The Cost of Design: Necessary Diversity in Conversation
As a fortunate recipient of the Design History Society (DHS) Conference Bursary award, I was able to attend, participate and present at the annual conference, titled ‘The Cost of Design’ at Northumbria University in Newcastle, United Kingdom (UK). Convened by Dr. Elizabeth Kramer and Dr. Janine Barker, it was a timely series of conversations that foregrounded the multiple meanings of ‘cost’, in relation to economies, societies, cultures, and importantly, environments. It was my first DHS conference, and therefore, introduction to the members of the DHS body, and I was inspired by the diversity of representation: voices, ideas and methods from areas beyond the borders of Anglo-European traditions. Moreover, the experience challenged my own perceptions of the local, imploring me to consider locality through entangled global networks of influences and reactions.
My current research explores Korean patchwork textiles and questions around national identities, mythologies, gendered histories, and relations between design, material cultures, and the archive. These questions were initially formed through the lens of my previous professional history as a luxury textile and print designer, thus I found Dr. Tereza Kuldova’s keynote, ‘Luxury and Corruption: Re-Thinking Design, Crime and Neoliberalism’ to be a fascinating address to my lived experiences (experiences that have shaped the questions of my current work). Kuldova’s investigation and subsequent definition of luxury as necessarily built on exploitation and embodied labour provoked important questions: specifically, what is the cost of human labour in and for design? This question provides critical foundation for (my) research that looks at colonialism, modernity and industrialisation, in relation to design history.
The second keynote conversation between Professor Aric Chen and Professor Alice Tremlow was useful to understanding relationships between contemporary ideological strategies and building archives. This segment began by discussing Chen’s work as the curator for architecture and design at Hong Kong’s M+, and navigated through questions regarding Hong Kong’s current state of political unrest, working in China, the shifting interiors of consumer experiences, amongst other urgent queries to the problems of curation today. Following Guy Julier’s keynote address that argued that ‘description was a political act’, I was compelled to think about the curator as a political figure, and curation as a political act. Not merely description, but the very objects chosen to build an archive determine how a cultural imaginary is reflected, illustrated and crucially, remembered. Curation was explored through contemporary problems of the Anthropocene: temporality, plastics, commerce, digitality, and so on. I found the address to East Asia as a location of practice particularly pertinent to the shifting global politics of today, and moreover, the look into new spaces of curation, specifically the development of the digital archive, was thought-provoking.
My paper was included in a conversation about ‘Identity, Design and Economy’, alongside Janne Helene Arnesen’s research on Finnish patchwork tradition and Fang-Wu Tung’s presentation of the Taiwanese brand, Kamaro’an. Overlapping themes of national identities and cyclical design economies were addressed through Arnesen’s archive research and Tung’s brand explication. Fundamentally, the question of authenticity was at the foreground of this panel. That is, to discern what it was to be Korean, Finnish or Taiwanese through material cultures was echoed in the parallel narratives of historical circumstance (colonialism and post-war), and material availability.
In addition to these lectures, I was enriched and inspired by dialogues and exchanges outside and in-between the presentations themselves. Cross-cultural conversations that engaged with questions of identities, mythologies, global commodity chains, and pedagogical strategies and experiences, have been helpful to reflecting upon my own research ethics and motivations. The diversity of backgrounds and career pathways offered insight into practical experiences of applying research to broader audiences. I am thankful to the DHS for this opportunity to develop the ideas of my research directly through the feedback from my panel and presentation, and indirectly from the abundance of encouragement and advice from this research community.
Christin Yu is a PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s History of Design programme.