8 December 2019 -
The 2018 annual conference of the Design History Society focused on the timely subject of "Design and Displacement." Panels engaged with this subject across a broad range of perspectives and methodologies representing design history, art history, anthropology and material culture. The range of approaches was manifested in the panel I was invited to participate in, which was titled "The Fabric of Cross-Cultural Displacement" and brought together three textile historians who presented their advanced graduate work. Each paper presented not only a different historical and cultural test case, but also a different methodological approach. Rebecca J. Key's paper discussed the fascinating history of the sewing programs facilitated by the Red Cross that functions both as a form of relief and as cultural diplomacy. Located in the intersection of material culture, social history and design history, her paper used rarely seen archival materials to lay out a complex picture of the economical, national and gendered ideals represented in those hardly known (and beautiful!) pieces of garments. Magali An Brethon's paper discussed the costumes used in the classical Khmer court dance of Cambodia that is now practiced among immigrant communities in the United States. Using methods drawn from anthropology and ethnology, as well as cultural history, Magali provided a historical survey of the dance and its costumes, and the significance it carries for second and third generation of Cambodian immigrants trying to preserve the tradition as a way of forming their own hyphenated identity. She even used herself as an informant, and shared her experience of donning the elaborate traditional costume in her visit to a dance studio in Long Beach, CA.
My own paper was based on a section of my dissertation, which investigates the cross-cultural work of notable American textile designer Ruth Reeves (1896-1965). It focused on Reeves’s shifting perceptions of cross-cultural practice as she became deeply involved in inter-American cultural diplomacy during the 1930s and early 1940s. Particularly, the paper discussed Reeves’s year-long tour of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia during 1940-1941, which was supported by a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Grant, and her subsequent attempts to organize exhibitions of Andean art alongside her own artistic responses to it in the United States. Vehemently arguing for the propaganda-value of her projects, Reeves attempted to rethink her role as a designer in the context of wartime cultural relations. While she had previously vocally promoted the use of indigenous art as the source for an innovative American modern design, Reeves’s experience in South America changed her perspective about pursuing collaborations with industrial manufacturers and more broadly about the ethics of artistic borrowing.
My own background is in art history and I usually present my research in art history conferences, in which design history is still a rather marginalized field. In these conferences, it is rare to meet other scholars whose field closely overlap with mine, or who are familiar with the history I am studying. It was a wonderful experience to receive questions and feedback from informed colleagues who share a common ground. After the three presentations we engaged in a conversation moderated by Michele Majer of the Bard Graduate Center, who also presented each speaker with insightful questions that stimulated a discussion with other panels attendees.
I was also very fortunate for the opportunity to participate in the "Design History Society Annual Publishing and Research Methods Workshop," which was held at Cooper Hewitt Design Museum one day before the conference. This exciting workshop was meticulously organized by Megha Rajguru, Lydia Caston and other DHS representatives, and invited graduate students and early career scholars to particulate in panels and conversations that provided information and raised various issues pertaining to the practical side of our profession. In the morning, we heard presentations by representatives of commercial publishing houses: Claire Constable, an Assistant Editor at Bloomsbury, and Ruth Glasspool, Managing Editor at Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group Journals. They both offered an overview of the work of their divisions, and practical advice on how to go through the dreading process of publishing. After a short break we reconvened and engaged in a conversation in small groups of three-four participants, in which each of us shared some of the challenges we encountered related to collecting information for our research. The program closed with another fascinating panel that brought together editors and scholars who presented diverse perspectives on some of the pressing issues pertaining to the field of academic publishing. Penny Sparke and Paul Stirton, editors of the Journal of Design History and of West 86th, respectively, presented the focus and mission of their journals and some of the decisions-processes entailed in their position as editors of these particular publications. Raiford Guins, founding editor of the Journal of Visual Culture, shared his perspective on some of the hardships of editing an interdisciplinary journal. Claire Constable and Ruth Glasspool complemented their morning talks by sharing some of the digital platforms for publishing available through their publishing houses. Finally, Emily Candela gave a fascinating talk on her design blog, and presented the advantages as well as problems in sharing one's academic research through non-traditional channels. The entire program provided invaluable tools for early career scholars beginning to navigate through the world of academic publishing.
In between panels and workshops I was also able to catch several remarkable craft/design exhibitions: The Senses: Design Beyond Vision and Color Decoded: The Textiles of Richard Landis at the Cooper Hewitt; and Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Shapiro and Tanya Aguiniga: Craft & Care at the Museum of Art and Design. I am grateful for the DHS Travelling Grant that allowed me to participate in the 2018 conference and visit the city I called home until very recently.