30 October 2015 -
My attendance at the Design History Society’s annual conference this year was my first foray into design history. My background is in cultural and social history, but my PhD thesis explores how Arts and Crafts design narratives were absorbed into mainstream educational initiatives in twentieth-century Britain as part of the project of democratization after the First World War. The theme of this year’s annual conference, ‘Design and the Spirit of Critical Utopianism’, therefore seemed like an ideal setting to put forth some of my research into how traditionally elite notions of design were applied to liberal social-reform agendas upon the advent of mass secondary education in 1918.
Our panel, ‘‘What the City Might do for the Craftsman’: London, Arts and Crafts, and Utopianism in the early twentieth century’, was carefully conceived to focus on fin-desiècle London: the decades when the momentum of the Arts and Crafts movement Proper was, allegedly, all but spent. We each focused on artistic and design initiatives in this period
that demonstrated how Arts and Crafts idealism remained embedded in metropolitan culture, albeit altered to reflect a new social order. We were also each concerned with how the geography of the city and its various institutional spaces shaped cultural, artistic, and political agendas. The ensuing discussion was both fruitful and lively. Specific links were drawn out between the papers, such as the ideological force of LCC Progressivism in early-twentieth century London and the role that women played in recasting ideas about the efficacy of art and craft in a modern (and modernist) culture.
I am therefore pleased to report that my first experience of design history was a positive one, having learnt much from my co-presenters, our erudite chairperson Margret Kentgens-Craig, and those present at the panel. Moreover, I found the various keynotes particularly stimulating for their emphasis on connecting historical thinking about design to present-day issues such as environmentalism and the pace of technological change (rendered all the more vivid by our situation in San Francisco and proximity to Silicon Valley). I would like to extend a warm thank you to all those involved in organizing the conference and for affording me the opportunity to meet many interesting new people and to hear about their research.