The Design History Society

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, December 1992 | Go to article overview

The Design History Society


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


* The history of design is still a stripling as academic subjects go, and not yet old enough to go to university. Born in the 1970s, it has grown up in the world of the art colleges and polytechnics (now renamed universities). It is, however, a promising youngster and may go far.

The new subject flourished in the 'designer decade' of the 1980s, when consciousness of design reached unprecedented heights in everything from designer jeans to designer socialism and designer stubble, people went round as unpaid walking advertisements wearing famous designers' monograms on the outside of their clothes, and business executives paid fortunes for logos and corporate identity gimmicks. Its roots lie further back, though, in the emergence of design as a focus of interest in its own right in the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, sages like Ruskin and William Morris tried to educate public taste and improve the design of the objects in people's lives, in a crusade which already carried a heavy load of political baggage.

In 1915, following German precedent, the Design and Industries Association was established to make British manufacturing managements more design-conscious. In the United States specialist designers emerged in large industrial companies in the 1920s and industrial design became a recognised separate profession. In Britain, with the setting up of the Council of Industrial Design in 1944, taxpayers' money was spent to try to improve the sales of British goods by improving their design. It was succeeded by the Design Council.

These developments stimulated general awareness of design. From 1982 the Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria & Albert Museum, paid for by the Conran Foundation, organised design exhibitions which made the subject more visible and exciting. This was the immediate predecessor of today's Design Museum in London.

The Design History Society itself was rounded in 1977 to promote the subject as a distinct discipline. The Society also provides a forum where the subject can be discussed and eventually, perhaps, defined. It runs an effective publishing programme and keeps a register of the researches on which members are currently engaged. Membership is around 300 and growing. The Society is led by higher education teachers, with people from the museum and gallery sphere, but professional designers are increasingly becoming involved as well.

The Journal of Design History, which comes out quarterly and is free to members, is published for the Society by Oxford University Press and is, appropriately, very nicely designed. Articles range engagingly from 'Japanese Ceramics and the Disclosure of "Tradition"' to 'Sleeping around: a History of American Beds and Bedrooms'. The Society also produces a quarterly newsletter and has so far made one venture into book publishing with Made in Birmingham, edited by Barbara Tilson, which Brewin Books brought out for it in 1989.

The Society organises study days and visits, but its main event is its annual conference, which helps to lick the subject, like the legendary bear cub, into shape. This year's conference at Manchester Polytechnic has 'Trading on Design' as its theme and will consider design in commerce since the eighteenth century.

Where the history of design's boundaries lie, or whether it has any, is unsettled and what is taught in design history courses varies from institution to institution and teacher to teacher. …

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