The 2018 DHS Conference took place under the aegis of the Parsons School of Design in September 2018. For me it has been substantially productive to participate in this event, which was the first DHS Conference experience in my academic career. I would like to, once again, extend my gratitude to Sarah Lichtman and the DHS organising team for supporting my paper within the student bursary scheme.
Knitting through the sessions, the papers presented in the conference treated displacement in design both conceptually and literally. What happens when styles and concepts are displaced from their original context within the same design paradigm? Or, what happens when design objects and/or designers themselves are displaced within different cultural and geographical milieus? This is of particular interest to me as a young academic in-the-making, interested in the ways design is instrumentalised often by nation states and its ruling elites, in my case 1930s Turkey. The creation of nation states often ensues sorts of vacuums that concern not only the displacement of people, but with it objects, resources and know-how. Therefore, I was particularly drawn to panels contingent to the intersection of national commemoration and/or propaganda through (graphic) design. My observations thus mostly pertain to these areas that concern, but are not limited to, the Graphics panels.
On the first Graphics panel, in her paper concerning the decontextualisation of the exhibition of graphic objects, Teal Triggs argued for the curatorial role played by graphic designers themselves. Triggs's argument on the expansion of the disciplinary horizons beyond creativity to historical and curatorial quests has serious implications on the development of design and its correlation with popular culture. If the graphic designer works with the acknowledgement that 'all design is political and all politics are designed', how would this impact her work as a historically situated subject?
On the second Graphics panel, Robert Lzicar's paper offered an insight to demystifying Swiss graphic design, arguing not only a British involvement in its reputation, but in its very making. If the development and diffusion of a design paradigm cannot be attributed to an enclosed space of productivity, such as a nation, displacement in terms of emulation, inspiration and aspiration seems ironically inherent within design itself. This has a striking significance today since Swiss graphic design and typography are awaiting their place in UNESCO's 'List of Intangible Cultural Heritage', as observed by Lzicar.
In the same panel, Linda King's paper argued the impact of migrant Dutch and British designers in Ireland's state-led design agency Kilkenny's works during the 1960s for international propaganda on tourism. This resonated many affinities with Judith Camille Rosette and Giselle Joyce Nadine de la Peña's paper on the development and aftermath of another state-led design initiative: the Design Center Phillipines (DCP). Both papers were remarkable in pointing out the different ways through which, in the post-modern era, design was instrumentalised to suggest different perceptions for nation states. Both Kilkenney and DCP, set out to free the nation of its colonial past, but perhaps as the presenters argued what they instead succeeded at was ironically representing the nation through new referents, which were often once again alien to its community.
Representing a political community well is always difficult, as underscored by the final keynote speaker, Paul Chaat Smith, Curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. As a curator at the museum, Smith had the task to represent and commemorate a rather negative absent presence of Indigenous American peoples within contemporary USA. As his recent curatorial practices had wonderfully displayed, Native Americans were always present in American popular culture through their simultaneous absence from the social sphere. Once mythified, as in Roland Barthes' 'depoliticized speech', an imaginary American Indian permeated into contemporary American life through advertisements and brand identities, which took it as inspiration. Yet decontextualising these graphic objects and laying bare that absence as an irony of presence, the role of the designer as curator, historian and creator becomes all the more valuable, as previously suggested by Triggs.
Any attempt to give a clear picture of the DHS Conference would be misleading without mentioning the wonderful gala dinner that took us through magnificent views of New York City. Gazing at the illuminated Statue of Liberty, the unmistakable materialisation of the spirit of the American nation, I couldn’t help but wonder: was she not also displaced? Although he later rejected the similarity between the two projects, Bartholdi's 1869 design for a colossal statue of a lighthouse to commemorate the Suez canal, 'Egypt carrying the Light to Asia', is strikingly similar with the Lady of Liberty. Had the Khedive consented to its construction, would we have a world where the concept of freedom would be displaced into the East and represented by an allegory of an Egyptian countrywoman? And how different would that actually have been?
I would like to conclude by saying that the DHS Conference has been crucially helpful in showing us design historians that we need to further knit the connective threads between the central design paradigms and the periphery to actually reveal 'design's place in history'.
Emin Artun Ozguner PhD Candidate, RCA/V&A History of Design
Headline image: Bartholdi's 'Liberty Enlightening the World' of 1886, one of the highlights of the gala dinner.