By Tania Messell

The role of design in diplomatic encounters was the topic of the research Symposium ‘From “Soft” to “Hard” Power? Changing visions of Diplomacy by Design from 1945 Onwards’, held at the University of Brighton in November 2015. Organised by Dr Harriet Atkinson and Dr Verity Clarkson, and supported by the Internationalising Design History research cluster, the event gathered an international range of speakers, whose papers examined the power of design in diplomatic exchanges from the early Cold War to today. Beyond national narratives, these presentations examined the interplay of government officials, designers and design artefacts in transnational spaces, and appraised the extent to which design shaped international relations, and responded to the latter.


In her keynote speech, Professor Susan E. Reid examined the role of design in the Soviet and American ideological wars at the 1958 Brussels Expo, through an analysis of impact of the spatial conditions of the exhibition site, the popular imagery of the USA and the USSR, the theme of the Expo and the anticipated viewers on the designs of the pavilions. Examined through the concept of ‘contact zones’, the latter represented diverging images of modernity, which were further affected by the tensions, compromise and transfer mechanisms which surrounded their design, construction, and management during the international exhibition. Dr Freddie Floré’s subsequently looked at how the architecture and interior design of the Royal Library of Brussels were designed through a complex layering of American and national designs, which aimed at projecting a progressive image of the country and its royal family. The representation of national hegemony through space was once again treated by Tom Wilson, whose paper reviewed the architecture and national sections of the Common Wealth Institute developed between 1958-1962). As he revealed, while the space was designed to reflect an image of unity in diversity, and the reciprocal partnership of nations in a period of decolonisation, newly independent countries were ordered through a British totalising vision. Claire Wintle in turn examined the 1965 travelling exhibition Jawaharlal Nehru: His Life and his India, which was organised by the Indian government and designed by the National Design Institute (NID) and Charles and Rey Eames. As her presentation highlighted, this exhibition grew from a political ambitions to represent the path of a modern nation by stressing India’s active involvement in the decolonisation process. However, while it was organised as part of a diplomatic agenda, Wintle stressed how creative freedom and two-way personal and professional knowledge existed between the Eames and NID’s members, thus revealing the limitation of diplomacy on the act of designing. Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sonnet Stanfill, in turn examined how Italian fashion acted as a key diplomatic space on the context of the Marshall Plan by presenting her most recent work on the impact of series of fashion shows organised by Giovanni Battista Giorgini the early 1950s. Gathering an international audience which included government officials, highly-placed buyers and press, these orchestrated events assisted in placing Italian fashion on international markets against the French dominance in the field, and in forging enduring trade relationships between Italy and the USA. Dr Meghen Jones consequently presented her paper on the ‘soft power’ of ceramics in the Cold War period, through a close reading of exchanges between the USA and Japan in the form of American private support and the travelling of Japanese ceramicists to the USA, where they responded to the American fascination for Mingei pottery and zen philosophy, reinforced the pacific link between Japan and the USA. Nina Serulus finally presented a paper on exhibitions exchanges between Belgium and the USSR between 1973 and 1974, which by adopting a transnational approach, highlighted how design organisations, while being led by ‘hybrid’ individuals, whose careers moved between national and international spheres, operated at the core of Cold War diplomatic missions.


A conversation between Michael Thomson, the founder and head of Design Connect (established in 1995) and Professor Jonathan Woodham ensued. The former presented present-days design diplomats whose activities range from expos, pop-up design centres and promotional undertakings of design bodies such as the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) and the Bureau of European Design Associations (BEDA), which promote international cooperation and strive towards the inclusion of design in policy making. Woodham however underlined that historians ought to question their awareness towards the diplomatic role of design, and measure the impact and forms of such programmes. He concluded the debate by stressing the need to conduct further historical studies on the place of cultural diplomacy in an increasingly transnational world, which in many ways has become more layered and multi-dimensional, as more economic imperatives are competing. A panel discussion ensued, which allowed for debates on the benefits and potential hazards of design’s role in diplomacy, and the designers’ awareness of the latter.


For a review of the symposium by Rosa te Velde, editor for the journal Kunstlicht and for the website, please follow this link.