia can be a positive experience for our wellbeing, not only a regressive negative, which is how it may often be perceived. 

Q7) What lies ahead for you, what projects do you have in the pipeline and where can our readers see you next?

I currently have an exhibition at Rogue Project Space, Manchester ‘Why be exotic in private?’ which was originally shown at The Foundry Gallery, earlier this year. The exhibition runs from 9th-29th June.

Next month, I will be launching a commission I have been working on at Crosby Library with The Human Library which has explored and will celebrate the history of this modernist library. It will my first permanent public artwork.

Following this, I have also a commission for A B&B, a new ‘art hotel’ in Blackpool, launching later this summer.

I will also be presenting a site specific artwork, ‘The Maiden Voyage’ on George’s Dock Plaza, Liverpool between 8th-22nd September 2019 responding to research into mid war ocean liners travelling between Liverpool and the US, and related modernist architecture and design of this period.