Loud and Soft

Contrasting Designs in Pianos by Maria Simoes Coelho

This article is part of  the publication ‘Sooner, or Later’. [1]

Design by Maria Simones Coelho

The piano is one of the most visually recognisable musical instruments in the world and this essay intended to look at it as a designed object. Thus, I considered the evolution of the piano not only through the physical changes of the musical instrument itself – the shape and decorations – but also the effects of cultural and societal reflections on these changes. The essay investigated the sexual politics of piano playing with mainly male performers in a public setting and the view of the “perfect” female education through piano lessons in the domestic sphere. This meant that young girls were taught the piano whether they were inclined to do so or not, because it was viewed as desirable for a woman to able to entertain her future family. In this respect I also looked into conflicting medical theories that either viewed piano playing as beneficial to mental well-being or as an unnecessary and dangerous stimulant for fragile minds.

The piano as a designed object can attract interpretations of materiality, feminist theory, performance history, psychiatry and social history. I believe that my essay conveys the idea of the piano as an object with multiple interpretations. It’s material and stylistic evolution is not only linked to the evolution of the musical instrument and the way in which it is played, but also to developments within the spaces for which they are manufactured. The people that were intended to play them and affordability – as it became an ubiquitous piece of furniture in peoples homes particularly in the nineteenth century– also played an important part in this shift.

Sooner, or later is a collection of visual essays by History of Design MA students at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art. The submissions reflect and refract the research undertaken for an historiographical essay in spring 2016. This project was developed in order to push the boundaries of the essay format through collaboration with other schools at the RCA. The essay brief invited students to write a critical historio­graphy of design change in a category of objects or a design process. The brief tested the ability to: identify patterns of historical change; evaluate different explanations for change; and analyse the social, cultural, gendered, ideological and technological reasons for design change. Sooner, or later is an unbound, risograph-printed publication in burgundy and fluorescent pink. Contributors were given 0.25 square metres, or two sides of A3, with which to cultivate and interrogate their historio­graphical research. Most of the visual essays are the result of collabo­rations with other students at the Royal College of Art.

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