Meetings: Zara Arshad
Zara Arshad is the Curatorial Research Assistant in the Design, Architecture and Digital department at the V&A. With a background in graphic design, and having lived in Indonesia, Syria and Beijing before returning to London, her current research focuses on twentieth and twenty first-century design from East Asia, particularly China. We caught up with her to ask her about her journey in design, and what she’s into right now.
Tell us a little about what you do
I currently work as a research assistant in the Design, Architecture and Digital department of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). I am part of a curatorial team working on a major exhibition scheduled to open early next year. Aside from this, I am also a Trustee of the Design History Society, taking on the role of Communications Officer for the organisation, and I manage a blog called Design China, too.
How did you get interested in design?
It’s difficult to pinpoint how my interest in design developed; I was always drawing as a child, and subsequently took Art as a subject for both (I)GCSE and IB (International Baccalaureate). From there, I enrolled on the BA (Hons) Design course at Goldsmiths University, and I have worked in the design field ever since.
How do you think your background affects your perspective of design?
My design research adopts a transnational or global approach, which, in part, is influenced by my upbringing (I am of South Asian heritage, born and raised in the UK, but also a former resident of Indonesia, Syria and China). Much of my work is concerned with networks, both tangible and intangible, and perhaps most notably, context - living and working in China especially highlighted the importance of considering context in my research and practice.
What have you discovered recently? At work or in life?
A re-discovery; that it is important to slow down once in a while.
Which other women should we look out for in design and museums?
I am fortunate enough to work with many amazing individuals, including Johanna Agerman Ross, V&A Curator of 20th Century Furniture & Product Design, and founder of Disegno (design magazine); Mariana Pestana, a curator in my department and co-founder of The Decorators; Corinna Gardner, Acting Keeper of our department; Catherine Ince, V&A senior curator, who was also responsible for “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” exhibition; and Rosalie Kim, V&A Samsung Curator of Korean Art. They are all people to look out for in their respective fields.
Best place you've travelled to so far this year?
I visited Lisbon for the first time earlier this year, and I really enjoyed my time there. Though it was a short trip, I spent nearly an entire day at the Gulbenkian, a gorgeous brutalist building surrounded by gardens (very similar to London’s Barbican). Of course, I also visited MAAT (the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) to see the new building designed by Amanda Levete Architects (the same architects behind the V&A’s new Exhibition Road courtyard entrance), as well as the space’s inaugural exhibition “Utopia/Dystopia”. The city has a lot to offer, and I definitely recommend it.
What are you reading/watching/listening to?
It took me a while to get into them, but I’m really into podcasts right now. Currently on the list: the Museum of Lost Objects (typically), Revisionist History, Radiolab, and No Such Thing as a Fish (for a lighter mood). I’m not watching much at the moment, but I am presently re-reading Iraq + 100, a collection of ten short stories composed by Iraqi writers. Prior to this, I was reading Guapa by Saleem Hadad, and The Return by Hisham Matar. The Open Door sounds intriguing - perhaps I will move on to this next.
Any current obsessions?
Beyond my research - I have a strange obsession with decorated manhole covers, especially those from Japan and Taiwan. I’ve been photo-documenting interesting examples - I need to do something with this material.
What are you next looking forward to?
I have a trip to East Asia (South Korea and Japan) coming up that I’m really looking forward to. I’m still planning my day-to-day activities, but there will be a lot to do: in addition to visiting graphic designers in their studios, I will be attending the Cheongju Craft Biennale as an International Advisor, the Gwangju Design Biennale, Typojanchi 2017 (a typography biennale), and the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. I’m hoping to fit some shopping in between all of this, too...
Any words of wisdom to pass on?
Do you have any for me?