Judy Attfield

It is with great sadness that we have to announce the death of Judy Attfield, one of the pioneers of contemporary material culture studies who did so much to demonstrate the value of this approach. Judy started her academic career within a discipline called design history that was largely devoted to hagiographic accounts of great designers and the history of great designs, both of which almost entirely ignored the wider context of understanding the form and style of the world of goods most people lived with. Thanks to her textbook Wild Things and a series of exemplary studies she transformed Design History into a study of the intimate relationship between populations and the common form and design of mundane material culture. She thereby switched the discipline from a complete disrespect for people other than named designers, into one that starts from an empathetic respect for ordinary lives. More than anyone else she can therefore be credited with the invention of a new contemporary design history that can command a respected position within social science and the humanities, instead of being relegated to the poor sibling of art history.
I first came to know Judy as the external supervisor of her PhD on a history of British furniture, including the Utility furniture that had dominated the period of the last war. There were many revelations in her work, of which the one I best recall is how through patient scholarship she revealed the autonomy of different parts of the furniture commodity chain. Shops selling hand made furniture might market them as exemplary modern industrial forms, while shops selling industrially made furniture might sell them as olde-worlde hand crafts, depending entirely upon what they thought would appeal to the market. Judy’s courage lay in the very topics she then chose. Other design historians would hope for vicarious respect by tackling famous design images, but Judy devoted her time to key papers on topics such as the tufted carpet, or the empty cocktail cabinet. What her work demonstrated was the possibility of a subtle and different history of well enshrined topics such as gender (she wrote several papers on feminist approaches to design history), class and family, through this grounded sensibility to everyday objects and the ironies and paradox of popular taste and desire. These studies culminated in the book Wild Things, surely the single best introduction and exemplification of this new genre of design history studies, and a major advance in material culture studies more generally. This is a classic `must-read’ book.
It is entirely appropriate that her death followed the publication a week earlier of her edited volume of Home Cultures on the topic of kitsch. The fact that unlike any other work on this topic this starts from a respect for otherwise denigrated materials, not from some postmodern or ironic or clever conceit but from a modest humanism, a desire not to judge or patronise but simply pay attention to and create an understanding of all our material culture however it is otherwise labelled and dismissed. This politics of respect is something that was a leitmotif of all her work and is her legacy for the future.
— Daniel Miller

  • Attfield, J 1994 The tufted carpet in Britain: its rise from the bottom of the pile 1952-1970 Journal of Design History 7: 3
  • Attfield, J and Kirkham, P Eds 1995 A View from the Interior, The Womens Press (including her Inside Pram Town: a case study of Harlow House Interiors 1951-1961)
  • Attifeld, J 1997 Design as a practice of modernity. Journal of Material Culture 3: 2
  • Attfield, J Ed. 1999 Utility Reassessed. Manchester University Press
  • Attfield J, 1999, “Bringing modernity home: open-plan in the British domestic interior”, in At Home: An Anthology of Domestic Space Ed. I Cieraad
  • Attfield J 2000 Wild Things. Berg
  • Attfield, J Ed. 2006 Kitsch. Home Cultures 3: 3

»More work by Judy Attfield


  1. As well as being a brilliant and inspired scholar, Judy Attfield was a dedicated teacher who encouraged students, often from less conventional academic backgrounds, to embrace the study of design and material culture with empirical rigour and theoretical boldness. That her book Wild Things is cited widely by designers and academics alike is testament to her skill in bringing together those who make ‘things’ as well as those who theorise them.
    She will be very sadly missed but remembered with love and affection for her humour and humanity by colleagues and students alike.
    Alison Clarke, Chair Design History and Theory, University Applied Arts Vienna

  2. Judy was a particular inspiration to many women in design history. She was always a great source of support and encouragement. She influenced many of us to study and teach design history as it relates to everyday life.
    Her essay in John Walker’s book is a useful reminder of not only how far the discipline of design history has come but also how far it still has to go. A View from the Interior was also a major milestone in design history and Wild Things completely remade the discipline. Judy gave a brilliant paper on her research on kitsch at the Belfast Politics of Design conference and no doubt this work will also form a lasting legacy. It’s so sad that her life has been cut short when she clearly had so much more to give.

  3. I was a student of Judy’s on the Winchester School of Art MA, my dissertation was on an aspect of Utility Furniture, and not surprisingly I came to know her well during the writing of this piece of work. Judy was always patient and encouraging in her supervision and although I was from a non traditional educational background (having no A levels or BA) she left me in no doubt that I could complete my research. She then saw that I presented my work at confrences and she gave me a chapter in her book Utility Reassessed. This encouragment and support went far beyond getting me through my MA, she saw I had an interest in taking my academic career further so made sure I was in a position to do this, because of her my CV had publications and papers – without her support it simply would not. This enabled me to go on to PhD and to become a lecturer. Without Judy I am not certain this would have happened.
    All good teachers give their students something – Judy not only gave me Design History but the confidence to study and a love of research, she also put me in a position to further my career. Judy could have guarded Utility as hers, plenty of academics would, but she welcomed my interest in her field and ebcouraged me – encouragment that gave me the confidence to succeed at MA and then PhD.
    We never forget a good teacher – and I will never forget Judy, her smile, her warmth and her help – everything she could possibly have been to me at the time, and a friend ever since.
    We will all miss Judy very much, Design History has lost an important figure and we have all lost a good friend.

  4. I knew Judy as the publisher of her path-breaking book, ‘Wild Things’. She was without exception a delight to work with. After ‘Wild Things,’ Judy was to have written a book for us on kitsch. This was something she was very much looking forward to (as was I), but tragically, her illness prevented her from taking it forward. She was, however, able to finish a special issue of our journal ‘Home Cultures’ on the topic just before her death. Her superb introduction clearly represents the distillation of years of considered thought. I was proud to publish this issue – not only because of the content but because I know it meant so very much to Judy.
    I am neither a material culture specialist nor a design historian and so can only take at face value the considerable feedback we have had over the years about her contribution to the field and the influence she has had on students, scholars and the discipline as a whole. Two recent invitations to give keynotes in Scandinavia are testament to this. Again, her illness tragically prevented her from accepting these but I know she was deeply touched by the recognition and characteristically modest about just how very deserving she was.
    The impression Judy made on me was mainly a personal one – that she was lovely to know, intellectually engaged by her work, and very, very brave. I am one of the many people who will greatly miss her.

  5. I knew Judy as a dignified, astute, considerate and modest person and her academic writing had all these fine qualities. She was a great writer and a kind mentor: she offered personal support and encouragement combined with thoughtful, clever criticism. Her work was focused, specific and particular (words I know she liked) but her wide contribution to academic life and especially design history will also be missed. She helped develop design history as a study of culture, a study of the divisions of gender and manifest in material forms without ever denying the potential for change. I feel, quite selfishly, that I have several unfinished conversations with Judy but am grateful for each of my encounters with her as an external examiner (on more than one occasion), as a editor, as reviewer, colleague and friend.

  6. Many of Judy Attfield’s friends, collaborators, former colleagues, and students from the University of Brighton where she spent some time as a doctoral researcher and academic will remember her with respect and affection for the undoubtedly significant role that she played in the development of design history from the 1980s onwards. The telling significance of her ideas became clear at a comparatively early stage of her academic career, whether through her co-editing with Tag Gronberg of Women working in design: a resource book: issues and problems confronted by women in their education and careers in design (1986), her seminal feminist contribution to John A Walker’s Design history and the history of design (1986), or her co-editing with Pat Kirkam of A view from the interior: feminism, women and design (1989, revised 1995). But also signaling similarly innovatory approaches were her Middlesex Polytechnic MA History of Design dissertation on Tufted carpets in the popular English house (1989) and her University of Brighton PhD thesis on The role of design in the relationship between furniture manufacture and its retailing 1939-1965 : with initial reference to the furniture firm of J. Clarke (1992) . The archives of the latter were lodged at the Archive of Art & Design at the V&A through Dr Suzette Worden, her lead supervisor at Brighton and also an important voice in establishing a feminist perspective and the drawing attention to the significance of design in everyday life. Judy’s links with Brighton continued to ebb and flo on both a personal and productive level for the rest of her life, whether through teaching, contributing to publications edited by colleagues at Brighton, inviting former colleagues to contribute to and comment on her own projects, addressing conferences at Brighton such as the 10th anniversary conference of the Design History Society or, more recently, the Collectors and Collecting conference in January 2005 where she delivered an original and stimulating keynote address. On a more personal level, through knowledge and first hand experience of her work and personality over two decades, I was always struck by her dedication to developing the possibilities of design history through a variety of other disciplinary insights as well as her sincerity, open-mindedness and willingness to listen to viewpoints other than her own, whether those of undergraduates or diffident and difficult academics. Nonetheless, she had a highly personable ‘toughness’ and quiet persuasiveness that usually won the day. Her thoughtfulness and sensitivity were always evident on committees such as the Editorial Board of the Journal of Design History where her critical thoroughness were combined with an enduring sense of humanity in the feedback given to unsuccessful submissions. But above all she was a very likeable individual who will be very much missed by those who knew her at Brighton and at Winchester School of Art (Southampton University) where she also made a very real and important contribution. Through many forms of dissemination she influenced many British academics. But, more importantly, her impact on the possibilities of design history globally, though cruelly and prematurely curtailed, will live on for many years to come.

  7. ‘Between Friends’
    I want to add a few words about Judy, someone I loved, admired and respected. When I feel less devastated by her loss, I will write something about her contributions to design history and material culture studies. Today I want to say something more personal. It may be ‘bitty’ but please understand that my grief makes it difficult for me to write.
    I liked Judy the instant I met her in the 1980s and I grew to love, admire and respect her.
    Many students have asked me about how Judy and I met. Although we both wrote doctoral theses on aspects of the furniture industry, we came together through issues of class and went on to collaborate on projects mainly, but not exclusively, related to gender and to objects. Judy attended a History Workshop annual conference (1984, when History Workshop journal bore the tag ‘socialist and feminist history’ and cultivated what Edward Thompson called Socialist Humanism) that I had co-organized with Malcolm Hornsby and Angela Hardy. Judy and I talked of class, ‘race’, feminism and design and I asked her if she would like to join me in editing a book of feminist essays on design and gender. It was as simple as that.
    Some of the richness for us of that collaboration and of the project that became A View from the Interior: Feminism, Women and Design, 1989, can be glimpsed in an article in The Guardian (4 April 1989). Entitled, ‘ A Stiletto through Female Landscape: Between Friends’, it is a highly edited version of a lunchtime chat between us. The Guardian had been doing a series on famous women taking to a friend [I think it was Fay Weldon who talked to her psychiatrist] but the series had not turned out as interesting as hoped and someone thought that women who were not so famous, indeed not famous at all, might prove more interesting! An editor saw some publicity about our forthcoming A View from the Interior: Feminism, Women, and Design and we were paid to spend time together and talk! It was a lovely moment of sisterhood.
    We spoke of the importance of feminist perspectives on design and of how uplifting a project it had been with such committed authors involved. We also spoke of how we came together – me from history, she from design. I said how exotic and interesting I thought she was, coming from Argentina etc, and we touched upon the bonds between us. Judy said she was still amazed that I asked her to join me in a project when I had only known her a few hours. I never regretted that. Indeed, the academic and personal rewards from that anthology, from working with Judy and with all the authors, led me to repeat the process in later years and on more than one occasion. What better way to show respect for colleagues or students than to work with them?
    The day we talked on tape was a lovely day, with sun streaming in through the windows and Judy opened the article by describing just how lovely it was. That is one of the ways I always remember her sitting there in the sunshine. Another memory is of us sitting in her old house with her talking about her daughters, and me talking about mine, but with the conversation all the time popping off in all manner of directions. We would get so heady on ideas – ideas that took us anywhere and everywhere. We would spend hours thinking what was more marginal than something else, and why. All things seemed possible but we never did write on chewing gum wrappers …Judy loved ideas, loved grappling with theory, possibly, just possibly, even more than she loved objects or design. In that sense she was a true intellectual, and one with a fierce integrity.
    I recently moved house and, when unpacking books, I came across my copy of the ‘Between Friends’ article, complete with a photo of the two of us. This came only hours after crying my eyes out when I realized that one of two boxes ‘lost in transit’ during the move had contained a hand printed scarf that Judy she had designed, made and signed – and that I had worn and cherished for twenty years. It felt as if I had lost part of her only to find her again through the article. I thought what fun we could have pondering over the meanings of ‘loss’ and ‘finding’ in relation to these two items and me. A few days later, I learned that all this had happened on the very day she died…and now I am rethinking and re-experiencing loss of a different sort.
    Judy and I also worked together when I wrote for her anthology Utility Reassessed: The role of Ethics in the Practice of Design, 1999, and when we co-wrote an introductory essay for an anthology I edited, The Gendered Object, 1996, in which she wrote about Barbie and Ken. This morning, re-reading that joint essay and my preface, memories came flooding back. I recalled how much Judy liked my discussion of the gendered nature of the dispersal of possessions after death in Northumberland, where I come from, and about my mother’s death, and Juliet Ash’s article on absence and ‘things’ after death. But I am back to my scarf again…and also to Judy’s death. Can I take some comfort in knowing she liked these pieces? She liked them partly, I think, because she was so very sensitive to the subtlest of nuances about things and meanings. And that is what made her writing so very special. I teased my slightly cautious friend about the title Wild Things, 2000 yet her insights into objects and use once again gave us food for thought. What I loved in that, and have always loved about Judy’s work, is that nothing is sacred yet everything is.
    She is not the only feminist and friend I have publicly thanked for being part of my ongoing re-thinking of things and of life. But she was a very important one. And she was a very important person for so many people – colleagues, students, family and friends. Sadly our ‘between friends’ conversations will be no more but I cannot imagine Judy ever not in my head – or ever not being in my heart.

Leave a Reply