Understanding Our World Through Objects — Johanna Agerman Ross

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Hosted, Narrated, & Text by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Chris Tang

Hosted, Narrated, & Text by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Chris Tang

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

The value of an object is different for everyone. If you’re practical above all else, an object’s function, efficiency, and affordability are probably the most important aspects. If you’re drawn to beautiful things, the way an object looks and fits within an environment are more appealing. If you’re curious how the puzzle pieces of geography, politics, and history fit together, you might find an object’s inspiration, fabrication, and evolution of the most interest. Someone who is a combination of all of the above plus interested in telling the stories of objects to better enable society is Johanna Agerman Ross.

Charis Poon: Could you start by telling me your name and what you do?

Johanna Agerman Ross: My name is Johanna Agerman Ross and I am the founder of Disegno magazine and I’m also Curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Furniture and Product Design at the V&A in London.

Johanna Agerman Ross knew early on in her life that she was interested, more than others, in the way things look, how they are made, how they function, and how those things make her feel. This interest manifested itself in her decisions on what to wear, how to design her room, those visual elements of personal life that are up to individual discretion. As she grew older and had to consider what to make of her life, she realized that she could combine her interest in the design of objects with her interest in writing to create an occupation for herself.

Johanna: And then when I realized that you can, you can, make a living as a writer and you connect it to areas of expertise or interests that you have, that’s an even better way of organizing your life, isn’t it. Because if you know that you like to write and you know the area you like to write in, you can sort of hone in much more closely on what you want to do and you can become… you can own your little area of interest. It took me a while until my early 20s to understand that that was a possibility.

From the realization of that possibility Agerman Ross began working in publishing. It was a good combination of her strengths and her desire to be involved with design, but it wasn’t exactly what she’d imagined for herself as a young person. Agerman Ross studied Fashion Promotion at the London College of Fashion and after that, History of Design at the V&A/RCA.

Johanna: I always remember when I graduated from my degree I thought I would immediately work in a gallery or museum, for example, and then that wasn’t possible because those jobs weren’t there for me at the time. And then I remember I had to just sort of find another living and that was then through writing because that was something I knew how to do. I was able to kind of rationalize with myself and say, “Well, right now I can’t do exactly what I saw myself doing at this point in time, but eventually I’ll get there because I have my interest.” They eventually will come together but you can’t be too harsh on yourself, making them happen immediately.

The more I develop within my education or my career I understand that it’s more and more about how you connect with other people around the topics that are interesting to you. How do you capture people’s attention and imagination, how do you make them feel about these things in the way you do.

In 2011, after a period of time working for other people, she took another, larger, step towards aligning her interests, her skills, and her occupation by founding the quarterly design journal Disegno. Disegno fulfilled Agerman Ross’ desire to speak to the people who design and to write about design. The publication also stemmed from her growing feeling that she had something important to say about design’s role in the world and that she could contribute meaningfully on a larger scale by speaking to a bigger audience.

Johanna: In that early stage I think it’s much more personally connected. You want to do something because you’re interested in it and you maybe care less about how it’s received outside of that because you’re still learning and you’re still growing. And I think the more I develop within my education or my career I understand that it’s more and more about how you connect with other people around the topics that are interesting to you. How do you capture people’s attention and imagination, how do you make them feel about these things in the way you do. How do you make someone who reads Disegno understand that the issues we talk about affect them as well, it’s not just a kind of hobby or something that you do on the side, but the way that the world is designed, the way that we consider the world in terms of its planning and structure, you know, greatly influences all aspects of life.

What began as a personal interest changed into a professional mission. Agerman Ross started Disegno because she believed the publication could help people understand design’s wider importance—that it is not about individual designers to be idolized or beautiful objects to be purchased—it is important because design affects and enables society.

Johanna: It’s interesting because Disegno, when I started it in 2011, was always supposed to be an in-depth look at design, the design profession, the design industry, and also be a critical look at the design industry. So you could have a much more in-depth conversation, a more critical conversation—not being critical but a much more engaged conversation—around design in general whether that was how something was made or how something reached the market or how something was then consumed. And we were always, and are still very much, committed to that kind of long form writing and where we really go in sort of quest of a specific topic and try and understand it to our fullest capacity by the time we publish it.

These in-depth, critical conversations are intended for ordinary readers and not just industry insiders. For example, in the beginning the magazine was extensively footnoted to explain what a design movement such as the Bauhaus was or who a specific designer is. These footnotes were meant to make material that might appear dense and exclusive, accessible and inclusive. However, readers found the footnotes more annoying than helpful. Now, Agerman Ross sees very clearly the immense challenge of reaching outside of a niche audience.

Johanna: I think that I realized that, as you said, if I wanted to kind of reach that broader audience probably a specific design journal is not the only place one can do that, but you do need to look outside of that. And I think the museum is a wonderful platform for it.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is free admission, besides special exhibitions. From April to July 2015, the V&A held an exhibition called “All of This Belongs to You” with those words spelled out over the entrance archway. The show, revolving around that theme, questioned the institution’s responsibility to the public, what opportunities it offered and what obligations it had. That sentiment, “All of This Belongs to You”, according to Agerman Ross is good to remember because the V&A acts as the custodian of items that belong to everyone and are for all people to enjoy, interact with, and feel public ownership over.

Johanna: Because in the end I think it is the museum’s role to invite people in and welcome them in to using the museum. Just to go and see the collections it’s free. I think that making sure that people know that and sort of championing that and making sure that people feel comfortable and welcomed and can come in and kind of make the most of that is the role of the museum professional or, you know, the people there in the museum or the security guard on the door or the person on the visitor reception desk or the curator just walking through the museum with an object so it’s all in our interactions with the public in that way. For me as a curator it’s also exciting to see that it’s not always just about the object you put on show or the story you tell about that object when it’s on display but it is also how you invite people in to have a discussion around it or have a sketch around it.

You have to recognize as a human being and as a person that you grow and you change and you have to allow for that room for change and growth.

In mid-2016 Agerman Ross’ vision of her future, her interests and capabilities, and opportunity snapped into agreement. What she told herself as a young person, that eventually she would get where she wanted to be, manifested itself in reality when the V&A offered her a full-time position as curator of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Furniture and Product Design. That offer, even while it was one she’d been waiting for, required serious contemplation.

Johanna: I think that you have to recognize as a human being and as a person that you grow and you change and you have to allow for that room for change and growth. And especially for me, running a magazine which I own, which I edited, where I managed all the staff, where I did literally most of the things that make sure that the business is the business. You don’t have the same possibility to take a step back and really look at what do you want to do on a more personal level—what’s good for me, what’s good for me in terms of my personal, intellectual development. And so I think for me this was more a moment where I was in a situation where the opportunity that came up to start working with the collection of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Furniture and Product Design at the V&A and knowing that maybe that possibility wouldn’t be there again for quite a lot of years and it was a question whether is this the time to do it. Ultimately I think I felt doubt in that it maybe wasn’t. I wasn’t ready with Disegno in any way but at the same time if I didn’t do it at that point I think I would still be waiting to this day to have that same possibility.

Openings for curatorial positions in collections care, the type of job that Agerman Ross now has, are rare. This role consists of interacting mainly with objects: evaluating the condition of items, determining how objects should be displayed, writing object labels, or researching longer texts for specific purposes. While the public perception of a curator is the person who organizes exhibits at museums and galleries, Agerman Ross’ job revolves mainly around making sure that everything in the institution’s collection is taken care of and looked after. She sees whether the things within her purview need fixing, whether objects have been properly photographed, catalogued, and written about, whether items fit within upcoming shows, and whether new items ought to be acquired.

This type of work was one of the key attractions to Agerman Ross about the job she took: being able to deal hands-on with design going into great depth with individual, physical objects. The overarching appeal of the position was that this opportunity fit with her long-term goals.

Johanna: In my particular case I hadn’t reached where I thought I wanted to reach. And if I looked at my life ahead ten, fifteen years there were many more things I wanted to do and this was a good opportunity to do it. And sometimes you have to do these slightly strange things where maybe you aren’t always 100 percent where you think you want to be at the time. You kind of adjust yourself to it.

Sometimes you have to do these slightly strange things where maybe you aren’t always 100 percent where you think you want to be at the time. You kind of adjust yourself to it.

There were numerous nitty-gritty practicalities, as there often are, to sort out between deciding to make a change and the change actually happening. Over the course of six months Agerman Ross set up structures for Disegno’s operations, found people to take on the vital responsibilities of the publication, and made a role for herself as Director at Disegno that gave her some say with regards to finances, hiring, and vision. Luckily, in the five years since she started the publication to the moment she was moving on to try something new, Agerman Ross had assembled a passionate team prepared to take up the mantle of the journal’s guiding principles.

Johanna: Disegno as an entity was kind of strong enough in itself to have another viewpoint in terms of another editor, another kind of editorial team working with it, because Disegno is what it is and it has a kind of guiding principle and I think that it has people that are keen to work with that guiding principle to create their version of it. And I’m very lucky that I have a fantastic team at Disegno—Oli Stratford who’s the Editor-in-Chief and Kristina Rapacki, the deputy editor, and Chris Jones who’s the publisher and commercial director. They were the people who kind of immediately stepped to when I stepped down and it’s been working really wonderfully and it’s really nice to see that part grow.

Johanna: But of course you still have a very kind of personal emotional attachment to it and I think that will never, probably never, go away. But I can deal with it in a much better way now than in the beginning. It’s hard because you constantly feel maybe a little bit guilty or bad for having stepped away. At the same time, you’re trying to also see, actually, it’s also a positive thing both for me and for the people that work with the magazine, because often what happens when you’re in a small business the person who’s like your deputy or whatever, you know, where are they going to go? They can’t surpass you. But by me stepping to the side there was, again, a kind of moment for growth for everyone within the magazine which I think was positive for all of them. So, you know, I think it worked out.

Two years have passed since Agerman Ross switched up her routine, going from interacting with many people everyday and meeting deadlines by overseeing moving parts to interacting with objects hands-on and engaging in indefinitely expansive research. Since then, the wisdom of the choice she made has clarified.

Charis: Was there ever any temptation in the last two years where you thought maybe I can reverse the whole thing or was it always, like, just pressing onwards?

Johanna: No, I think once you make these decisions you can’t reverse them. You know, you’ve made it. Once you make the decision to leave then I think that you also make that decision thinking that you have something you want to achieve or reach within your new capacity. And I think that that I am still working on, because unlike managing your own business and specifically your own magazine where you, as I mentioned before, have quarterly deadlines and a very clear product at the end of every quarter that you can show to the world, working in a museum is less defined in terms of those deadlines that come up regularly. So, in terms of the work that I’m doing for the museum there’s so much more to do. I totally empathize with colleagues that have been there for 40 years because it somehow seems that your work is never quite done. So I think that once you kind of are hooked into it, it’s very difficult to say, “Oh no, I’m just going to extract myself from that now.” So, no, I have definitely not been tempted to do that. But at the same time you have to, I think, be kind to yourself to also say this is a new experience. You were somewhere where you made ultimately all of the decisions. And now you’re somewhere where you’re a voice of many hundreds. And of course that’s gonna be a drastically different experience. And for your own kind of mind that’s an interesting experiment. It’s sometimes also frustrating but ultimately I think that it makes you grow as a person and it’s an experience that I would never have not wanted to have. So from that point of view I think that’s very positive. But I think you need to have quite an open mind and to be able to deal with what’s thrown at you in those scenarios.

But at the same time you have to, I think, be kind to yourself to also say this is a new experience. You were somewhere where you made ultimately all of the decisions. And now you’re somewhere where you’re a voice of many hundreds. And of course that’s gonna be a drastically different experience.

Learning is central to her when considering how to use her time. She has thought about doing an internship at a factory that produces thousands of objects everyday to understand manufacturing better. Or in a design studio she could see the way client commissions are processed by a team of designers. She’s taking an evening class in European political history to supplement her research at the V&A.

Johanna: When you recognize that you’re not even sort of halfway through your career and you kind of want to see that you can continue growing and continue developing I think those things also become important aspects of it. You know that you haven’t reached the end of your educational path yet. You might have graduated but, you know, work is about continuously learning and developing and I think that there comes a time when you, with wherever you are, you kind of often find yourself thinking oh, how much more can I do of this or what can I add into it to make it different to grow and develop into another direction.

All of this to say, Johanna Agerman Ross is a person actively in search of all the context, possibilities, and narratives surrounding designed objects. She does the deep-diving work of looking at a singular thing and telling stories about how it was imagined, the informed design decisions involved, its place in our global history, and its impact on our lives now.

With the abundance of things in existence, what compels her to investigate a specific object?

Johanna: I think that sometimes it can be really really basic things like how it’s made or that it’s a particularly popular design that’s been made into many many copies and people all over the world are using it and understanding what is it about that specific thing that makes it so successful in what it does. And that’s a more traditional design point of view, but, for me, I think it’s ultimately, like, when I look back at my education within history of design but also my decision to go into working in the museum and to set up the magazine is I like the stories that objects tell and I like the way objects open up an understanding of our world that sometimes is difficult to do in other ways.

A bit before Agerman Ross started at the V&A, in 2014 the institution started a new process called Rapid Response Collecting where they apply journalistic strategies to the acquisition of things for the collection. The first example of Rapid Response Collecting in action was the decision to acquire a pair of trousers manufactured by Primark in 2013 similar to those manufactured at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in April of that year. The Rana Plaza building had been extensively illegally altered and when it collapsed 1133 workers died. The V&A’s decision to acquire and display these trousers was to participate in and encourage more of the global discussion occurring around consumption and how lives are affected by consumer actions. The Rapid Response Collecting methodology takes the view of the V&A as a place for important, relevant conversations that are currently unfolding.

Johanna: There’s so many ways that you can look at one object that’s so intriguing and I think objects are really good ways in for those multiple stories. And I think that that’s ultimately… I have always been excited by objects and design and I think that I understand that now when I connect that with my other interest in writing and research, I understand that the two go very well together. You can always unravel so many things through just one object.

In a similar way, Agerman Ross examined the essential ingredients of her life—an interest in design, the enjoyment of writing, a desire for continual education, and the mission of speaking to the regular public—and made different things from them. Her story has contained multiple pathways and likely contains more to come. A vocation doesn’t have just one manifestation as an object does not tell just one story.

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