Making and Unmaking the Environment: Reporting on the Design History Society 2017 Annual Conference
By Tania Messell, Lilian Sánchez-Moreno and Dora Souza Dias
This year the DHS Annual Conference, held at the University of Oslo, was not only an opportunity to engage with fellow design historians, but also a moment of celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Society and the 30th Anniversary of the Journal of Design History. Convened by Prof Kjetil Fallan and co-convened by Dr Gabriele Oropallo, Dr Denise Hagströmer, Ingrid Halland, and Ida Kamilla Lie, the conference offered a great opportunity to celebrate the Society’s Anniversary, whilst allowing for a timely debate on design’s complex relation with sustainability and the environment. This report aims at offering insights into a selection of workshops, panel sessions, and keynotes that took place over the three days, during which 170 delegates discussed the ways in which design and environmental concerns have intersected and overlapped historically.
To set the tone for the inaugural keynote and the days that followed, the conference was preceded by two workshops: The Green Museum and Green Screen. Chaired by Dr. Denise Hagströmer from the Design and Decorative Arts department at the National Museum, The Green Museum offered the opportunity to discuss historical and contemporary approaches to how museums incorporate cultures of sustainability. Composed by an international expert panel that included figures such as Sarah Lichtman from the Parsons School of Design, and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum; Monica Obniski from the Milwaukee Art Museum; Christina Zetterlund from Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, and Tone Rasch from The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology, issues of museum infrastructure, collection policies, exhibiting the ‘history of green design’, and how museums engage with environmental discourse, were touched upon. In this context, Lichtman talked about the challenges faced by the renovation of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in 2008, which driven by its main focus: ‘to exhibit issues of sustainability’, such as the exhibition ‘By the People: Designing a Better America’ –the third volume in their socially responsible design series, was granted a silver LEED certificate. However, with Obiniski’s depiction of sustainable infrastructure in the making of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which was also granted a LEED certificate, the audience set out to question the importance of sustainability beyond the institution. In this light the session concluded that what was at stake, was the need to challenge the established set of ideas regarding sustainability, and that ultimately, sustainability encompassed a myriad of issues, such as those set within the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as Zetterlund noted.
In the afternoon, the conference kicked off with a keynote by Simon Sadler Professor of Architectural and Urban History at the University of California, who offered a sweeping account of shifting visions of the operating environment, from the Arts and Crafts movement, to Le Corbusier’s city planning, and the Whole Earth Catalogue’s globalist perspective, through which design was re-conceptualised as an act of self-help in the face of what was regarded as a collective need for survival. Drawing from Bruno Latour’s conception of the designer as a ‘cautious Prometheus’, who enhances the environment through an adaptative and ‘remedial’ process as opposed to a totalising modernist approach, the talk questioned the current role of design towards sustainability in light of these movements. Indeed, what environment does design create as a discipline, and how can it remain a force of positive change beyond ‘vampid individualism’ and the ‘global we’, as Fallan highlighted during the discussion?
Day two was packed with engaging sessions that included the Anniversary strand. ‘New Approaches to Design History’, brought together a lively discussion on the ‘conjunctures, tensions and potentials’ of Design History and Cultural Studies by Ben Highmore, where he reflected on the influences that Cultural Studies had upon design history during its formative years, in the early 1970s. This was followed by Søren Rosenbak’s paper ‘Histories of Design Research Failures’, which by going back to the Design Methods movement of the 1960s, reflected upon what could be perceived as a failure. While looking at innovative ways to engage with designers’ perception on failure, the public subsequently discussed the standards by which the latter could be defined. Finally, in her presentation, Joana Meroz challenged the anthropocentric perspective involved in design scholarship which focuses solely on the relationship between design and its ‘environment’. By including the perspectives of ‘new materialism’ Meroz consequently put forward a methodological approach in which the materiality of design is afforded its own agency.
Jennifer Gabrys’ keynote ‘Making and Unmaking Citizens Through Sensing Environments’ concluded day two examining the new entities that are formed by sensing technologies. Through a historical survey of smart computing and sensing technologies, ranging from the launch of Sensors magazine in 1984, to Mark Weiser’s seminal paper on ‘ubiquitous computing’ (when technology recedes into the background of our lives), Gabrys advocated for the possibilities offered by sensing technologies for environmental studies, such as urban and pollution sensing. Ultimately, in the age of ‘smart cities’, while sensing offers the possibility for an ‘intelligent’ and ‘cohesive’ environmental management through data collection, the following questions were voiced by the audience: what are the implications of ‘wiring’ our environments? Also, how are making and unmaking the environment also ways of making and unmaking citizens?
The last day of the conference was inaugurated by a keynote by Peder Anker, Associate Professor at New York University and Guest Professor at the University of Oslo. In his presentation, titled ‘Computing Environmental Design,’ Anker addressed the relation between the process that led to the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park in the USA and the development of landscape mapping technologies. One of the main protagonists of Anker’s presentation was Serge Chermayeff, whose direct involvement in the park’s establishment and efforts to ensure its preservation, later affected his academic work. As such, in the book Community and Privacy: toward a New Architecture, published in 1964, Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander advocated a science of environmental design as well as the use of computers as tools able to create harmony between humans and nature. As the second director of the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology, founded as the New Bauhaus and Chicago School of Design, Chermayeff had direct input into the development of the GIS (Geographic Information System) technology. Hence, as Anker highlighted, Chermayeff played a central role in the development of computer technologies that synthesised the natural environment and landscape design.
The authors contributed to the conference with a panel that sought to map the extent to which environmental concerns existed within international design organisations, and in which manners design issues overlapped with environmental preoccupations in international fora between 1960 to 1990. The paper ‘Graphic Design and Environment: An ICOGRADA case study’ presented by Dora Souza Dias addressed the interrelations of the graphic design profession with environmental causes, and analysed more closely the engagement of ICOGRADA (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations) with concerns with nature. The paper showed that even though individual graphic designers have worked with projects that approach environmental concerns and some graphic designers have published manifestos to raise awareness of practitioners, most of the engagement remained in the surface, even when analysing ICOGRADA’s activities. It was only in the 2000s that the Council implemented a project that addressed sustainability issues, showing the delay in addressing issues related to environmental concerns and sustainability. In her paper, ‘ICSID, Development, and Environmental Discourse, 1970-1980’, Tania Messell highlighted how resource management and ecology were cornerstones of ICSID’s development agenda. Adopting a postcolonial perspective, she in turn examined the Interdesign workshop held by ICSID and UNIDO in Mexico in 1978, where the organisations’ attempt at exporting their precepts resulted in longstanding contestation in Latin American design circles and to the meeting of diverging and slippery understandings of the environment and development. Her paper hence argued for the contribution of histories of international organisations to the geographical expansion of environmental histories of design through their capacity to uncover a ‘pluriversality’ (Walter Mignolo) of environmental and design understandings. In the final paper of the session, entitled ‘Shaping the Landscape of Natural Relief: The Case of Oxfam’, Lilian Sánchez-Moreno sought to elucidate how Oxfam, through the development of the ‘Igloo’ Type Site Moulded Polystyrene Emergency House, contributed to shaping the built environment by influencing the geographic imaginary of the Third World, and its resources. While the Oxfam Emergency House project was concluded a failure, with its limited life span from 1971 to 1976, the paper shed light on how Oxfam’s involvement in this endeavour, resulted in the development of a myriad of guidelines for the use of appropriate technology solutions for social sustainability, for the third sector. As such, juxtaposed with the preceding paper, the case of Oxfam offered an insight into ‘design for development’ from an NGO perspective, ultimately revealing how design has been inherently influenced by organisational agendas. The panel led to lively discussions on the institutional limitations of international design organisations and on methodological issues faced by historians when attempting to define their impact on local design practices.
To conclude, the conference overall resulted in three days of eye-opening papers and fruitful exchanges, which highlighted the variety of environmental understandings, and the extent to which these have overlapped with design concerns, most certainly leading to the addition and development of exciting research venues. Finally, it must be noted that the next DHS conference will be held in New York, where the topic of design and displacement will be tackled.