New Thinking in Design History: A Report
By Chiara Barbieri (RCA)
On Friday the 15th of April the University of Brighton hosted the one-day workshop ‘New Thinking in Design History’. Organised by Professor Jeremy Aynsley, Dr Catharine Rossi and Dr Sarah Teasley, and funded by the TECHNE AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership, the event was open to research students at the University of Brighton (UoB), Kingston University London (KU) and the Royal College of Art (RCA). The aim of the workshop was to promote the exchange of new methodologies, approaches and research issues in the field of design history, to enable networking and encourage the development of further research training initiatives.
A week before the event, research students circulated a work-in-progress text in order to provide both participants and respondents with a flavour of their work that helped inform the discussion on the day. The submitted piece of writing was to be an existing text such as a draft of a chapter, a journal article or a conference paper on which students were currently working. On the day itself, each student gave a presentation focusing on his or her research methods and on the writing process, which was followed by respondent’s feedback and by an open discussion between all participants. The nine presentations were organised into three groups, which reflected broader methodological and theoretical issues: Material Histories and Biography, National/International and Practice-led Methods.
Jenny Roberts (UoB) kicked-off the workshop by presenting her research on the Munitionettes focusing on factory magazines as a vehicle for gender representation. The role of media was in turn discussed by Vanessa Vanden Bergh (KU) in her presentation on the mediation of Oliver Hill’s work, concentrating in particular in his so far overlooked career as interior designer. Fashion was approached from different perspectives by both Liz Tregenza (UoB) and Lucia Savi (KU). On the one hand, Liz examined the British wholesale couturier Frederick Starke demonstrating how a design historical approach can go beyond the biographical anecdote. On the other hand, Lucia proposed an object-based approach to Italian ready-to-wear fashion that departs from the very materiality of garments, i.e. textiles and their fibres. After the lunch break, Cem Eltutar (RCA) presented the first stages of his research on British sports cars in the post-war period and introduced his bespoke visual method of formal analysis that spurred a lively debate over the use of quantitative methods in design history. Karima Abdelaziz (KU) thereafter demonstrated the potential of practice-led methods presenting her research on the Emirati burqa and her fascinating artistic output, which will be exhibited at Kingston on the occasion of her forthcoming graduation show. The three final presentations by Tania Messell (UoB), Rujana Rebernjak (RCA) and myself (RCA) questioned the validity of national and transnational perspectives in our respective research, namely the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), consumer culture and design in 1970s Yugoslavia and design education in post-war Italy. Problematising the mutual relationship between the local and the global, these presentations gave evidence of the multiple ways in which researchers can approach issues related to society, economics and politics through the lens of design history.
The workshop ‘New Thinking in Design History’ provided attendants with an informal environment that succeeded in creating multidisciplinary discussions and in favouring unforeseen exchanges. Overarching themes debated during the day included: magazines as multifaceted primary sources, terminology issues, archival research and objet/material-based methods. By asking students to concentrate on methodological aspects, the workshop offered a stimulating perspective on PhD life that exceeded the often self-contained experience of academic conferences. The presentations, which communicated the challenges faced by the students, and the manner in which they approached these, were refreshing and reminded participants that building methodological frameworks can be at times frustrating and overwhelming, but always worth the effort. The event concluded on a round-table discussion, during which the students were invited to take the lead of future cross-institutional initiatives, whilst ideas for their structure and aims were devised.