I was honoured to receive a Design History Society Travel & Conference Award to attend the 2019 DHS Annual Conference, held at the Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The event was flawlessly organized by the conveners, Dr. Elizabeth Kramer and Dr. Janine Barker. This was my second time at attending this annual event, and I was impressed as much by the excellent organization as by the scope and diversity of the talks within the main topic ‘The Cost of Design’.
Furthermore, this conference visit was remarkable due to the special role of Newcastle in the formation of design history as a discipline. I was delighted to be present at the location of the 1975 conference ‘Design 1900 – 1960’, convened by the division of the History of Art and Complementary Studies at Newcastle Polytechnic in 1975, that would become an annual event and facilitate the organization of Design History Society in 1977. Unfortunately, a small cold – the cost of my late night train ride from the Gatwick airport – prevented me from joining the conference visit to the Shipley Art Gallery and viewing the studio ceramics from the Henry Rothschild Collection exhibited there. This will be my first destination on my next visit to Newcastle.
As a researcher previously focused on Soviet design and wishing to expand my geographical scope, I was highly interested to learn about economic aspects of design in different temporal and geographic contexts. I chose to attend those talks that expanded my knowledge of the issues addressed in my recently completed book on the history of Soviet design, and also the talks that relate my current research interest in transnational design exchanges. These talks dealt with such themes as social housing; international exhibitions as both facilitators of trade and ideological displays; the meanings of luxury and artistry in the context of mass production; and the uses of design for organizing planned economy. At the first round of parallel sessions, Tom Spalding demonstrated how contested imperial and national identities, iconographies and ideas of domestic life informed the British housing project for Irish veterans in Cork, accomplished in 1927 and 1933. These homes served not just as justly deserved domestic space for the veterans and their families, but as the gesture of gratitude from the British state, and a showcase of British ‘conservative modernism’ enhanced by new household technologies. The British and Irish hierarchies of housing in accordance with social class impressed me as not dissimilar from those developed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ‘30s, albeit in very different socio-economic and political circumstances. Notably, both British and Soviet architects were inspired by the Garden City Ideal.
Also on the first conference day, I was happy to hear the talk by Mads Nygaard Folkmann and Anders V. Munch on the idea of ‘affordable luxury’ that has been pivotal in re-articulating the tradition of Scandinavian Modern. Having spent two years in Denmark as a postdoctoral researcher, I developed an interest in the narrative of Scandinavian and Danish Modern and therefore benefited from learning more about its recent success as a brand. The qualities typical for this narrative – practicality, functionalism, and adherence to the high level of craftsmanship – have been conjoined in the notion of affordable luxury. This notion, as the speakers emphasized, is a paradox: luxury is, by definition, accessible only to a few and remains subject of desire and envy by the rest. The companies promoting ‘New Danish Modern’, however, deployed the discussion of everyday aesthetics to offer luxury to anyone who is open to be educated as a discerning consumer. This strategy appears as an attempt to resolve the old contradiction between modernist rhetoric of democratic design and the high cost of modernist icons.
The talk by Marta Filipová, ‘On shoes and beer: The cost of national pavilions at interwar world’s fairs’, was an important source of information regarding on of the new vectors of my research. The literature on world fairs, understandingly, focuses on displays of ideology and colonial gains, but this focus obscures the obvious original aim of these events: the advancement of trade relations. The speaker demonstrated how in the interwar period the young Czechoslovakian state used the two brands – Pilsner beer and Bata shoes – at once for generating economic benefits and for promoting the image of culturally and technologically advanced nation. This eventually led not only to creating the powerful national image – that was challenged when Czechoslovakia fell victim to the German occupation in 1939 – but also to creating global brands that left ‘both the state and the nation behind’.
Having previously focused on researching design under state socialism, on the second day of the conference I was sure not to miss the presentations on different roles of design in distinct socialist contexts. Rujiana Rebernjak showed how design was employed by the Yugoslavian state since the 1950s for facilitating the path to socialism distinct from that of the Soviet bloc and based on self-management. The designers turned to cybernetics as scientific basis and methodological tool for managing economy and bridging the gap between the abstract idea and practice of self-management. This preoccupation generated systemic approaches to urban planning and to art making that included computer as the medium – the approaches that resonated in the Soviet bloc countries, too. The paper by Erica Morawski discussed a more traditional tool for managing economic and social relations in the context of socialist Cuba. The ration card, libreta, was devised by the Cuban Ministry of Internal Trade for mediating consumer goods. The talk analyzed the libreta not as merely a bureaucratic tool of state socialism, but as a material object that facilitated the embodiment of designed goods and thereby organized relations between people and objects. Moreover, the libreta structured the hierarchies, based on different professions’ varying access to the coupons for particular goods, and, contrary to the state’s intention, generated black market activities. Morawski’s analysis of the libreta expanded my topography of ‘agentic objects’ that can organize complex social interactions.
My paper entitled ‘The designer as producer: tensions between design and industries in late Soviet Russia’ was included into the section ‘Collaboration and conflict in design’. The papers focused on the conflicting vision of efficiency and quality promoted by different experts within industries. The panel opened with the talk by Triin Jerlei ‘“Local furniture industry is not interested in baby-sitters”: The resolution to modernize Baltic design in 1955’. Jerlei’s research contributes to the growing scholarship on Soviet design by highlighting a special position of the Baltic republics in the design reform in the time of de-Stalinization. The resolution jointly drafted by Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Unions of Artists in the 1950s and addressed to the USSR Council of Ministers, emphasized the urgent need to improve the quality of mass-produced goods by obliging local factories to hire artists and de-centralizing decision making from Moscow to Baltic states’ institutions. Presented at the Baltic Applied Arts Exhibition, the resolution was ignored by the central Soviet press, even though Russian art critics were praising Baltic applied artists and the most advanced in the country.
The tensions between Soviet artists and industries persisted in the following decades, in spite of art professional’s repeated attempts to reform the system: this was the topic of my talk. For solving the conflict between designers and factory administrations, in the early 1970s Soviet design theorists proposed the notion of ‘production culture’ – a seamless workflow organisation that prioritises the continuous update of the assortment. Such production culture required the willingness of designers and industry managers to communicate on the most essential needs of the population and the requirements of dynamically changing daily life. The proposal, however, never materialized completely due to the growing mistrust between artists, on the one hand, and engineers, technicians and factory administration, on the other. By the 1980s, Soviet decorative artists gravitated towards experimentation with materials, forms and symbols that would set them apart from their earlier stomping grounds as mediators of mass production and consumption.
The final talk of the panel, by Denise Ruisinger, switched the attendees from late Soviet socialism to Zurich at the time of the formation of mechanical mass production. Her paper discussed the slow lengthy process of integrating designers into silk industry that commenced in the 1880s. Alongside the experts on new technology, designers in Zurich silk industry faced the new task of developing original patterns adequate to technological capacities of mechanical mass production. The original designs were to replace the earlier practice of decomposition – reading traditional design patterns and adapting them to new technology. The notion of decomposition was taken up by the panel’s moderator Gabrielle Oropallo for bringing together the three talks: as he noted, decomposition is a form of reverse engineering that was notoriously typical for Soviet industries (and that, as I emphasized, Soviet design reformers continuously protested against).
The final conference day ended with a very inspiring keynote presentation by Tereza Kuldova ‘Luxury and Corruption: Re-Thinking Design, Crime and Neoliberalism’. The author of two books on two seemingly very different topics – Luxury Indian Fashion: A Social Critique (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) and How Outlaws Win Friends and Influence People (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), Kuldova demonstrated that the notion of luxury as sacred and private unites the Indian neo-aristocracy and Central European outlaw gangsters. In today’s world of instant reproducibility of goods and images and of obligatory transparency for the sake of safety, the access to secret knowledge and rituals become luxury comparable to labour-intensive handmade objects. This argument echoed the many conference’s discussions on the different meanings of the term ‘cost’: moral, economic, environmental, reputational and psychological. These broad discussions and often provocative arguments and questions have been very valuable for my work on a new research project.