The Design Center
Here’s a hidden gem in Philadelphia: The Textile and Costume Collection housed at The Design Center on Philadelphia University’s campus.
I went to Philadelphia University for graduate school (my last semester a merger took place, so the school is now re-named Jefferson — but to me it will always be Philau), and graduated with a Master of Science in Textile Design. I received a graduate scholarship that allowed me to attend the school for free, and placed me in a position at The Design Center.
The collection was once documented to house over 200,000 pieces — textiles, swatches, costumes, objects, books and ephemera, including a collection of coptic textiles and costumes from the 1700’s. As inventory started to take place that number was brought into question, but it’s safe to say The Design Center houses a lot of interesting historical pieces.
I spent a little over 2.5 years working within the collection, starting projects and setting goals along the way that allowed the center to flourish. It’s been exciting to see the current Curator, Jade Papa, accomplish goals that at one time seemed impossible (Jade is very knowledgeable and you should follow along with her posts to instagram @thedesigncenter). It was a labor of love for me — when I arrived the collection was carpeted, the ceiling had water damage and the center lacked an up-to-date or useful inventorying system. Most of the archival boxes were in rough shape and the paper separating the textiles and costumes hadn’t been changed in many years. With my previous conservation experience, I knew that some big changes had to be made in order to protect the integrity of the collection. I pleaded my case to the school administration and eventually received approval to start the rehab process.
I started by moving every single box, textile, costume, book, tool and item out of collection storage and renewed an organizational system. With the help of the curator at the time, I organized items by type, time period and geographical location. Meanwhile, the storage areas were undergoing renovations as the carpets were ripped up (unveiling beautiful hardwood floors underneath), the ceilings repaired and new shelving units were installed. After construction was done all of the archival boxes were moved back inside utilizing a new system, and the slow process of archiving began.
I methodically started to open every box, changing out the old yellowed archival tissue with new (many of the boxes themselves were also replaced at this stage) and began documenting an up-to-date inventory. We used excel (my worst enemy), although I’ve since heard the collection has implemented museum standard archiving software — a huge deal considering where it all started.
This was an ongoing process that at times I had help with (thank you Carolyn, Bella and Sarah), but there were many days I was alone conserving and inventorying objects albeit the sounds of Patti Smith and the ghost of Goldie Paley (The Design Center was once the home of Philadelphia socialite Goldie Paley, who died in the house and most definitely never left). Along with archiving, I conserved objects for exhibition loans, toured students and professionals, helped with exhibition planning and installation, wrote grants and began to build an online presence with articles such as Textile Collection Resources for Designers and The Design Center at Philadelphia University.
It was bittersweet when it was time to leave, as I had poured so much of myself into the work I was doing — but I’ve always felt grateful I had access to all those wonderful textiles for so many years, and I take joy in the fact I helped preserve them for future students and professionals to use and cherish.
watch a tour of the collection I made when I visited this past month > >
the Design Center is located at 4200 Henry Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19144. The collection is open to students and industry professionals during the week by appointment only. For more information how to make an appointment please see this helpful guide.
the Textile and Costume Collection is available for browsing and research online using these online resources.