16 February 2019 -

Report: DHS Conference Bursary by Nicholas de Godoy Lopes

It was a joy to present at the 2018 DHS Conference. Not only was it my first presentation at a major academic conference, it was my first time attending one as well, and I can say with certainty that it was an incredibly rewarding experience. Having heard presentations on objects as diverse as Sèvres teacups, ethnographic plaster casts, and pens fashioned from bullets, I believe the mission of the conference - to explore and provoke discussion about the many possible ways design can express displacement - was undoubtedly achieved. Even more, this gathering provided me with great personal, as well as academic, enrichment. The dinner cruise was truly an unmissable event, and it was delightful to speak with so many wonderful scholars, both established and, like me, taking their first steps into this rewarding field. It was also an opportunity to introduce my discipline for the first time to my mother Elizabeth, who attended the conference with me, and the praise she gave of her experience is I believe further proof of the success of this convening.

My mother Elizabeth and I on the final day of the conference.

My panel took place on Saturday morning and focused on graphic objects. My presentation discussed an 1893 Viennese pattern book composed of staged photographs of nature, and analysed how this work engaged theories that natural form functioned as ornament and, therefore, could be easily incorporated into decorative schemes. I was honoured to present beside Dr. Jessica Kelly, who discussed in her own paper The Architectural Review (magazine) as a case study in the intersection of architectural and design history and production, and Dr. Katherine Hepworth, who presented Dr. David Lambert and Dr. Sue Perk's paper on the influential infographics of British graphic design group Diagram. I was struck by how each of our papers addressed distinctly different types of graphic design. Even more, I felt each of our papers illuminated unique, complex, and surprising ways that design can be a form of displacement.

None of our papers, for instance, focused on the idea of displacement as the physical movement of people and things, though certainly the inherent portability of the magazine or book had an undeniable relevance to each of our topics. Instead, our presentations seemed to be connected by a desire to illuminate how graphic design itself was a form of displacement.  They highlighted how the flow of ideas and data through graphic design often takes on a form of conceptual and visual, if not physical, displacement as information is recontextualised, interpreted, and presented within new systems or structures. The relocation of objects, whether natural or architectural, into new design contexts through the use of images was also a key theme of Dr. Kelly's and my presentation, illustrating another way in which displacement is manifested in design.

Whether presenting ornament as a means of integrating the natural world into design, the magazine as an architectural product, or the graphic as statistical tool, each of our presentations also commented on how acts of redefinition often accompanies displacement. The idea of identity creation and transformation was another common theme of many of the panels I attended. In fact, one, titled "Identities: Indigenous, National, and Hybrid", addressed this topic directly - I was particularly struck by the paper "Exotic Ornamentation: Hybrid Styles and National Identity in the Design Center Philippines", presented by Judith Camille Rosette and Giselle Joyce Nadine de la Peña, both graduate students at the University of the Philippines. Their discussion of the government-founded Design Center Philippines, and its attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to create a state-sanctioned national style, was a fascinating and sobering look into an example of design activity shaped by dictatorship and economic interest. I was particularly struck that the Design Center often exploited the use of local patterns to lend an "exotic" or "authentic" air to their export products; the manipulation of motifs with cultural associations in design has to me always been a particularly intriguing and complicated topic.

Images from Rosette’s and de la Peña’s presentation.

Identity was also a key theme of the most unique panel I attended, "Meet Me in St. Louis: Nationalism, Nostalgia, and Fashion as Displacement". In this panel, Dr. Ethan Robey, Dr. Marilyn Cohen, and BGC graduate student Rebecca Tuite discussed topics related to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition and the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, focusing on how this event and Hollywood production helped shape American cultural identity. The singular cohesiveness of this panel, which shifted effortlessly from discussion of the fair itself, to Hollywood-inspired Neo-Victorian trends in twentieth-century fashion, led to a particularly rich discussion. By pivoting around two key design objects, the presenters were each able to illuminate how Americanness has historically been developed by comparisons with the exotic "other" or by reliance on imagined visions of the pasts.

My enjoyment of this panel was not atypical. The many other panels that I attended that I have not mentioned here also provided rich discussions, stunning insights, and fascinating elaborations on the conference theme. The same also can be said about the wonderful keynotes by Dr. Tony Fry, Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, and Dr. Paul Chaat Smith. These three days of talks and presentations were ultimately not only educational, but inspiring. I thank the conveners for accepting my paper, as well as the Design History Society for supplying me with this bursary. I look forward to attending another DHS Conference in the future.

Nicholas de Godoy Lopes
Master's Student, History of Design and Curatorial Studies Program, Parsons School of Design and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Headline image: Gathering for the first keynote on Thursday evening.


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