The Written Object: Design, Journalism, Consumption, and Literature since 1945

The Written Object: Design, Journalism, Consumption, and Literature since 1945

Yesterday I was delighted to attend the launch of not one but two of Anne Massey’s latest books: Design, History and Time: New Temporalities in a Digital Age (Bloomsbury), co-edited with Zoë Hendon, and A Companion to Contemporary Design since 1945 (Wiley Blackwell) which Anne edited solo.

Design, History and Time, edited by Zoë Hendon and Anne Massey (Bloomsbury 2019).

The first of these books, Design, History and Time: New Temporalities in a Digital Age is derived from the Design History Society annual conference hosted at Middlesex University in 2016 and contains 13 well-chosen chapters which engage with the millennia, centuries, decades, years, days, hours and seconds within which, and through which, the history of design is understood. Another of Massey's books for Bloomsbury Pop Art and Design (2017), which she co-edited with Alex Seago, was also available on the books table of Bloomsbury’s Claire Constable.

The second book being launched last night, A Companion to Contemporary Design since 1945, is a larger offering from the Wiley Blackwell Companions to Art History series headed by Dana Arnold, who describes Massey’s book as signalling ‘an important rapprochement between art history and design history’ in her preface. Massey has organised the chapters into five sections: time, place, space, object and audiences. In her useful, compact, introduction she states the aim of the book as being to:

‘provide a critical overview of a broad range of design disciplines, to stimulate interdisciplinary debate and consider undiscovered convergences and synergies’ (p. 1).

The 22 chapters are longer than standard, at c. 10,000 words each, which has allowed the authors a good deal of freedom and substance through which to articulate their views.

My own chapter, ‘The Written Object: Design Journalism, Consumption, and Literature since 1945’ presents an updated account of my thinking on the relationship between design and words since I edited Writing Design: Words and Objects (2012). That book was also, like Design, History and Time, a product of the Design History Society annual conference, in this case the conference was Writing Design: Object, Process, Discourse, Translation which I convened with Jessica Kelly at the University of Hertfordshire in 2009. In this new chapter for the Companion, I bring together a restatement that words are present throughout the design lifecycle, with a review of the mediation turn in design history, before looking in more detail at the development of design journalism since 1945. I begin with Nikolaus Pevsner and Sadie Speight, whose working relationship Jill Seddon (2007) has brilliantly dissected. I then turn to Gillian Naylor’s time with Design magazine as one of negotiating prescription and received ideas of good design. I present Roland Barthes as having challenged orthodoxies of good design with his analyses of demotic myths in French culture, before showing these tendencies merging in the eclectic figure of Reyner Banham. I review the changing fortunes of the design press in the 1980s and 1990s and then look at the shift towards digital design discourse and the role of consumers as commentators in our own century. ‘The Written Object: Design Journalism, Consumption, and Literature since 1945’ closes by proposing that we should recognise the literary merit of design discourse as having equal, and sometimes greater, value than the designs it mediates. Finally I ask whether it is possible to conceive of design without words.

Zoë Hendon and Anne Massey launching their books in the Banqueting Hall, Chelsea College of Arts

The launch of A Companion to Contemporary Design since 1945 and Design, History and Time: New Temporalities in a Digital Age took place at the Banqueting Hall, Chelsea College of Arts, which occupies what was once the Royal Army Medical College close to Tate Britain (built in 1898). The Banqueting Hall was the Royal Army Medical Corps Officers’ Mess. It was designed, along with the Commandant’s House, between 1904-7 by J.H.T Wood and W. Ainslie ‘as accommodation for the commandant, 76 officers and associated mess rooms in association with the building of the Royal Army Medical College’. It is described by Historic England as presenting ‘an imposing river elevation’ but the interior is judged to be:

‘generally plain, with the exception of the mess rooms on the upper ground floor. These are distinguished by striking application of late-17th-century-style panelling and plasterwork in the principal rooms, including stone chimneypieces and bowed balustrade to gallery in mess room which is linked to ante-room by set of folding doors.’

Today the Banqueting Hall is an impressive and attractive space with views over the river; although it whispers ‘wedding venue’ it worked handsomely lend a sense of occasion to the the book launch.

Having been given a copy of the Companion at the launch I was delighted to see up close the hands featured on its cover, according these amazing phenomena their rightful place front and centre in the analysis of design, as I will also seek to do with my Hand Book project. I read, and appreciated, Massey’s introduction on the train home. I look forward to reading the rest of the chapters in the coming hours, weeks, months and years...

Rob Ryan 'But I Made It With My Hands'

Rob Ryan 'But I Made It With My Hands'

ICOMOS-UK Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage

ICOMOS-UK Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage