Jonathan M Woodham, design historian
Professor Jonathan Woodham is a leading figure in the development of the History of Design as an academic discipline, developing pioneering design history courses at the University of Brighton, forming the internationally renowned Design Archives, and spearheading the institution’s reputation as a powerhouse of design historical research.
Having initially joined the Brighton College of Art in 1982 as course leader for the then new and innovative BA(Hons) History of Design degree, he was awarded his Professorship of Design History at Brighton in 1993, the year in which he also became founding Director of the Design History Research Centre. His first degree was in Fine Art (First Class, 1973) at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art, before he went on to take an MA in British Romantic Art under Professor Michael Kitson at the Courtauld Institute of Art (1974).
Jonathan Woodham was involved in curriculum innovation in design history from the mid-1970s, becoming closely involved with the Design History Research Group and the Design History Society, founded in 1977. He later played a key role in the establishment, in 1994, of what was to become the internationally significant University of Brighton Design Archives and was intimately involved with most of its subsequent major acquisitions.
He led the development of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Brighton School of Art in 2009, scripting and co-organising the central publication and exhibition, much of which supplies the history of art education in Brighton text included on this website.
A Dictionary of Modern Design
His approach and depth of thinking are illustrated through his approach to certain major contributions to the evolution of design history as a scholarly field, such as, for example, his A Dictionary of Modern Design, Oxford University Press, 2005 (hardback) and 2006 (paperback). He had recognised the limitations of dealing almost entirely with mainstream designers whose careers had been acted out on the stage of the first industrialised world, or of focusing on styles and products with cultural connotations. Also evident at the time he first conceived the project was a tacit acceptance that much of what ordinary people encountered in their everyday lives was not the ‘stuff’ of which dictionaries of design were generally made.
By the time he began writing in earnest, Jonathan Woodham had been commissioned by the multi-volumed Macmillan Dictionary of Art (1996) to write on twentieth century British furniture and by Éditions du Regard in Paris to write all the British entries for Le Dictionnaire International des Arts Appliqués et du Design, Paris (1997). However, it was really as a result of the invitation to co-edit and contribute to Prestel Verlag’s Icons of Design: the Twentieth Century, Munich, (2000; paperback issued 2004) that he became interested in thinking both about the potential meanings of icons, whether revered museum piece or elements of everyday and popular culture.
Whilst it was straightforward enough to write about Alec Issigonis’ Morris Mini of 1959 or Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 500 Topolino of 1936, it seemed to Jonathan Woodham to be rather more challenging and potentially useful to present a more inclusive view of twentieth century design by detailing such examples as Frank X Wagner’s Underwood typewriter No5 of 1900, George Blaisdell’s ubiquitous Zippo cigarette lighter of 1933, Paul Fuller’s Wurlitzer Jukebox 1015 of 1946 or the Bic Crystal ballpoint biro of 1953. Such an outlook established two things: an emphasis on
the importance of everyday, sometimes anonymous, objects and also, where known, designers not generally included in histories of design.
The significance of the everyday had been stressed in Jonathan Woodham’s introduction to Twentieth Century Design (Oxford University Press, 1997). Important too was his growing awareness of ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ national and regional histories of design, whether in terms of the geographically proximity of the countries of Eastern Europe, whose design output and consumption were largely obscured for political reasons for long periods of the twentieth century, or the emerging design cultures of South East Asia or other parts of the world such as South America which had not been included in most histories of design.
Whilst it was not possible to redress this in any dramatic way, Jonathan Woodham sought in this seminal work to extend the range of objects, organisations, designers, theorists, writers, themes and countries generally encountered in dictionaries of design. So, just as one might encounter the Bauhaus, Samuel Bing, Roland Barthes, Giu Bonsiepe, Benetton, Biba or Bang & Olufsen, so might one come across Branding, Barbie, De Bijenkorf, BRIO, BIC or the British Empire Exhibition 1924.
Design historical mapping
Jonathan Woodham’s interest in notions of the ‘local’ the ‘national’ and the ‘global’ grew alongside the development and maturing of design history since he became involved in the mid-1970s. Although the discipline had benefited considerably from an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the ways in which a variety of methods and disciplinary enquiries were able to enrich and enhance our understanding of the material world, research and publication in the field had been geographically limited by the focus on a comparatively limited number of countries in the industrialised world.
Design history had indeed been rather less radical in its abilities to shift global perspectives or the understanding of geographical realities as it lacked the powerful political and economic drivers of exploration. Jonathan Woodham also maintained that the design historical map of the early twenty-first century was little more developed in terms of geographical content than that known to the explorers of the early sixteenth century.
There were several initiatives in the early twenty-first century that challenged some of the geographical territory that design history had conventionally occupied, challenging the orthodoxy of mainstream design history, notably in Barcelona, and a series of international conferences that sought to build a more globally representative history of design with a conference in Havana, Cuba (2000), focused on the theme ‘The Emergence of Regional Histories’ and taking another step in repositioning debate beyond territories traditionally dominated by research and publication activity in Europe and the United States. Colonialism, the impact of imported products and industries in developing countries, the role of the traditional crafts in the face of the threat posed by globalisation, as well as the potential of new industrialised countries, were all envisaged as important arenas for discussion.
Jonathan Woodham’s keenness to rewrite the design map and to uncover ‘lost histories’ led to an involvement in the establishment of what became the International Conference of Design History and Design Studies (ICDHS), one of the specific objectives of which was to ‘correct’, or expand, the prevailing and geographically and culturally restricted world map of design history. One specific input to this was his work to recover the ‘lost’ or ‘hidden’ history of the Slovenian Iskra company which, at its height, employed 35,000 people, had its own design department with high standards of design that were widely recognised through the winning of more than 130 international design awards. Between its foundation in 1946 and its break-up in the political turmoil of the early 1990s, Iskra also played a highly significant part in the economic development of Yugoslavia, one of the most progressive, although ‘non-aligned’, of European communist countries. As part of this endeavour he was invited to contribute an essay that addressed the relative absence of Yugoslavian, and more particularly in this case, Slovenian design from the world map of design history. One of the challenges facing him in seeking to ‘re-align’ Iskra’s – and, by implication, Slovenian – design in a wider design historical context was the nature of available documentary and other prime historical material.
Research development in arts at Brighton
Drawing on his vast experience, Jonathan Woodham founded and led a pioneering Centre for Research Development at the department of art design and architecture at the University of Brighton. Through this and alongside his role as Professor of Design, he supervised and mentored dozens of postgraduate students and early career staff, leading submissions to the Research Assessment Exercises and developing the ways in which practice is supported as research within arts educational establishments.