14 July 2016 -

Where is the History of Design Going?

Penny Sparke

The one-day symposium Where is the History of Design Going? was organised by Stéphane Laurent of the University Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paris, to address the way in which the discipline of Design History has developed in both the UK and France and, more importantly, where it is heading, especially in the latter country.   

The line-up of speakers was designed to provide an overview of the above and to stimulate discussion. Given that the event was held in the Galerie Colbert in the Institut national d’histoire de l’art; introduced by Hervé Barbaret, the Director of the Mobilier National des manufactures des Gobelins, de Beauvais and de la Savonnerie; and included a talk by Francoise Ducros, a curator at the Mobilier National, it was clear that French Design History was seen as being rooted in eighteenth- century royal manufacturing and in the ongoing tradition of luxury goods and decorative arts that has flowed from them. That assumption was supplemented by other perspectives on the same phenomenon, however, namely by Stéphane Laurent’s account of French design after 1945, in which protagonists such as Jacques Viénot and French philosopher Paul Souriau played key roles; by Asdis Olafsdottir’s paper on Alvar Aalto’s maison Louis Carré, built just outside Paris in the late 1950s, which offered a more internationally-oriented account of design in France; and Cloé Pitiot’s (a curator at the Beaubourg Centre) talk on the role played by the Centre de Creation Industriel (CCI), formed in 1969 at the Beaubourg, which was responsible for introducing Italian design to France (in the form in that year of an exhibition of Joe Colombo’s work), and for searching for a French equivalent of the concept. The work of the CCI led to Mitterand’s Grands Projets of later years, explained Pitiot, another example of a centrally-controlled design French movement, this time initiated by a Republican state rather than a monarchy, however.

It emerged quite quickly that French design, and by implication its history, has several strands within it and that, as yet, a coherent picture has not fully emerged. Indeed, that is clearly Laurent’s project - to begin, that is, to bring the strands together and establish a discipline that could be called French Design History. The discipline is needed, claimed Laurent, to provide an intellectual contribution to design education in France that is, he explained, currently absent. 

The presence of myself and Jonathan Woodham at the June event, and the papers we presented, were clearly intended to provide a potential model of Design History, one that had been in existence for longer and which has a clear institutional support structure around it. It emerged from conversations throughout the day that, from a French perspective, Design History was seen as being largely Anglo-Saxon in nature, with its roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the ideas of William Morris, developed in response to what were seen as the evils of industrialisation. Jonathan and I presented papers that showed how British Design History, which emerged in the late 1960s, has moved on from the writings of Nikolaus Pevsner to align itself, through the 1980s, 1990 and early 2000s, with social history and culture; to become a taught subject in a number of institutions; and how, most recently, it has sought to move beyond its hitherto exclusive relationship with the western industrialised world and adopt a global perspective.  

It quickly became apparent that, to date, as a taught and institutionalised academic discipline, Design History is more evolved in the UK than it is in France. What also became clear, though, was that what has happened in the UK over the last four decades does not necessarily provide a model for other countries and cultures. Rather, if a French Design History is to emerge it will probably do so in the context of the country’s own internal histories and requirements and it may have very little resemblance to the one with which we are so familiar. 


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