Sarah Ria Mursal

Sarah Mursal is a Film Designer, lecturer and mother. The MA has developed an interest in hidden design histories of women and how motifs and styles have influenced and embedded in the foundation of British culture.

Research Project

British Caribbean Interiors in Late 1960s Through the Voices of Women 

Hidden histories of women in London, how identity informs design values.

Material Culture, Modern, Europe, Americas (Caribbean), Media, Interior Space, Oral Histories, Decolonisation, Untold / Marginal Narratives, Lived Experiences, Gender Studies, Homogenisation of Race

Photograph, colour, Altie and Juris from St. Vincent in Edmonton home, c.1970. Private collection of Dawn Alexander-Jospeh. In the image we see Cole and Sons 'Trellis' wallpaper, glass ornaments in cabinet, 'bird of paradise' wallpaper and a red 'pleather' lounge chair.

While investigating black British design there appear to be hidden narratives of women. This started as an interest in Althea McNish and the homogenization of Black culture in British history. Design histories are hidden but emerging about the black culture within British History and remain to be studied. With a post-colonial lens that focuses on the impact of the empire and suggests a different history, I am interested in exploring the evidence proving that migrant culture’s contribution to British design is present but hidden.

From styles to design choices, these were not just migrants bringing their own cultures but assimilating to British tastes and reinventing new ideas and aesthetics through material culture. This study uses Oral histories and photographic evidence of five women from the Caribbean London community to understand the missing voices from history and design aesthetics.
The point of view of women challenges different narratives and perspectives. Women worked in the city, had families, and owned their properties. Some homes in suburban London are decorated with pristine wallpaper and quality furniture.

These islanders had different styles and cultural signifiers. However, there is a limited representation of the individual islands and often are associated with vibrant colours and ‘tropicalisation’ of Caribbean culture. This investigation proves otherwise and highlights the necessary study of migrant culture, the impact of consumerism and a local economy, and the interwoven culture in British design.

Colour Photo Dorothy at home c1970 with change of wallpaper, Private collection of Shand. Wood and leather/naugahyde chair with Green cushions. Wallpaper is greys, yellows and white. Similar design to that of Lucienne Day, and white framed images.

Photograph, Altie at home; on brown fabric sofa with yellow cushions and crochet antimacassar. Photo appears to be taken by a child because of the height. Wallpaper appears light in colour and embossed. c. 1968.

In Addition
In this study the theoretical approach of community and oral history engaged in accessing information that has not yet been heard. It is fundamental that within this culture that women and community are also for the survival of this culture, along with its stories. The historical shift meant that people were coming together from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. These communities found a space in a country that did not regard them as its own, however ‘..they are here as we were there’.1 It is part of history that shows that the indecency of human regard and colonialism is today's capitalism. However, this material culture is evidence of a British culture that was created by communities in the UK. Their identity was brought from the Caribbean, but they had other narratives in which this identity conflicted with the ‘mother country’.2 This study suggests the further examination of the political, social and cultural aspects of this and many more migrant communities who have lived in the UK for generations. They should be acknowledged as part of the decolonising initiative in museums and show that boundaries only exist as part of the institution, that requires different narratives to be told.

This study looks at issues of decolonising, women, race, culture, stylisation, tropicalisation, hybridity and transglobal themes and design. In the ever-evolving material culture, these themes matter more than ever and at this key moment allows us to finally look closely at the impact of empire, power and the patriarchy in our storytelling. This study has needed to investigate in a macro way to show the various influences on the material culture of the women of colour in the case studies, because it is their points of view which are valuable.

As Aurora Levins Morales identifies in ‘The Historian as Curandera’, all historians have points of view. All of us use some process of selection through which we choose which stories we consider important and interesting. We construct history from a specific perspective, with a particular worldview. Storytelling is not neutral. Curandera historians make this explicit, openly naming our partisanship, our intent to influence how people think.3 This is just the start of a journey and, while this has uncovered some positive stories, much work still needs to be done to uncover more. Prompted by this dissertation, I am hoping to make a documentary film that can reach a wider audience and unearth some of the lost narratives that history left behind. In the words of Althea McNish ‘Women should always have the opportunity of showing themselves, their talents and their achievements ..’4

Clive Edwards, Turning Houses into Homes: A History of the Retailing and Consumption of Domestic Furnishings (London: Routledge, 2017).

2 Ian Sanjay Patel, We Were Here Because You Were There Immigration and the End of Empire (verso, 2021).

3 Aurora Levins Morales, ‘The Historian as Curandera’, JSRI Working Paper #40, The Julian Samora Research Institute (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, 1997).

4 Althea McNish , speaking at Women's international Art Exhibition, Jamaica, Oct 1975.

Sarah’s Symposium Presentation ︎︎︎

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA