Dear colleagues;

Thanks to Vanni, I believe, for starting this discussion. I agree with Kjetil that historians need to control the narrative of design history. It is not simply a service activity but on in its own right like art history, film history, and so forth. There is a design history research culture with its own issues, etc…In terms of the narrative, however, I do want to present a paradox. A lot of what designers do today and will be doing tomorrow has never been done before or will not have been done before. Therefore the role of design history as I see it needs to fullfill several purposes. First is to how how design, whatever form it takes, is rooted in an historical situation. This means references to the wider field of historical knowledge and activity. Second, is to widen the content of what might have been considered design in the initial design history narratives to include the antecedents of service design, design for disability, etc. For example, there is a long history of design for disability. In the 19th century, people were designing prosthetics, the Braille system etc. and after WWII, at least in the United States, there was a major push to design prosthetic limbs. This moved from objects to limbs that are connected to the electrical pulses of muscles. The history of computers and man machine interactions is also important. Figures like Norbert Wiener, JCR Licklider, and Douglas Engelbart are important figures for design history as are the design outlaws of the 1970s and Buckminster Fuller is squarely in the middle of everything. Some of these topics have been taken up by the folks in STS and the history of technology which suggests that there need to be closer contacts with them. Perhaps a joint international conference at some point.


Dear friends, some days ago I could luckily meet at Parsons in New York Susan Yelavich. We discussed about Design, History of design and so on. Afterwards she wrote to me a letter and I quote here one phrase: “…about teaching history. I feel there is a need for both chronological and modal/thematic approaches. Though at the graduate school stage, I think modal is more appropriate.”
I agree: maybe we need both cronological and modal/thematic approach today. And we should go on debating about that. Anyway that two historical approaches are typical one of Europe and the other of the States: analytical vs continental tradition of philosophy.

But we discussed also about teaching Design History under a general point of view. I think there are other problems:

  1. is it true there is an increasing loss of importance of Teaching History in the Design Schools?
  2. can we agree and why about the importance of contesting this trend?

  1. In 1994 in a conference at Politecnico in Milano (“Design: History and Historiography”) in my introduction I put he question why Teaching History was practically absent in Bauhaus and in Iulm. I related that absence to the influence of Vienna Circle (der Wiener Kreis) and afterwards of Neopositivism (Logical Positivism): and I underlined how Neopositivism positions against History were changed during his decline. I quoted Gustav Hempel who declared that changement took over from the studies of Thomas Kuhn and his “changement of paradigm” that reintroduced the idea of History in Scientific Studies.
    But all this refers to the history of Teaching Design and of relations between Design and History of Design.
  2. Some time ago Victor Margolin wrote (Design in History, 2008):
    “… there are forces that militate against learning from history. One that Hobsbawm identifies is the “a-historical,engineering, problem-solving approach by means of mechanical models and devices.”
  3. Actually, mostly referring to many present positions inside Politecnico- Milano, I think that a problem is an idea of strategic design that gives up with projecting material or immaterial artifacts. This idea is based on theories of organization and of management with an “operationist” point of view that implies a reduction of projecting to the list of the operations to be developped for getting the fixed goal.
  4. Presently I think that the problem is the domination of an absolutized technical thinking, both under the engeneering and the managerial points of wiew. I think it’s a general problem in present thinking. Just for referring to authors very interested in architecture and design I remember tthe critics to that positions of Frederic Jameson (1984) and Hal Foster (2002).

    I think these are problems worths of debating in the present situation. I have in mind to suggest it to the AIS/Design (Italian Society of Design Historians) we founded three years go, and in the meanwhile I send these remarks to Susan Yelovitch and to some other friends.

    Best regards
    Vanni Pasca

Lettere sulla storia del design

Nel mese di novembre ho incontrato alla Parsons-The New School for Design di New York la professoressa Susan Yelavich. Abbiamo discusso di design e in particolare di Storia del design, del suo ruolo, dei metodi di insegnamento nelle scuole di design e così via. In seguito le ho inviato una lettera nella quale riassumevo quelli che secondo me erano i punti più interessanti emersi dal nostro colloquio. Susan Yelavich mi ha risposto e ne è nata una discussione che si è allargata ad altri studiosi : fin ora sono intervenuti Tevfik Balcioglu, Anna Calvera, Clive Dilnot, Kjetil Fallan, Carma Gorman, Grace Lees-Maffei, Victor Margolin. La discussione, in modo molto libero e informale, ha approfondito i temi, ha introdotto ulteriori considerazioni, ha dato vita a un confronto iniziale ma di grande interesse che io spero possa ulteriormente allargarsi. Pubblicare queste lettere mi sembra molto utile per sollecitare altri studiosi, italiani e no, a intervenire. Mi sembra questo il metodo migliore per cominciare a pensare a un convegno che approfondisca e sviluppi questa tematica.

Vanni Pasca,
Presidente di AIS/Design

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