Vivien Chan (University of Nottingham) and Zara Arshad (University of Brighton) review the event Design Archives in Asia, held online by the Centre for Design History in June 2021.

On the 2nd and 3rd June 2021, the Centre for Design History at University of Brighton held the online symposium “Design Archives in Asia“. Organised and skillfully chaired by Dr Yunah Lee and Dr Megha Rajguru, the event welcomed speakers from Malaysia, India and South Korea, as well as academics based here in the UK working on or with archives in Lebanon, Hong Kong and China.

The Hong Kong pavilion, Sandtable, at London Design Biennale 2021 (held at Somerset House). Photograph by Jimmi Ho.

The idea for the event stemmed from informal conversations about our own projects in/about Asia, including reflecting on the role and place of design archives in our research process. We – together with Dr Lee and Dr Rajguru – were keen to expand this conversation with people who create archives in their communities in various Asian cities. In the run up to the panel Reconstructing Design Archives, organised by the authors for the upcoming DHS annual conference, the “Design Archives in Asia” symposium was a prime opportunity to start the conversation about the role and state of design archives in Asia, and how we might envision these repositories in the future.

For the first day, we were joined by Professor Chang Sup Oh, Professor Sang-kyu Kim and Professor Rupali Gupte. Professor Oh and Professor Kim spoke about two upcoming projects in South Korea: the National Design Museum and the National Design Archives, respectively. Research for South Korea’s new national design museum started nearly a decade ago in 2012. Professor Oh revealed that the research team working on this new museum initially asked themselves the question: which design museum would be the best model for the [South] Korean national design museum? However, the team soon came to realise that ‘this question was inherently wrong’, as borrowing from well-known Euro-American models did not suit the South Korean context.

Professor Kim, meanwhile, reviewed a selection of case studies that he and his team had been consulting as part of the preparatory process for South Korea’s new national design archives. These case studies include: the Korea Institute of Design Promotion, a promotional body established in 1970, which holds its own institutional archives, in addition to actively publishing design magazines and surveys; and the Seoul Design Foundation, which since 2013 has published a “design white book” containing key information about the field. In both of these organisations, Professor Kim says, ‘there are unfortunately no archivists’. Other examples Professor Kim shared with us was the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, which holds several architecture-focused archives, as well as material from the recently-held exhibition “Olympic Effect: Korean Architecture and Design from 1980s to 1990s“; company archives, such as those held by Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors; and archives collated by local product design studios.

Professor Rupali Gupte wrapped up the session (for day one) with her presentation “Glossary as Method: an archive of the contemporary”. This raised various methodological challenges, particularly in relation to archiving the contemporary, and proposed the “glossary” as ‘a method to grapple with this problem’. Drawing on a passage in author Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Professor Gupte argued that: ‘the term “glossary” is useful to think about the contemporary where the nose is pressed against a screen. Every pixel becomes a term in the glossary. The more the number of terms in the glossary, the more the possibility of making sense […] the glossary allows the thickening of histories, experiences, myths that are related to a particular context’. The glossary should not be understood as a dictionary, however, but rather as a way of building a layered understanding of a particular contemporary context.

HKDHNet visit to the Swire Archive in Hong Kong, led by Dr Matthew Edmundson.

On the second day were presentations from ourselves, Jac sm Kee and Dr Zeina Maasri. Vivien Chan introduced the Hong Kong Design History Network (HKDHNet) and the research this group conducted in preparation for the Hong Kong Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2021, held in June. In the process of working on the pavilion, HKDHNet had organised to bring their exhibition design teams into archives in Hong Kong – including Hong Kong Modernism, Swire Archives and Hong Kong Textbooks – opening up ideas for how design might influence the way the public thinks about the history of Hong Kong. As Hong Kong’s political landscape continues to change with rapid speed, the archive becomes all the more urgent as a space for Hongkongers to take hold of their own storytelling.

Jac sm Kee followed with the experience of setting up the Malaysia Design Archive (MDA). Coming from the approach of both activists and archivists, MDA doubles as a central hub for a local and global ‘community of nerds’, writers, philosophers, architects, historians, urban researchers, sociologists, designers, artists and others to collaboratively find ways to activate the archive. So far this has manifested in exhibitions, talks programmes, workshops, writing and community art projects. One of the motivations for the archive was to use graphic design as a critical space to articulate Malaysian design history, particularly in the aesthetic prejudices that come with colonialism, occupation, and postcolonialism.

Dr Zeina Maasri introduced her ongoing work on graphic design and visual culture from the Arab world, paying particular attention to Lebanese design. During her talk, Dr Maasri shared details of her most recent book, Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties, in addition to her political poster archive Signs of Conflict, which involved collecting, archiving and researching posters, where the existence of such objects are at stake. Dr Maasri reflected on the precarity of archives containing graphic ephemera, not only in terms of care, but also the sabotage of such material in the context of war, conflict and political movement.

Screengrab of the Design China website. Courtesy of Zara Arshad.

Likewise, Zara Arshad presented her critical reflections on her past work on her now closed, or ‘archived’, website Design China. As an independent online platform, Design China involved a process of researching and interviewing both established and emerging design practitioners predominantly based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, translation and publication, and has become an archive of sorts in itself. However, Arshad decided to close Design China in 2019, after which with some critical distance she could reflect on some of the shortcomings of the platform, including issues of national politics, her positionality as an insider-outsider, and the practicality and sustainability of continuing the work from a distance (after Arshad relocated back to the UK from China).

Overall, the symposium offered space to initiate some fruitful discussions surrounding both the theoretical and practical aspects of archives-in-progress in Asia. We would like to thank all the speakers for sharing their work and questions, as well as Dr Lee and Dr Rajguru for hosting such a lively session. We very much look forward to continuing the conversation in the future.

Viv and Zara will be co-convening the panel “Reconstructing Design Archives: Tracing Alternative Narratives of Design History” at this year’s Design History Society conference, which will take place in September. Please consult the conference website for further details.