The charm of English castles and forts continues to remain unfettered against contemporary architecture and extant design trends. The tall stone and brick walls that double up as fortifications, dainty windows that overlook vast grasslands and parks around them, and the turrets floating over the monumental castles: all of these come together, against the backdrop of clear skies and prescribed setbacks, to enchant visitors with their charismatic and domineering presence. Northumberland’s Aydon Castle, too, elicits similar emotions with its tall fortification and rustic appearance. This historic castle in the United Kingdom is currently hosting a design exhibition on its premises, dedicated to presenting a series of objects that are designed following extant trends and styles, and inspired by the history and context of the castle. Touted (Re)imagining Aydon, the presentation is the result of the collaborative efforts of English Heritage, a charity institute dedicated to managing historic structures, and Northumbria University’s School of Design. The exhibition objects, incongruously standing against the archaic structure, will remain on display on the top floor of the castle from 9 June to 31 October 2022.
“We were conscious that Aydon Castle was a home and workplace for over 700 years but, beyond a few names, there is little record of the individuals who lived there. Creating objects for the space has felt like a privilege in giving a human element back to the building,” says Anthony Forsyth, Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University’s School of Design, who approached English Heritage and set into motion the preparations that led to the exhibition.
In a time when the emergence of contemporary gallery spaces has only increased in number, showcasing design objects of the present in a historically significant space manages to not only mark a unique presence but also draw attention to the beauty and resilience of old heritage structures. The Aydon Castle, one of the best-preserved structures from the 13th century in England, continues to remain open as a historic site under the tutelage of English Heritage, thus making it a perfectly suitable spot for an immersive experience such as ‘(Re)Imagining Aydon’.
“At times, it has felt like a conversation with the people who might have lived there and whose lives we can only imagine. We hope that, by making new pieces to furnish the space, we can make the lives of the people who once lived there more relatable, that their needs and hopes were not so different to ours,” Forsyth narrates.
The lack of traces and records of the castle residents and their activities present an opportunity to build a new story in the 700-year-old English manor house. Initiated by Anthony Forsyth with the idea of curating a series of objects that serve as an ode to the history of the structure, the organisers invited designers to experience the space and present their own interpretation of the space through modern design pieces. The chairs, lamps and candelabras designed by the staff and alumni of Northumbria University, will temporarily sit within the castle and enchant visitors with their minimalistic geometries against Aydon’s grandeur.
Empty spaces ignite curiosity and imagination: for past activities and for future possibilities. The Aydon Castle, built at a time that straddled the middle ages and the renaissance, evokes multifarious emotions with its old-fashioned motifs, unique corbels and door lintels and massive architectural presence. The designers, in issuing references from these elements, summon history as a resource for creating new innovative items. With their colourful designs, the presenters at the exhibition aim to subvert the misconception of austerity and barrenness associated with mediaeval structures. Some of the pieces at the exhibition include Anthony Forsyth’s red Plank Chair, British designer and artist Mac Collins’s series of geometric chair designs, Joe Franc’s abstract furniture design, Rickard Whittingham’s stools and lounge chairs, Trevor Duncan’s vessels, and Lewis Power’s candle holders.
“Aydon is such a beautiful place and working on this installation with such a talented group of designers has been hugely gratifying. We hope that visitors will be able to identify resonances and lessons for the things we create today while offering new perspectives on historical practices, materials and typologies,” says Frances McIntosh, Curator at English Heritage.
While Forsyth’s Plank Chair, crafted using the most elemental geometric form and primal materials, hints at the way early furniture was crafted, Marc Collins and furniture designer Joe Franc’s Sentinel Chair evokes the silhouettes of the stone fortifications of the castle. The Plank Chair, assembled using basic joinery techniques, and coloured with pigmented linseed oil, appears like an austere furniture item emerging from the past. Another one of Forsyth’s creations, the steel Torche lamp, mimics the fire torches used by people at night, while also referencing the ironwork at the castle. For his Buttress candelabra, on the other hand, Forsyth picks the architectural configuration of Aydon’s buttresses and abstracts them to form a minimally designed candleholder.
Rickard Whittingham, who is a designer and senior lecturer at Northumbria University, created a series of stools using offcuts, much like the fireplaces of the castle, and Trevor Duncan crafted Aperture vessels, referencing the dashes and lines of light that enter the castle through narrow openings of the stone wall.
‘(Re)imagining Aydon’ will remain on display at Aydon Castle from 9 June to 31 October 2022.