By Lilián Sánchez-Moreno & Giovanni Marmont

On the 2nd June 2016 the University of Applied Arts in Vienna hosted the Undesign Symposium. Organised by the Department of History and Theory and convened by Björn Franke, the one-day event was part of the FWF Research Project Émigre Design Networks and the Founding of Social Design[1], led by Alison J. Clarke. The symposium gathered together design historians, theorists and practitioners, with the intent of exploring ‘new and emerging critical positions in design practice beyond the object form’.

The event was launched by a welcome from Prof Clarke, who provided a brief historical account on the concept of ‘undesign’ as rooted in the ‘anti-design’ ideology. Drawing from Victor Papanek’s work and discussing “the shift in the twentieth century towards the theme of the ‘social’ outside the rubric of modernism”, Clarke concluded by calling upon designers, theorists, historians and anthropologists to unravel, citing Küchler, ‘the intersubjective nature of thought made concrete in design’.[2]

This topical appeal set the tone for the symposium and prepared the ground for the morning session, comprising four presentations that introduced a great breadth of perspectives. Ramia Mazé, recently appointed Professor of New Frontiers at Aalto University, considered how policing practices and regulations within academia profoundly impacts the way the discipline is shaped, with particular reference to admission processes, citation systems and archival work. Designer and RCA alumnus Thomas Thwaites followed up, offering an overview of how his many projects have sought to generate debate through the construction of speculative and often humorous scenarios, frequently engaging with the scientific community. Marloes ten Bhömer, also a practicing designer and researcher, considered strategies for the display of objects intended as design research, with reference to her own experimental work in shoe design. Rounding up the first session, Jochen Eisendbrand, from the Vitra Design Museum, examined challenges within curatorial practice that emerge from the complexity of critical and somewhat ‘dematerialised’ design work. The morning session then concluded with a panel discussion with the first four speakers and moderated by Franke, throughout which were notably addressed ideas of authorship and power structures within the field.

The event resumed in the afternoon session with an equally assorted cast of speakers. Sarah Owens, graphic designer and educator from the Zurich University for the Arts, made a case for the suspension of dominant criteria and ‘un-learning design expertise’ as we know of it today, in order to reconfigure it within a contemporary educational context. Up next was Francisco Laranjo from Modes of Criticism, whose presentation similarly intended to challenge the hegemonic discourse in contemporary design criticism by advocating the need for increased political engagement in design practices. Kingston University design historian and theorist Catharine Rossi then shifted the focus onto processes of (un) designing, strategies of repair, remaking and ‘unfinishedness’, through which design practitioners increasingly strive to engage with the existing material world, ‘rather than designing anew’[3]. Maiko Tsustumi, designer/maker and academic at Camberwell College of Arts (UAL), delivered the last presentation of the day which considered the relevance of material culture studies in expanding the understanding and breadth of practices of designing and making. The symposium drew to an end after the second panel discussion, which mostly centred on issues of agency, as well as strengths and weaknesses of contemporary forms of critical practices in design.

The Undesign symposium was an overall excellent event that successfully brought together an inspiring and heterogeneous outlook on the state and potential development of contemporary design discipline. The general thrust of the debate seems to have broadly revolved around the urgency for new compelling understandings of the role that design could have within society. The numerous discussions throughout the day, even when exposing at times diverging opinions, revealed a widely shared attentiveness to the political implications inherent in design activities. This can hopefully represent a further step in the direction initially suggested by Prof Clarke.


Link to the event:


Acknowledgements: Giovanni Marmont would like to thank the AHRC Design Star CDT for their support in attending this event.

[1] Other related project activities include the Papanek Symposium 2015: Émigré Design Culture: Histories of the Social in Design and a forthcoming volume Émigré Cultures in Design and Architecture edited by Alison J. Clarke and Elana Shapira, to be published with Bloomsnury Press 2017

[2] Küchler, S. (2011). Materials and Design, In Clarke J. A. ed. (2011). Design Anthtopology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. SpringerWienNewYork. pp. 130-141.