It’s rare to find an exhibition which leaves viewers feeling uplifted, sentimental and optimistic. More often than not, artists hotfoot it past nostalgia and the seemingly passé. Manchester-based practitioner Jenny Steele reinvigorates our acquaintance with the past: in this case, with the ‘Seaside Moderne’ and its transatlantic journey between Miami and Morecambe. Bolstered by the Transatlantic Seaside Moderne symposium and publication, which elegantly discloses Steele’s visual and contextual research into mid-war coastal modernist architecture, ‘This Building for Hope’ forges a much-needed bridge in 20th century culture: one that highlights the international dispersal of modernist aesthetics into seaside regions.
Set within The Midland – a 1930s art-deco hotel perched on the North West coast of England – the exhibition tenderly pulls at the venue’s poetic fabric and nautical modernist design. Here, Steele intervenes in locations throughout the building, notably the ground-floor entrance in which pop-up card and resin vases – or fountains – inject a renewed sense of excitement into the space. The pastel horizontal stripes of ‘Fountain – Colony Theatre’ (2017) reference Seaside Moderne’s progressive ethos and exotic palette, while its plant-like printed contents reflect the movement’s desire to enliven forgotten places with new, non-native fauna and flora.
‘Fountain – North Beach’ (2017) mirrors this optimism for new modes of expression through art-deco lines which direct our attention up to a printed-paper fanfare and down to Marion Dorn’s swirling, wave-like rug from 1933. Known for her work with Claridges, Dorn also designed interiors for the Queen Mary ocean-liner. It is uplifting to consider that her vision lent itself to the transatlantic transferral of a ‘luxury’ aesthetic between sea and land, and between the UK and America. Likewise, The Midland’s architect Oliver Hill drew inspiration from nautical imagery – infusing an element of ocean-liner ‘chic’ into his transitional modernist projects.
Although interwoven with history, Steele’s synthetic sculptures exude temporality and ‘non-permanence’, particularly when observed alongside a central, awe-inspiring spiral staircase. While fleeting, these sculptures reference Miami South Beach’s quickly completed facades as well as the transformative power of colour, design and pattern in places like Morecambe, Blackpool, Stonehaven and Cumbria – all of which feature in Steele’s research. Much like the Seaside Moderne during its prime, these pieces promote a sense of resilience and a championing of utopian wellness in the present day.
A series of framed screen-prints reinforce the artist’s liaison with the Seaside Moderne: each piece reiterates motifs found in The Midland and the V&A and RIBA archives. In the rotunda, ‘The Tropical Garden’ (2017) uses vinyl to cast chromatic decor into the night – a nocturnal counterpart to the building’s glass-encrusted exterior which allegedly glimmers on sunnier days. Steele’s brightly-coloured vinyl banners – ‘Not So Nautical a Divide’ (2017) – are also a beacon for the movement. Hung from the promenade’s balustrade, they highlight The Midland’s coastal curvature and contain site-specific cues such as the rich turquoise of the hotel’s seahorse mosaic and the flowing water represented in Eric Gill’s relief mural of Odysseus.
The Midland – a timepiece in itself – whips us away from Morecambe’s run-down high street and into a historic haven of forward-looking prosperity. ‘This Building for Hope’ pinpoints the optimism and hopeful attitudes that drove the Seaside Moderne – an indispensable inter-war outlet – both nationally and internationally. References to buildings worldwide bubble up in bold sculptural, print and drawn interventions, and while more contextual information such as Steele’s photographs from Miami wouldn’t go amiss, the exhibition stimulates a motion for preserving and celebrating a greatly over-looked and diminishing design phenomenon.