Lees-Maffei: On design history

Dear Vanni Pasca

Thank you for your message and for kindly forward the fascinating messages from colleagues about the purpose and practice of design history.

As Kjetil Fallan pointed out, some of my take on this has recently been published in an article I co-wrote with DJ Huppatz:
Lees-Maffei, G. and D. J. Huppatz. ‘Why Design History? A Multi-National Perspective on the State and Purpose of the Field,’ Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 12, no. 3 (July 2013). http://ahh.sagepub.com/content/early/recent and attached.
There we argue that design history needs to secure its future by working to strengthen its existence as a research subject—there is work to be done in convincing research funding bodies that work in design history should be funded, for example—as well as developing pedagogically. One way to do this is to continue to strive to produce research of the best quality while also working to make links with allied fields. While I agree that design history should not be purely instrumental, I also feel lucky to work with designers in training. My professionalism as a design historian is marked by my dual purpose: delivering the best possible education for my design students and delivering the best possible research outputs for the international design history community and interested students, teachers and researchers from other fields.
The former depends not only on the content with which we as teachers engage students, but also on the skills we teach them. I am tasked with delivering modules not in design history, but in ‘Critical and Cultural Studies’ in which any history I deliver needs to be made explicitly relevant to students’ practice. I am convinced of the value of historical understanding for designers, and for society as a whole, but I don’t think history itself should be the subject of preservationism! My goal as a teacher is to equip my students with a reference library (of contemporary and past designers and designs, and rich texts some of which I included in The Design History Reader) that will intrigue and inspire them, but also to send my graduates out into the design world (or other profession where they can apply what they have learned) equipped with the skills they need to be lifelong learners: a questioning stance, selectivity in gathering information sources, critical analysis, synthesis, skills of argument, ownership of their informed opinions and the ability to express their ideas in clear, convincing writing and speech. All of these skills will be as useful to them as designers, or in whichever other career they may pursue, as their knowledge of Art Nouveau or the Bauhaus.
I do think there is scope for an international seminar or conference on the purpose and practice of design history and I would certainly like to be involved.

With best wishes,