Dilnot: On design history

Dear all,
Just to try to take further this very interesting discussion.

  1. The problem of the “loss” of the history of design in studio design programs is also in part a result of the breakdown of the modern design project and the idea of the autonomous design discipline. To put this in perspective, before the 1960s and early 1970s the history of design as a specific discipline would scarcely be taught in design schools – at least one would have had courses in history of art/architecture with some design thrown in. The history of specific fields emerges in 1970s … but already by the 1980s, and certainly today these specific fields are breaking down … they no longer constitute coherent entities and as such it gets harder to “see” their history – while the relevant history would change its identity in many cases, focusing less on the autonomy of the discipline and more on the factors that now bear on these fields (factors that they themselves do not understand but also factors that most “design historians” do not understand – this was partly a point that Victor Margolin made as I recall).
  2. The loss of history is cultural, I would even say is deliberate – politically and economically deliberate. This is not at elite level, where one finds a limited vigor in history now busily re-writing it to confirm to the new inequalities. This is translated, in popular culture, into the success of costume drama’s such as Downton Abbey (aristocracy “upstairs-downstairs” c. 1912-1920s) – appearing in the UK just as the coefficient of inequality in that benighted land has gone back to 1927.
  3. So the major problem in schools of design is not just lack of the history of design but lack of historical understanding per se. But this applied also to the history of design itself – which in general shows no interest whatsoever in contributing to historical understanding, above all to the understanding of historical capitalism to which (via industrialization) it owes its phenomenal existence. “Cultural Studies” have here become a kind of alibi for history and economics.
  4. It might be argued that the other reason for the “difficulty” we have with history now is that we have not recognized a shift in the historical paradigm. History as history of design arrived at the fag-end of modernism, almost coincident (to the year-1973!) when we can identify the beginning of all those developments that mark the end of the European “social-democratic” century (and the very brief “American century”!) and the onset of a new “global” world as we call it in which almost none of the assumptions of that prior history are sustained … In fact one can now begin to see that since 1945 we have been living through a long historical watershed in which the artificial becomes the horizon and medium of global economic, technical and symbolic existence. The world we are now moving into therefore breaks as decisively with the C20th as early modernity did with traditional society. To be sure there are illusions of continuity – “design” – is now even one of them, “modern art” another. But the crucial developments are elsewhere. What is therefore now required is a history – or rather set of histories – that deal with this new condition. We need different histories of the 20th century – not least because, as we know, one of the most decisive aspects of the shift since 1945/55 is that to the break with the past that the 1840s represented (“to be modern is know what cannot be done again”: Barthes) we now face the break with the future. There can be no history of now that does begin from that break (first represented by the H-bomb and now by the unsustainable). To put history back into un-sustainment, while recovering design in its capabilities as an agency potentially exceeding its (limited) industrial-capitalist roles, is the task of new history – not the mindless celebration of its coming to be “all” that disfigures a new series of design theory books (most of themselves indicate the necessity for design to be given historical perspective such that those who wish to claim it and operate within it and “as” it, have at least some minimal comprehension of the structures determining its emergence, possibilities and limits.Thank you for connecting me in on this debate.

    Best wishes
    Clive Dilnot