Each year The Centre for Design History welcomes scholars to join us as Visiting Research Fellows, based in the centre for a specified period of time. As part of this, we invite each person to contribute a blog post about the work they carried out during this time. 


Design and Nature in Times of Climate Change

Vendula Hnídková

Earlier this year, after two years of a new academic lifestyle with eyes attached to the laptop screen and with daily routines adapted to strictly limited interactions with other scholars in-person, I was overwhelmed when awarded the Visiting Research Fellowship at the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton. The Fellowship marked a fundamental return to the old academic practice and the beginning of new research.

Under the title An Expanded Nature in Design, I aimed to explore a contested relationship between design and nature. From the perspective of the Anthropocene, the climate crisis raises numerous questions about our perception of the natural environment. No matter where we live, climate warming affects humankind on a global scale, and the ways societies perceive nature contributes to diverse attitudes toward unlimited growth, consumption, and natural exploitation. Given the current state of affairs, my reflections are driven by the role of design and architectural history in reconsidering human interactions with nature. The knowledge of understanding nature in the past provides a base for the contemporary discourse that can reshape human behaviour in the future.

In this respect, my research stems from a highly personal, apparently naïve, but pressing issue: How can we as design and architectural historians contribute to tackling the climate catastrophe? How can we deploy our academic knowledge and scientific methods to amplify the devastating perspective that affects life on Earth? And how can we underline the contradiction between consumption and sustainability?

We all know that design history isn’t the discipline that will reshape the ways, that governments, corporations, societies, and communities will cope with the complex impact of global warming. Still, design historians can form a part of academia that will address the crisis with numerous profound and provocative ideas. And being design historians, we can draw our inspiration from the past.

To make the topic more accessible, I focused on World´s Fairs as an unparalleled field to showcase leading ideas, innovative technologies, and manufactured products of the day. And to comprehend the troublesome approach to the climate crisis in different parts of Europe, I selected the period of the Cold War because it is precisely the time frame that proves to have a lasting impact also today. My assumption here is that the future the visitors have encountered at the international events affected the reality we are living in now in the twenty-first century.


Czechoslovak Pavilion Expo

Czechoslovak Pavilion Expo

For instance, impressive replicas of Sputniks I and II were the principal attraction displayed in the Soviet pavilion at the World´s Fair in Brussels in 1958. Czechoslovakia showcased a monumental Tree of Toys as a central exhibit representing the contemporary creative industry. And a new landmark, the Atomium, was erected at the exhibition premises. In the Space-age, the perception of nature expanded to the Universe introducing new technologies, innovative materials, and challenging visions, though paralleled by great anxiety for the future. These objects emphasize the increased attention dedicated to nature in its variety and complexity. Nature becomes here the overall term that encompasses diverse meanings and representations. More nuanced dimensions can be explored by reconceptualizing the history of the World´s Fairs from the perspective of the natural environment, leading to recasting old standbys on a national and transnational level.

I have summed up my initial ideas in a talk entitled World’s Fairs: In Search of Nature in the World of Politics that I had the opportunity to deliver at the Centre for Design History in Brighton on June 8.

Undoubtedly, the chance to bring my recent work to the CDH helped me to conceptualize my research questions from a transnational perspective, as the discussions after my talk proved highly stimulating and rewarding. The Fellowship and meeting colleagues from the CDH in person only confirms the invaluable feedback which can be hardly reached when only sitting in front of a computer and working alone in seclusion for more than two years.

My special thanks go to Dr. Verity Clarkson and Dr. Megha Rajguru for their friendly welcome and intellectual environment in Brighton.


Join us as a visiting fellow

Each year The Centre for Design History welcomes applications from both early-career and established scholars to join us as Visiting Research Fellows. If you are interested in applying, please refer to the guidance on our website.