16 April 2020 -

Report: DHS Conference Bursary by Gretchen Von Koenig

In the Fall of 2019, I was graciously awarded a student bursary to present research at the annual Design History Conference held Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The award allowed me to explore a facet of my graduate research in a new light, present to an esteemed group of scholars in my field as well as continue my own education in the field of Design History from all the fascinating and engaging sessions offered.

My paper was titled “ Design Education & Industry in America” and it explored the ways in which capitalism was infused into the origins of Industrial Design education for American schools, aiming to dispel the predominant narrative of Bauhaus socialist values playing an outsize role in design education influence. The United States of America, slow to adapt or institute schooling devoted to industrial design at a government level, became extraordinary susceptible to business interests controlling what design education should consist of, how it should be deployed and ultimately what design meant-parameters that design education still grapples with today. The presentation & paper aimed to shed light on some of those forces through a particular instance at Pratt Institute from 1930-1950 when the curriculum was professionalizing into a four-year degree from a vocational program, analyzing archival material from the school. It also analyzed influential figures such as Richard Bach of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, archival curriculum guides developed by professional associations of the 1940s & 50s, as well as the consumer driven milieu of the streamlining era when design education was coming of age in the US.

In America, design education emerges under tutelage of respected designers of streamlining era. As Arthur J Pulos (Board member of IDSA and author of American Design Ethic) states “virtually all the first generation of industrial designers served on the advisory board of one school or another.Thus these men, who were themselves not formally trained in education in the field, drew from their experience the knowledge and wisdom to establish a practical base for industrial design education in the US” (Pulos, American Design Ethic , p. 401). Unlike Europeans who first like to formalize an approach then practice- Americans 1 practiced first and then “form an organized philosophy from the results.” The results however were heavily influenced by these men working in the age of consumer engineering, and the birth of planned obsolescence through style to encourage mass sales, an aspect of its genesis that lay under capitalist auspices- vastly different from the socialist ideals of Bauhaus, the most commonly cited influence on american design education (Shannan Clark, “When Modernism Was Still Radical: The Design Laboratory and the Cultural Politics of Depression-Era America,” American Studies 50, no. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2009): 36. ; Jeffery Meikle, “A Consumer Society and Its Discontents,” in Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design In America 1925-1939).

Two of these respected designers were also incredibly influential figures for design education, Donald Dohner & Alexander Kostellow. The legacy of Dohner & Kostellow was cemented into curriculum guides produced by the Industrial Designers’s Institute, co-authored and copyrighted by John Vassos, another popular Streamlining designer of the time. In these strikingly organized 3 curriculum guides (quite the contrast from the Bauhaus even just visually), one can see the influence of Donald Dohner and Alexander Kostellows consumer-focused values exposed in the links of how the curriculum is seen to scaffold upwards.

Industrial Designers’ Institute, 1953 Promotional Booklet. Personal Archives of Joe Mango, Image Courtesy of Victoria Mantrang

The rest of my paper shows how these curricular guides influenced design schools across America, and how the impact of Streamlining design ultimately had a greater influence on education in America than the Bauhaus. One of the most exciting aspects of this research was the opportunity to visit and research in new archives, including the Pratt Institute Archives & Richard Bach Papers in the Columbia Avery Archives . Both archives provided an interesting glimpse into the players of design education in America, as well as how the education was cemented into one of the most prestigious design schools in America, Pratt Institute.

1930-1932, Richard Bach Papers, Box 1, Fol 7: Notes and Correspondence. "Replies of manufacturers to questions regarding establishment of an industrial art school in New York City and its relation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art"
Promotional Material 1950-54, Industrial Design at Pratt Pratt Archives: Industrial Design, 1937–2002. Records of the School of Art and Design, 8. Pratt Institute Archives.

My own session, Education & The Economy” was an incredible learning opportunity, particularly Dr. Amanda Briggs paper titled “ Pedagogy & Practice: Nottingham Lace”. The glimpse into how industrially driven schools in Britain were teaching fashion history had an immense amount of thematic crossover to my own research, and provided new lenses to think through design education. Another session the following day, “ The Business of the Bauhaus: Bauhaus, Education & Business” was extraordinarily related to my own research, helping me think through how Bauhaus’s own legacy may have been warped through Gropius’s socialist ideals, that didn’t quite play out in actuality. In fact, Profesor Kyunghee Pyun and Professor Daniel Levinson Wilk’s paper “ Analyzing Bauhaus in Business and Labor History for Art and Design Students ” was so relevant to my own research and my current practice of teaching design history, that we have fostered a relationship and have continued the dialogue back in NYC, tackling how labor issues in design history translates to design pedagogy in the classroom.

I would also like to mention the incredible co-conveners of the conference, Dr Elizabeth Kramer & Dr Janine Barker. The program they assembled was one of the greatest learning opportunities in 2019, allowing me to grow professionally and personally in the field of Design History. They both made me (a fairly young academic & historian) feel welcome, creating a space where I felt comfortable to share new research in such esteemed company. Many of the young scholars I spoke with at DHS 2019 felt the same way and I thank them both from the bottom of my heart. I look forward to DHS 2020!


Gretchen is a curator and grant specialist for the Van Wagenen House, a historic home maintained by the Office of Cultural Affairs for the City of Jersey City. She is also an instructor of art & design history at Parsons School of Design, New Jersey Institute of Technology & Michael Graves School of Design at Kean University. She has a background in museum education & development, previously working at the Brooklyn Museum and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Museum of Design. She also is Deputy Director for Art Fair 14C, a nonprofit art fair based in Jersey City, NJ and a member of the Architecture & Design committee for the Jersey City Arts Council.


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