Interview with Paul Stirton, Editor-in-Chief of West 86th

Paul Stirton, associate professor, was educated as an art historian at the University of Edinburgh, the Courtauld Institute, and Glasgow University. He taught art and design history in several universities in the United Kingdom before taking up his present position at the Bard Graduate Center in 2009. He has published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and Central European (mostly Hungarian) art and design. His publications include Is Mr. Ruskin Living Too Long? Selected Writings of E. W. Godwin on Victorian Architecture, Design and Culture (with Juliet Kinchin); Britain and Hungary: Contacts in Architecture and Design (vols. 1–3); Renaissance Painting; The Blue Guide to Provence; and numerous exhibition catalogues and articles. A founding member of the Design History Society, he has also curated numerous exhibitions.

What is West 86th?

Well, a lot is explained by the subtitle: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. In many respects, West 86th is continuing what Studies in the Decorative Arts accomplished. It is a scholarly journal that aims to place the study of the decorative arts at the center of serious academic discourse, above all in the fields of history and material culture. But it also does a lot of new things that were not attempted in the previous journal, including translations of primary sources, and expanded reviews to cover exhibitions and new media. We hope that the reviews will be slightly more polemical, and more engaged in contemporary debate. Our intention is to examine not only the details of new scholarship, but also to explore how people are thinking about the bigger picture; surveying whole areas of scholarship - say, ‘mid-century modernism’ or ‘Art Nouveau’ about which there are numerous books. The reviews in West 86th do more than simply score points or provide a shorthand report on an author’s work. Books and exhibitions are analyzed and evaluated by scholars with expertise in the relevant fields, but they are also an engagement with deeper problems of meaning and feeling, with which even the casual reader should be able to connect. West 86th will be open to new approaches and include diverse topics, such as fashion, film, and graphic design, alongside the more mainstream decorative arts. We have no narrow manifesto and no methodological axe to grind.

How did it evolve?

I was a BGC visiting professor in 2008/09 when I was asked take on this project. I was delighted because I feel the BGC should be actively involved in publishing and promoting new scholarship in this field.

Who is involved?

The primary editorial team is our managing editor, Dan Lee, and myself, but we rely on assistance from other members of BGC faculty and staff. Dan was previously with Harvard and Yale University Presses, and he is particularly interested in digital and on-line publishing. This is very useful for us because West 86th will not only be available in print and digitally through JSTOR, but we will also be operating a website ( which will include a range of digital projects, debates, and related material that will expand upon the articles and, increasingly become a free-standing forum for new scholarship. Additionally, Laura Grey, our art director, is handling the design and layout of both the print and on-line versions. I think you will be impressed by the strong, very clean and modern, look of West 86th.

The journal is being published by the University of Chicago Press, who will handle the printing, subscription fulfillment, marketing and distribution, among other vital areas. It’s gratifying for us to be working with such an established and experienced journal publisher, which ensures that we will be able to get our scholarship out to the widest possible audience.

What’s in the first issue?

In our inaugural issue Nick Pearce writes about the first exhibition in China to attempt a survey of Chinese fine and decorative arts (mostly ceramics) that took place in 1908, and which set the stage for serious study into the history of Chinese art in the West. Lourdes Font’s article begins with the question “What is left say about Christian Dior?”, and goes on to explore the couturier’s early work before the ‘New Look’. Finally, Pat Kirkham writes on the collaboration between the graphic designer Saul Bass and the film director Alfred Hitchcock, addressing some controversial questions about the authorship of the famous shower scene in Psycho. Pat is finishing a biography of Saul Bass and this material came to light from interviews she conducted with Bass. We also have a translation of writings by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the Austrian architect-designer who was responsible for the famous 1926 ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’.

How often will it be published?

Initially, we’re planning two editions a year, in Spring and Fall. Our first issue this year will be slightly earlier; we’re launching February 9 to coincide with the CAA conference here in New York. By 2014, we hope to be a quarterly.

An extended video interview with Dr. Stirton is available at /research/publications/west86th.html