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We received, and are happy to publish and share, a short article that Victor Margolin – the author, among other things, of the “World History of Design” (Bloosmbury, 2013) – wrote in 2016 on the occasion of the ICDHS conference in Taipei. In this text Margolin reflects on his ongoing contribution to the expansion of the scope of Design History and on the role that such conferences as ICDHS play in this direction.
ICDHS: History and Memories
By Victor Margolin
When I finished my Ph.D. in Design History in 1982, the subject matter of the field consisted primarily of design in Europe, the United States and to some extent Japan. The paucity of material was evident in the few textbooks available such as John Heskett’s Industrial Design and Philip Meggs’ History of Graphic Design as well as in trade books, journal articles and exhibitions.
I taught for a year at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana and in 1982 I moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago where I taught for almost 30 years. There, I developed a one-year Design History survey which covered primarily design produced in Europe and the United States. My principle texts were Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design and several collections of book chapters, journal articles and essays.
When I joined the faculty at UIC, I also became a founding editor of Design Issues, which was then published at the university and later by the MIT Press. We began to include material on design whose subjects were outside design history’s traditional geographic orbit. For example, a special issue (VI/1, 1989), guest edited by John Heskett, was devoted to design in Asia. As time went on, we began to publish articles on design from other parts of the world that had previously not been part of the design history cannon. This tendency was later continued by subsequent journals such as The Journal of Design History and Design and Culture.
When Design History first emerged as a distinct subject in the late 1970s, little was known in the English-speaking world about Design History texts written in languages other than English. However, historians in Japan, Latin America and elsewhere were also publishing design history literature. Two examples were Spanish author Enric Satué’s El Diseño Grafico: Desde Los Origenes Hasta Nuestros Dias which included material on graphic design in a number of Latin American countries and Masaki Tenaka’s history of graphic design in Japanese.
The Design History Society and later the Design History Forum both held their conferences and meetings in English. This tendency was countered by a conference of design historians and theorists organized in Barcelona in 1999. It featured papers in Spanish as well as English. That event inaugurated a succession of conferences held under the rubric of a new group, the International Conferences of Design History and Studies (ICDHS). These meetings became forums where scholars from many countries could present their research. The importance of the meetings was to expand the network of scholars whose primary language was other than English and whose subject matter transcended the traditional geography of Europe and the United States. The conferences established the ground that signified a new global context for Design History. Although the official language for these conferences became English, the conferences have all been held in countries where English is not the primary language – Spain, Cuba, Turkey, Mexico, Japan, Finland/Estonia, Belgium, Brazil and Portugal.
For each of these conferences there was a principle organizer or team of organizers: Anna Calvera and Miguel Maillol for Spain, Lucila Fernández for Cuba, Tevfik Balcıoğlu for Turkey, Héctor Flores Magón for Mexico, Haruhiko Fujita for Japan, Pekka Korvenmaa and Krista Kodres for the joint conference in Finland/Estonia, Javier Gimeno Martínez and Fredie Floré for Belgium, Priscila Farias and Anna Calvera for Brazil, and Helena Barbosa for Portugal. These historians, as well as several others including myself and Jonathan Woodham, have become the organizing committee which will add the organizers of future conferences, including the one in Taipei, Taiwan. At one of its meetings, the group at that time decided not to promote an official organization which would have simply added the burden of administration, dues and so forth. Instead, ICDHS has evolved organically depending on who came forth to organize each subsequent conference. For most of the conferences, proceedings have been published in either hard copy or digital format. These have formed a body of invaluable documentation of design history and theory from around the world.
Until the publication in 2013 of my World History of Design and Pat Kirkham’s and Susan Soros’ edited volume, History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400 – 2000, there was no global framework for a design history narrative. Over the years the scholars I met at these ICDHS conferences were immensely helpful in connecting me with literature, research papers and other information pertaining to a broader world history of design. The ICDHS conferences have become for me the ideal place to debate the issues of global design history narratives and fill in their many missing pieces. The activities of discussion and debate will surely be central to the Taipei conference for which this essay, along with others, was prepared and published.
Besides the many scholars I have met and the interesting papers I have heard at these conferences, I have also had many wonderful experiences both through social events and getting to know the cities where the conferences have been held. For example I recall a lovely conference dinner at a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul and a wonderful boat trip from Helsinki to Tallin.
Most important is that these conferences have helped to make Design History a world-wide phenomenon. Among the many results of these conferences have been an increase in international articles in established design journals, more conferences dedicated to national and regional design histories throughout the world and a greater knowledge of books about design in languages other than English. In addition, a few institutions such as the Royal College of Art in London which has always attracted international students, have introduced courses and programs in Design History within an international framework. There has also been a growth of national design history societies in such countries as Italy, Germany and Turkey. Given all of these activities, one can say with confidence that Design History is now an international subject. The ICDHS has played a valuable role in the expanded fields of research in Design History and Design Studies and is likely to play an important role in the future.