7 May 2015 -
The Design History Society Student Conference Bursary Award provided me the generous opportunity to attend the 2014 Annual Design History Society Conference Design for War and Peace at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford, and there to present my paper “Containment and Détente: Dutch Public Design as Cold War Diplomacy”. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Design Cultures department of the VU University Amsterdam, where I am working on my dissertation “The History of the Construction of the Idea of 'Dutch Design', 1970-2012”. This research traces the development of ideas about Dutch Design as well as the actors involved in the production and institutionalization of those ideas, particularly in relation to Dutch international cultural policy. This research is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) program Mosaic.
The paper I presented at the conference discusses the international influences on the construction of the idea that Dutch Design is inherently social. In the postwar period, 'design for the public sector', or 'public design', became a subject of national and international policies in the Netherlands. The clearest expression of this is the internationally traveling exhibition Dutch Design for the Public Sector from 1973 whose purpose was to illustrate government's implementation of design in its basic public services such as transportation, communication, healthcare, and street furniture among others. Through this government-produced discourse, design from the Netherlands became successfully construed as socially engaged, idealistic, progressive, anti-commercial and counter-cultural—associations that persist until today. Although often explained as the natural outcome of a 'typically' Dutch cultural identity, this paper argues that to understand the association between design from the Netherlands and social commitment, it is necessary to examine its entanglements not only in national frameworks of cultural heritage but also in international networks of cultural diplomacy. Taking my cue from Bruno Latour, I examine the discursive but also the material construction of the association between Dutch and socially engaged design by tracing the actor-networks involved in the production, dissemination and reception of Dutch Design for the Public Sector. In so doing this paper sheds light on the interrelations between the construction of design from the Netherlands as a socially engaged practice and its mobilization by the government as a form of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. However, as Bruno Latour reminds us, the fate of facts and artefacts are in latter user's hands. Thus, to understand the endurance of the association between Dutch and socially engaged design over decades it is necessary to examine which other actors and networks have participated in maintaining this construction, and how the meanings of the terms 'Dutch', 'design' and 'social engagement' have changed over time.
In this paper I presented a summary of the main argument put forward in one of the chapters of my PhD dissertation. The constructive feedback the paper received, the input from other lectures dealing with similar topics, as well as the opportunity to discuss historical and methodological questions with other participants have been enormously beneficial to my research.