Megha Rajguru revisits a selection of papers from the conference and reflects on transnational design histories.

The Internationalising Design History (IDH) Research Cluster had a notable presence at the ICDHS conference in Taipei in October 2016. Nine researchers, Dr Leah Armstrong, Tania Messell, Dr Harriet Atkinson, Zeina El Maasri, Elli Michaela Young, Tom Wilson, Dr Yunah Lee, Dr Megha Rajguru and Dr Izumi Kuroishi, affiliated with the Cluster, presented papers in three panels chaired by Professor Jeremy Aynsley on the theme Modernisms’ Locations. Professor Jonathan Woodham, IDH Steering Group member and Honorary Chair of ICDHS was also present at the conference. The panels Modernisms’ Locations, were part of the conference strand Trans/national Design Theory and Identity. They critically addressed locations of modern design within frameworks of national boundaries, internationalism, transnationalism and localism. They traced networks of individual designers, design organisations, images and objects and their discursive formations, showing a complex layering of histories that often problematized or re-enforced national identities.

The first keynote speaker Shu-mei Shi, Professor of Comparative Literature, Asian Languages and Cultures, and Asian American Studies at the University of California, set the thematic tone of the conference. Through problematising Taiwanese histories and historiographies, redressing Taiwan’s colonial history and placing it in a relational global context, Prof Shi articulated the usefulness of a relational comparative approach in writing histories. Developing her approach from chaos theory, she posited the global space as an “interconnected space” and argued that power is a form of relation. Therefore, this view of a connected world can show the ‘connections of power’. Prof Shi discussed the ways in which the “insignificant”, or ignored peripheries can be brought into relation with the world in order to break the binary of power: oppressed cultures in relation to dominant ones. Taiwan, a small island, has been part of an interconnected world and in her speech, Prof Shi brought it culturally and politically into relation with Asia and the world. This transnational approach is particularly relevant and useful in writing design histories and her paper sparked many discussions during the course of the three days.

In this view of Taiwan as a transnational space, a conference located in its capital city seemed fitting. It attracted scholars of design studies and design histories to present research on inter-Asian design. My own paper “Modern Living: Domestic Interiors in 1980s Urban India” was part of panel Modernisms Locations III: Modernism and Interior Design in Asia. Through a comparative study of the designed interior spaces in architect Charles Correa’s Artists Village and Kanchanjunga apartments in 1980s Bombay, my paper reflected on the existence of coeval modernities in a postcolonial Indian context. It traced the transnational developmental discourse on housing in the ‘Third World’ and the agency of the internationally networked architect with a ‘development gaze’. It also examined a translation of Modernism in interior spaces in luxurious apartments promoting conspicuous consumption in a liberalising market economy. Yunah Lee and Izumi Kuroishi addressed the politics of traditional and modern ways of living in Korea and Japan during processes of modernisation in their respective papers in this panel. Both were attentive to designs of spaces and offered critical reflections on the discourse of production and use of the system kitchen in Korea and the Tatami-Mat in Japan, respectively.

A thought-provoking set of papers was presented by scholars examining transnational Asian Design in museums. Dr Christine Guth, Asian Design specialist and former head of RCA/V&A Design History programme chaired the panel Museums and the Making of Contemporary Trans/national Design History: Interpretive Issues. She discussed transnationalism, its dialogic potential, the potential to study multidirectional flows of ideas, a shift from thinking about design through the lens of “influence”. She argued that museums were transnational spaces and Asian design, a transnational category, but also a problematic category labelled by the West. Guth’s paper highlighted the challenges of curating transnational histories, when, often, museums are bound up with national agendas.

Dr Marta Ajmar’s paper followed. She raised the issue of “museum-based approaches inscribed within national frameworks” and “closed periodizations”. She proposed alternative ways of thinking about cross-cultural objects produced within Europe and Asia, and introduced the idea of a “transcultural DNA”. Kendall Brown’s paper “Reasserting Japanese Art Deco in Asia” highlighted problems posed by a nationalist placement of Deco for curators, and asserted Deco’s relevance as a shared and transnational “modern” culture. All three papers challenged restrictive frameworks (of borders, political geographies and forms of periodization) and through this process, they shared their transnational approaches to writing design histories.

Lively discussions took place after the presentations, and an important question was raised: is transnationalism inherently associated with the category of the national? Most members of the audience and the panellists were in agreement. That nation-states, national identities and national histories are often inscribed in object histories, transnational approaches, even where they challenge the category of the ‘nation’, form from an awareness of these.

The conference concluded with a round-table discussion, during which, proposals for the next conference in 2018 were invited. The location of the conference, its associated theme, contributions by international design historians and scholars of design studies made ICDHS 2016 a significant event for exchange of ideas and meeting of minds.