3 January 2015 -
Compared to the annual conferences of recent years, in Barcelona, Brighton and Ahmedabad, the traditionally academic nature of the college and Oxford itself was an interesting contrast. The serious and restrained atmosphere of the environment matched the difficult topic of the conference, war. The broad range of subjects represented amongst the papers was impressive, extending to numerous other disciplines besides design history.
As my research interests are related to socialist design in Europe during 20th century, it was interesting to see two strands on that subject, approaching socialist design from two different angles: propaganda and memory. The presentations in the first panel on socialist design, Objects of Memory: Central Europe, chaired by Sabrina Rahman, were written by Paul Stirton, Rebecca Bell and the author of this review. Methodologically, all three papers focused on particular case studies and used them in order to determine the role of memory within the production of design and art. While two of the papers studied the post-war Stalinist period, Paul Stirton's research was dedicated to the era of the First World War, thereby adding contrast to the panel.
The panel Redefining Propaganda: Socialist Art, Architecture and Design as a Critical Practice During the Cold War, chaired by Mike O'Mahony, included papers by Jane Sharp, Tom Cubbin and Katarzyna Jeżowska. Interestingly, the panel managed to comprise all three of the mentioned mediums, art, architecture and design, as well as different time periods from modernism to postmodernism. As the latter especially has been rarely discussed in design history, Tom Cubbin's presentation on postmodern urban design in the Soviet Union was fascinating, particularly because of the demonstrably wide selection of sources.
From the perspective of a global history of design and material culture, it was pleasant to see the geographical scope of conference widening and incorporating new regions. While Asia, Africa and North America were included amongst the subjects, South and Central America were sadly represented to a lesser extent, as the talks focusing on that region did not constitute a separate panel. Nevertheless, hopefully next year will be different in that sense, as the annual conference takes place in San Francisco.
One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote speech given by professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck College, titled Designed to Kill: The Social Life of Weapons in Twentieth-Century Britain. Professor Bourke analysed weapons as tools of design, not simple objects: instead of simply focusing on the design of weapons themselves, she also studied the wounds inflicted by weapons, concentrating on the social history.
Finally, Dr Claire O'Mahoney deserves praise for the general organisation of the event. The meticulousness of conference convenors was visible in even the smallest of details, such as the handcrafted nametags. The punctuality of the talks was impressive. My sincere thanks to the Design History Society, for offering the bursaries to students and thereby making it easier to participate in conferences during the early stages of career. The large number of students who attended the annual conference this year illustrates well the benefit of this scheme.