Celebrating the Design History Society at 40, and the Journal of Design History at 30
In 2017, the Design History Society (DHS) is celebrating its 40th anniversary. At the same time, the Society’s journal, the Journal of Design History, is in its 30th annual volume. Rather than reflecting on these landmarks with reference to canonical or well-known work from the past, the DHS agreed to mark these occasions through a call for new work which examines design history, past, present and future. This work was presented in a dedicated anniversary strand at the Society’s annual conference, Making and Unmaking the Environment, which took place from 7th-9th September at the University of Oslo in Norway. The conference was convened by Prof Kjetil Fallan who, among his many activities, was one of our annual TVAD Visiting Researchers. TVAD researcher Claire Jamieson attended the conference to give a paper about her research into NATØ. The anniversary strand comprised three panels, each with three presentations.
Making and Unmaking the Environment Conference brochure. Photograph: Kjetil Fallan.
The first panel, ‘New Approaches to Design History’, began with Professor Ben Highmore (University of Sussex) recuperating connoisseurship for design history in his paper ‘Design History and Cultural Studies: Conjunctures, Tensions and Potentials’. Connoisseurship has been associated with art history and the decorative arts, but it has a function within contemporary design history, Highmore argued. Søren Rosenbak, a student at Umeå University, followed this with a short report on his project Design Research Failures, and asked what design historians might have to contribute to this work. Rosenbak assumes that design research has failed as a field, but the audience in Oslo were keen to recommend reflection on its successes as well.
The strand attendees. Photo: DHS Ambassadors, twitter.
The final paper in this first panel ‘The Environment as “Context” in Design Historiography’ saw Joana Meroz, of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, seek to move design history beyond regarding politics as a human affair, to capture the workings of a broader notion of politics and its sites including, especially, the political agency of materials and things. She explained how the inherent qualities of objects may determine the histories we share about them. For example, heavy machinery which cannot physically fit into galleries exhibiting examples of Dutch design may be erased from the history of Dutch design as a result of such exhibitions. This panel offered three quite different presentations which contribute in different ways to how we think about design history now. As the panel progressed, each paper appeared to engage around points of tension. For Highmore, the distinction between criticism and connoisseurship was key. Rosenbak’s talk engaged distinctions between success and failure and design research and design history. For Meroz, the relationships between people and things, and things natural and man-made, were salient.
Our second panel explored the ‘Places and Spaces of Design History’. Trond Klevgaard (Royal College of Art) shared some of his doctoral research in a presentation entitled ‘On Writing about New Typography from the Margins: Problems and Approaches’. He looked at how modernism in design resonates differently in different regions, and how it has been negotiated and adapted. Next, Dr Fredie Floré (University of Leuven) and Dr Javier Gimeno Martínez (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) presented jointly their call for ‘Making Room for Design History in Belgium’. Javier was a TVAD Visiting Researcher when he was preparing his book Design and National Identity (Bloomsbury 2016). His paper with Fredie Floré shared many parallels with the following one, ‘Learning from History – but how? Design History in Swiss Design Education’ by Meret Ernst (Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, Basel). Both were concerned about the lack of a strong and distributed national base for design history, in Belgium and Switzerland respectively, and how this might impact on the development of design history in those nations.
Sorcha O'Brien introducing her work on Irish design history. Photo: Grace Lees-Maffei.
The strand’s last panel, ‘Making and Unmaking National Identity: Design “In”, “Of” and "From" Ireland’ continued and increased the focus of the examination of national design histories with a trio of presentations. ‘Made in Ireland’? National Narratives and Global Networks in Irish Design History’ by Dr Sorcha O’Brien (Kingston University) explored the ways in which one lamp has been presented as part of the canons of both Irish and Scandinavian design, and what that might tell us about the importance of mediation in ascribing national identity in design. Dr Lisa Godson (National College of Art and Design, Dublin) shared her project work on ‘Irish Design in Africa: Practices of the Transnational National’, with a case study of churches built in Africa to Irish designs and specifications. Godson countered the idea that Ireland has simply absorbed external notions of modernity with a case study of a design dialogue between Ireland and Nigeria. These churches contribute to the histories of architecture in Ireland and Nigeria at once. The final presentation in this panel, and the strand, was ‘Putting the “Irish” into Irish Design 1950-2015’ by Mary Ann Bolger (Dublin Institute of Technology). Bolger examined the ways in which Irish design and manufacturing have been promoted overseas. For example, she outlined the decision-making process to name the butter known as Kerrygold and its associated imagery.
Mary Ann Bolger discussing Irish stamps. Photo: Grace Lees-Maffei.
The strand as a whole told us that the geography of design history remains critically important as a focus for the development of the field. It was a privilege to chair such a rich strand at the Design History Society’s 2017 conference. The audience were engaged and contributed many useful questions and comments for developing the research we heard still further. This anniversary strand showed that design history’s future is bright.