Calvera: On design history

Dear all
How a nice conversation, and how lucky I am tohave been invited to participate!
By now, there are many questions in the fore and so, I don’t know if it is best to answer through only one mail or rather use some more.

Concerning the practical uses of Design History lectures, I enjoyed very much Susan’s surprise on how to answer a student asking why he/she has to know all those old things. Many time ago –by mid nineties– a student put the same question to me. My answer came to me very quickly: I said to him that to know the history of his own profession,a n be able to talk about it fluently and normally, could help him to not look like a football player if sometime somebody interviews him. It was not a “classist” naswer –at last, I hope so!–. In fact, at that time I was already tired and bored of TV’s interviews to football players and sport people –I am stil tired of them and even more bored as far as everyweek all the players says exactly the same whatever the team, the match or the player: just a role?–. IN any case, it was the last time that a student asked about the use of learning history of design, design theory or other theoreticals discourses about design. On the contrary, some years later, just after the first leson of the course, another student came to me to explain that he had decided at that moment to became a “cultivated” man and he asked if reading The Quijote was a good way to start. Of course, I said yes, but I added “you have to laugh in the comic scenes. Perhaps, Susan, that can comfort you a little bit.

This is an introduction to dialogue also with Kjetil and Vanni. If I did understand their words rightly, these anecdotes bring me to another question which makes the role of Design History in the Design Schools even more complicated. To put the question in that way is, as Kjetil pointed at, a very instrumental approach of knowledge and culture; it is true, but it also forces to think about the nature of design and if so, its relationship with cultural standards and the cultural relevance of its outcomes. I am pointing directly to this new way of defining good design and quality standards of design because they are good solutions “culturally relevant”; not just practical comfortable and profitable as normal design has to be. This is a theoretical objective to have in mind when teaching Design History to people who would like to become designers.

When I started teaching Design History, the course have another goal clearly defined: to display the best modern movement proposals, its roots and its heritage, and contemporary best example too; and then, to convince students that they have to like this proposals and appreciate its quality. Discussions were always interesting –I live in the country where Lladró, the company making porcelain figurines, is born–. At that time, the idea of Good Design was clear, universally accepted and it has a style, an orthodoxy and an heterodoxy –in Spain, by 1977, we called the heterodoxy “Disueño”, and the Orthodoxy, Diseño. Disueño refers both to dreams and to sleep. Then, the evolution of Design and of Design History put this idea, and all the Good Design standards, topsy-turvy. Now, almost theoretically, we don’t have anymore a reference of what good applied to design means, and what are the standards of quality beyond the Iso Norms.
Vanni considered that strategical thinking, the mixing of design with management and marketing has turned discourse on design, and the worries design is facing by now. I think this one should be a subject for design history nowadays: to use criticism again and try to cnsider what the dscourse of quality should be in a world here there are trends instead of universal styles, where the challenge is to manage a lot of proposals at the same time. Is it again the idea of mosaic? The same question can be put both on the ethic and the aesthetic domain of design.

My question on the quality basis for current design is made also thinking on the students who don’t pass their exams for quality reasons. A very practical question, nowadays, who needs knowledge to be applied.

I am afraid the mail is too long by now… but I am enjoying very much the conversation!

I am also afraid this reflexion will not satisfy Kjetil and Victor very much. It is still instrumental and done from a Design Schools standing. Does it really concerns History?
I also agree than within Design History the hard weight of the narrative / narratives is driven by history itself: it gaves methods, theory and rigour standards, and also a specific style of writing. But it is to be signaled as a very opportunity for the discipline that so many designers had decided to research and write history as well. They use their practical knowledge to understand designs made by others and generate design theory which rises from their explanations. This is very worth as well: I remember a doctoral dissertation where I was jury. An architect talked about a specific movement of recent past architecture. It was really impressive his hability to classify the buildings he studied by the hole of the stairs…

Good night to every body. It is a conversation to be continued?


Anna Calvera