Obituary: Nicola ‘Nikki’ Gordon-Bowe: 1948-2018
There’s been a lot written about Nikki during the weeks since her passing: how she was a brilliant scholar; a pioneer of design studies; a larger than life figure in Irish academia (and beyond). All of these observations are true, but to a vast cohort of students and colleagues she was also an inspiring educator, a mentor, a friend, an ally. She was vivacious, warm, funny, irreverent and always wonderful company — wherever she was, her presence lit up the room.
I first met Nikki as an undergraduate design student in NCAD in the 1980s. At the time, the teaching of Art History to design students was standard practice. But, always interested in and attuned to our individual studio practices, Nikki introduced us to the applied arts, to popular culture, to the everyday and the mass-produced. She nudged us towards subjects that, at the time, were not widely known, or appreciated within academia, but that were more relevant to what would become our professional disciplines. She taught us that images and objects have social and cultural relevance; she encouraged us to work across disciplines; she was a pioneer.
There are many of us today working in design education, research and criticism that owe a large part of our careers to Nikki. Without her encouragement, coupled with her seminal research on Harry Clarke and the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement, we would not have perceived of Design History as a stand alone discipline, let alone thought that we could make careers in this field. In effect she fostered a network of younger scholars with similar interests, with whom she was always happy to share resources and insights.
Nikki had a razor sharp intellect and was insatiably curious; her willingness to constantly learn set her apart from other scholars. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the creative arts and of Dublin, her adopted city. Like a cross between a detective and an academic she was always asking ‘why’, tenaciously pulling at the threads of some seemingly tangential narrative that had to be explored to the point of either inclusion or exclusion in her research or our own. She taught us to look beyond archives and text, to look to social networks for understanding the mechanisms of how decisions were made, to patterns within and across things, always offering some nugget of information that prompted even further interrogation. She taught us to explore, to be thorough, to question.
As my BA (and later MA) thesis supervisor, Nikki championed my research interests at a time when these perplexed others. She took me (and my research) on as a challenge, making it clear that we were on a journey together, learning from each other. She was unbelievably generous with her contacts and research, always acknowledged her sources and gave due credit, even if those were her own students. Indeed, very soon after I graduated from my BA, she recommended me for my first teaching job; I was barely older than the students I was put in charge of. While I was working on my MA Nikki became a mother. Her delight in her daughter Venetia – ‘named after my favourite place in the world: Venice’ – was truly touching. I have many happy memories of lengthy (and rather unorthodox) tutorials at her home where she had Venetia in one hand, was pulling out books for me with the other, while her husband Paddy diligently made us tea or dinner in the background.
The last time I saw Nikki was December 19th 2017. She was in terrific humour and her usual gregarious self. She joined some of her ‘design girls’ for a quick drink, a prelude to what was meant to be a ‘proper catch up’ after Christmas. Amid exclamations of ‘Oh, you clever, clever girls!’ (her effusive response to whatever projects we were currently working on) she gave us huge hugs and the broadest smile. We all promised to meet after Christmas to continue the conversation. This was cruelly never meant to be. Nikki died on Jan 5th 2018. And we miss her terribly.