I was honoured to be awarded a Design History Society (DHS) Conference Bursary to attend the 2018 DHS Annual Conference, held at Parsons School of Design in New York City. The conference was expertly planned by the convener, Dr. Sarah A. Lichtman. I was particularly excited to see her again, as many years ago, she had been a teaching assistant at the Bard Graduate Center when I was an MA student, and I always appreciated her fascinating lectures, as well as her helpful and encouraging comments on my essays.
My paper was included in a session titled "World War II: Graphics, Interiors, and Design". All four session papers focused on civilians and how their lives during the war can be better understood by considering various ways in which they interacted with design. Researcher Chiara Barbieri's paper analysed the drawn images created by German and Austrian refugees for publication in the newsletters of the internment camps in which they were held. PhD candidate Michelle Everidge Anderson's presentation focused on Japanese American youth in a California internment camp and how their home economics teacher instructed them to create a domestic environment within a military barrack. Design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan's paper on British Restaurants in the Second World War was fascinating and prompted the session Chair, Pat Kirkham, to share a personal anecdote (that her grandmother had worked in the British Restaurant and had once served breakfast to the King).
My paper, "Design Scholarship Displaced: Use of the German Domestic Interior in Nazi Propaganda", discussed the ways in which NS propagandists distorted the history of German furniture design to further notions of ethnic and cultural superiority, as well as to fuel hatred of "the other" among German civilians. Although my topic is, by definition, a tragic one, it is an important part of the historiography of design studies, and vital to our understanding of how totalitarian governments can fear design, attempt to erase history, and manipulate perceptions of art and the past to further political goals.
During the conference, I attended several fascinating and inspiring talks that broadened my understanding of the field of design history, and that which have helped me think about historical questions in new and dynamic ways. Tony Fry's keynote speech on unsettlement cities and post-conflict environments was particularly engaging, especially his discussion on how future design solutions must be found to deal with the upcoming effects of climate change. A parallel session chaired by Sabrina Rahman, my current doctoral adviser at the University of Exeter, included a riveting presentation, "When Rome Will Have Gone to Tunis", in which speakers Annalisa Metta and Jonathan Berger used words, music, and photographs to describe how climate change affects cityscapes and local cultural rituals.
As my doctoral thesis centers on Prussian neoclassicism of the 1820s and 30s, I was very interested to hear Peder Valle's paper, "Making Room for More: Creating and Re-Creating the Historical Interior", which focused on a Norwegian neoclassical interior of the same period. It was fascinating to see the contrasts and similarities between Prussian and Scandinavian objects, but it was also wonderful to learn how the Oslo Museum of Decorative Arts and Design has cared for the interior and adapted it for accessibility and preservation. Another paper in the same session, PJ Carlino's "Upfront and Personal: Furniture Design and the Feminisation of Clerical Offices", was an intriguing discussion of how office furniture of the long nineteenth-century was used to create gendered spaces. Sara J. Oshinksy's paper "Erwin Thieberger: Holocaust Survivor, Immigrant Roofer, Accidental Artisan", discussed the work of a Polish Auschwitz survivor whose scrap metal objects, including a Chanukah Lamp used at a White House Chanukah party, explored the complexity of the refugee and immigrant experience in the United States.
Papers presented at the Design History Society's Annual Conference in 2018 spanned a wide range of topics that intersected with the conference theme of Design and Displacement. These included not only displaced peoples and the environments they built and the objects they created, but also textiles and fashion viewed outside of their original context, and furniture and domestic objects removed from their original site of creation and/or their original intended purpose. The conference succeeded in presenting a wide range of subjects that widened the field of design history and approached design from a global perspective.
Serena Newmark Doctoral Candidate, Art History and Visual Culture, University of Exeter