TVAD/Design History Society Symposium It's Personal: Subjectivity in Design History
Thursday May 9th, 2013 TVAD Research Group, School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire. AA191/A161 Lindop Building, College Lane Campus, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AB.
Convened by Dr Grace Lees-Maffei, University of Hertfordshire and Dr Kjetil Fallan, University of Oslo
Attendance is free, but delegates must register in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information: Name; Affiliation/Institution/Role; Email address; Any special dietary requirements; Any special access requirements.
Postmodern theory might have finally killed off the utopian ideal of history as an objective science, but it has arguably left a vacuum, with no comprehensive debate on the role of subjectivity and its potential challenges and benefits. As scholars we are trained to put aside subjective responses in our analyses, and yet personal interests, values and experiences continue to inform the work of design historians, from our choice of subject matter and theoretical frameworks to our methodological approaches and conclusions. Our aim is to contribute an examination of this under-developed topic relevant to the field of design history and beyond.
12.30 pm: Lunch, Lindop foyer
1.10 pm: Introduction, Grace Lees-Maffei & Kjetal Fallan
1.20 pm: Dr Jo Turney (Bath Spa University) ‘It’s all about me: little voices, big stories (or vice versa)’
2 pm: Kerry William Purcell (University of Hertfordshire) ‘“The knots on the underside of the carpet”: Design history, the historian, and the shadow of the object’
2.40 pm: Professor Regina L. Blaszczyk (University of Leeds) ‘Adventures of an Archives Hound: Learning How Colour Became a Tool for American Designers’
3.20 pm: Tea, Lindop foyer
3.50 pm: Paul Hazell (University of Worcester) ‘The enthusiast’s eye: the dilettante of design history?’
4.20 pm: Nicholas Oddy (Glasgow School of Art, Scotland) ‘An Uneasy Alliance: Collectors’ items and history’
5 pm: Dr Pauline Garvey (National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Ireland) ‘Are you the person who has the lamp on in the middle of the night?!’ The sensuous quality of domestic things’
5.40 pm: Professor Jonathan Morris (University of Hertfordshire), response, followed by group discussion
6 pm: Wine, Lindop foyer
6.30 pm: Close.
Dr Jo Turney (Bath Spa University) ‘It’s all about me: little voices, big stories (or vice versa)’
Two people are sitting on a bench talking. Person A: “me, me, me, me. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me”. Person B: “I”. Person A: (Yawns)
Before I start this abstract, let’s get one thing clear: it’s all about Me. My research, My methodology, My interpretation, My writing. Yup. Me. So I think it will be great and therefore it stands to reason you will too. Right?
As the postmodern climate begins to wane and the full force of post-structuralism deconstructs information and ideas into image led sound-bites available at the touch of a key-pad or swipe of a stylus, access to knowledge has never been so accessible or literally at ones fingertips. Within this seeming information society, knowledge is power, so we should be all extremely knowledgeable – there is no excuse. One click and we know. Combine this with the prevalent climate of Neoliberalism that celebrates and perpetuates self-centredness whilst promoting personal, emotional expression through fractured narrative (social media) and with one click, we tell. In Catchphrase parlance ‘we say what we see’ and what we see is what we know.
The ubiquity of self-expression in the contemporary West makes talk not only noisy, but cheap. Words without consequences, thought, discussion or depth suggests that we may as well, as my Mother would say, ‘talk to the wall’; we speak without waiting for a reply or critique. It is indeed, all about ‘me’.
As a design historian who uses ethnographic techniques, including oral history within my research practice, I confess that I have contributed to allowing the subjective voice to be heard.I listen while others talk. Indeed, postmodern theory has enabled purely subjective views to have value in an academic context, a position that has enabled me to discuss mundane objects and practices; these have kept me in work for the past 15 years. In this paper I will consider the value of the small voice to tell big stories, how testimony challenges the canon and how such a democracy of voices has the potential to offer alternative ways of seeing and being. From such a celebratory and rather utopian perspective the paper will discuss the value of the voice within the research community and the ways in which one can matter amidst the chatter.
Are you still reading? I hope so – it’s all about me, don’t you know? I am important. Hear my voice.
Kerry William Purcell (University of Hertfordshire) “The knots on the underside of the carpet”: Design history, the historian, and the shadow of the object
Why are we drawn to the works of particular designers? What calls us back to the same objects again and again? Often the impetus behind our fascinations does not come from the officially sanctified canons of design history, but from the ephemeral, the forgotten objects that often hold no value as icons of design. In the world of graphic design, this could be a bus ticket containing a hastily scribbled message on it, which sits in a keepsake box for twenty years, and becomes imbued with a Proustian quality of a lost love; or the typeface used for a house number that recalls a point in our past that came to possess a deep significance. In such encounters, the question arises as to how have our own unconscious fascinations and obsessions shaped the way we approach the objects of design history today? Is there a need to develop a form of self-reflective design criticism that locates the reasons for our passionate preoccupations at the very heart of our analysis of the objects of design? This paper will seek to trace the outlines of such an approach, one that offers a necessary foothold on the elusiveness of both seeing and understanding the subject of design history and our place in it as practicing historians. That is, a historical practice which sees design history as emerging from living social relations, both past and present, and not as a reified symptom of academic networks or professional relationships.
Admittedly, to engage in such a practice is to step on a path laden with pitfalls and dangers. Primarily, because the uniquely formative moments that may compel us to follow a particular trajectory in our research are often preoccupations or fixations that have been shaped prior to our ability to vocalise them. So, to make this return journey means to forfeit or to force cracks in the carefully constructed personae we often choreograph (and cling to) in our professional lives. Yet, as this paper will argue, from such a journey a radical way of thinking can emerge, one where a new, maybe more integrated and self—conscious awareness of the relationship between our work as historians, our lives, and the communities we occupy, can emerge.
Professor Regina L. Blaszczyk (University of Leeds) Adventures of an Archives Hound: Learning How Color Became a Tool for American Designers
Colour has been the subject of countless books dealing with handicraft, dyestuffs, and popular psychology. This presentation takes a different approach, drawing on in-depth research in US and UK archives to uncover the history of colour as a tool for twentieth-century designers. The presentation makes use of corporate archives, trade association archives, personal papers, trade journals and industry journals. It shows how archival research can yield data that challenges the canon and that demonstrates how design fit into the business system. The talk is based on research for Blaszczyk's recent book, The Color Revolution, published by The MIT Press in 2012.
Paul Hazell (University of Worcester) ‘The enthusiast’s eye: the dilettante of design history?’
Individuals and enthusiast groups dedicated to particular aspects of material culture frequently emerge and manifest themselves in a variety of ways; whether it be car clubs, individuals collecting particular items they take an interest in, or re-enactors interacting with objects from the past. These interested groups or individuals can hold considerable knowledge and expertise about an artefact and its history, but the term ‘enthusiast’ carries with it connotations of the passionate amateur and by implication unstructured knowledge, subjectivity, selectivity and nostalgia.
Design History is a relatively young field that has worked hard to become established as a discipline in its own right and build a reputation for rigor. Words such as ‘enthusiast’ and ‘amateur’ can be seen as pejorative terms with regard to the study of Design History that academics may feel they want to distance themselves from.
However, if we are too ready to link the ‘enthusiast’ to ideas of ‘celebration’ or ‘niche interest’ we may be ignoring factors that help explain the success of some artefacts in relation to others, as well as underestimate the value of archival material held in private collections, which can be rich sources for design history research.
This paper therefore asks can ‘the enthusiast’s eye’ be used as a starting point for grappling with the often-complex script some material culture creates by examining the enthusiasm an individual or a group may have for a particular period or artefact and integrating this with an appropriate methodology? What drives this devotion for particular artefacts, and if better understood, can this enthusiasm help provide a bridge between subject and object?
Nicholas Oddy (Glasgow School of Art, Scotland) ‘An Uneasy Alliance: Collectors’ items and history’
With so many of its roots in Marxist, sociological approaches to cultural history it is no surprise that design history has often had a difficult relationship with the discourse that surrounds many of its objects of study, generated by collectors and enthusiasts devoted to objects that do not happily fit into the categories of fine or decorative art, antiques, or folk art, even; instead being termed ‘collectors’ items’. Typically a collectors’ item is the product of industrial manufacture or the infrastructure that surrounds it, produced in quantity for remote markets. By default the range is huge, but the very term ‘collector’s item’ pre-supposes the dominant form of historical understanding will be built round the methodologies of collecting with their associated understanding of rarity, desirability and transferable value, all inherently subjective even if seemingly quantifiable and controlled, subject to a vast outpouring of literature displaying deep knowledge of object-centred history.
In 1990 the first International Cycling History Conference was held in Glasgow, the date and place were not coincidental, the conference was timed to coincide with KM150, a week-long celebration of the invention of the pedal driven bicycle by Kirkpatrick Macmillan in c1840 being held near Dumfries. The conference aimed to question current understandings of cycling history, then dominated by writing coming from enthusiasts and collectors, by lodging it more in the framework of academia; 22 years later the conference still meets on an annual basis. It is an unusual event, however. Few other ‘collector’s items’ enjoy such treatment, mainly they remain firmly in the hands of the collectors and enthusiasts. An area in which the author is active as a collector and writer is old toys, here the division is very marked. When such objects come to the attention of academics in design history, the academics’ approaches are often very remote from those with hands-on experience of the objects, making an obvious disconnect that could be said to arise from the academics’ own subjectivity in their taste for what they consider to be ‘real’ history. Even in cycling the problematic of historical understanding is still marked by the subjective nature of aesthetic and experiential factors of engagement with the artefacts, which, in the case of cycles, still involves old machines’ ‘rideability’ and day-to-day use. To what extent is this really a ‘problem’ or is it something that academic historians should be more willing to engage with as a key means of understanding?
Dr Pauline Garvey (National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Ireland) ‘Are you the person who has the lamp on in the middle of the night?!’ The sensuous quality of domestic things’
Design historian Kerstin Wickman contends that creating a personal home in Sweden is not only a right but a duty in which questions of taste assume a ‘..rare emotional tension’ (Wickman 2003: 207). Anthropological research has challenged the notion of immutable boundaries distinguishing private from public, and this paper focuses on sensuous domestic arrangements and consequent emotions as further unsettling these boundaries. This presentation opens with an anonymous note of complaint received from a neighbour during early days of anthropological fieldwork in Stockholm, and explores the strategies that householders undertake to negotiate tensions arising from their interior as subject to public scrutiny. Further, this example invites consideration of how anthropological ethnographic fieldwork situates the researcher within the everyday lives of research respondents in ways in which one cannot disentangle the research field from everyday experience.