Last week, New York Public Library announced they’ve made it possible to download and use high-resolution images of 180,000+ digital images in creative or other ways without the need to seek prior permission. These include enduring pieces of American documentary art like the Farm Security Administration photographs taken during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks.
There are also medieval European illuminated manuscripts; 16th-century hand scrolls illustrating The Tale of Genji; and 19th-century cyanotypes of British algae by botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, the first person to publish a book illustrated with photos.
Perhaps looking through some of these will inspire you to create new designs of your own. If so, you'd be in good company. Since the late nineteenth century, designers have used photographic images of items in museum collections to gain access to new ideas. Curators of design museums published collections of images of items in their collections for the purposes of inspiring contemporary manufacturers.
Arthur Silver, who established the Silver Studio in 1880, was so convinced by the usefulness of museums as sources of inspiration that he published his own selection of photographic images from the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). He called this the Silvern Series and marketed it to manufacturers as a design resource. If you'd like to find out more about how the Silver Studio used photographs in the development of new designs for textiles and wallpaper, why not take a look at this recent blog post from the Museum of Modern Design and Architecture?