The Annual Design History Society conference took place between 8 and 10 September at Middlesex University in London. It was followed by The International Conference on Design History and Design Studies organised in Taipei just a few weeks later. The temporal proximity of both events poses a question about the very nature of design history–its fragmentation into global, national or regional variants. Consequently, it makes us ponder a possibility of having a fruitful conversation between scholars dealing with those different design histories. It echoes an important question raised by Penny Sparke in her review of a recent conference in Paris and published on the blog earlier this year: Where is the History of Design Going?
The DHS conference organised under the theme Design and Time encouraged participants to think about shared (design) narratives across the world. The majority of 20 panels contained papers grouped according to thematic rather than geographical affinities. The panel in which I participated, Amnesia and schizophrenia: multiple temporalities in the creation of national identities, chaired by Harriet Atkinson (University of Brighton), explored how temporal sentiments have been used by states, design professionals and commerce to create powerful narratives. A wide range of case studies presented by the panellists illustrated different aims and strategies of management of cultural memory. Rujana Rebernjak (Royal College of Art) explored these themes in relation to Yugoslavian industrial design from the 1960s and 1970s, which after 1990 became a symbol of collective nostalgia for the past. Anders Munch and Hans-Christian Jensen (University of Southern Denmark) focused on the emergence of Danish design classics and the contemporary commercial narrative built around the design icons. The paper I presented together with Agata Szydłowska (Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw) explored the notion of the ‘temporal schizophrenia’ that permeated Polish design throughout 20th century, exhibition design and typography in particular. The term, which we borrowed from Frederic Jameson, grasps some distinctive elements of the complicated relationship with the temporal continuity visible in the discourse surrounding design in the People’s Republic of Poland. As we tried to demonstrate in our paper, this schizophrenic situation was a result of a number of circumstances, including material shortages, ad hoc rhetoric developed by commissioners, unresolved issues from the past and complicated relationships with current trends in the West.
Some components relating to this troubled narrative of Polish design resembled problems that were explored by other conference participants across different panels. One of them was Ideology and authoritarianism: invented tradition and temporal disconnect containing very diverse but equally fascinating papers by Carlos Bartolo (Lusíada University of Lisbon), Jüri Kermik (Brighton University) and Triin Jerlei (Estonian Academy of Arts). In his richly illustrated presentation, Bartolo used the naïve figurines of Portuguese cocks to explain how the folk-inspired decorative objects were commercialized and used by the state as vehicles of national identity displayed at home and abroad. This two-fold narrative reminded me of how Polish craft and folk-inspired pieces were politically charged and displayed at numerous exhibitions and trade fairs that Poland presented abroad from the 1920s.
Maria Göransdotter and Johan Redström (Umeå Institute of Design) in the panel Modernity and domestic temporalities presented a paper about the Home Research Institute, which in the late 1940s undertook an impressive research into various aspects of domesticity in Sweden. The importance of female figures–both designers and other professionals working at the Institute as the archival material presented by Göransdotter illustrated–instantly brought to my mind early attempts to improve Polish homes through design in the same period. The major figures involved in the process were women, led by Wanda Telakowska, a founder of the Institute of Industrial Design in 1950.
These brisk remarks from the three-day conference are based on impressions rather than in-depth comparison between my research area and the other speakers’ findings. By bringing them here I don’t want to suggest that there is any particular kinship between Polish and Portuguese or Swedish design—although the parallels with the latter could definitely be drawn; neither I want to create an impression that the history of Polish design is instrumental in understanding design history as a whole. Instead I would like to stress the importance of inter-thematic discussions with other scholars that the DHS conference offers. For me, this annual meeting has been crucial in forming my thinking about design history not as a discipline confined to national or regional preoccupations, but rather as a series of much wider and interconnected events, trends and phenomena.