2015 Annual Conference of Design History Society

By Ingrid Halland.

To design is to envision the future. This year, the 2015 Annual Conference of the Design History Society was held in San Francisco at the California Collage of the Arts, where the overall theme of the conference was Critical Utopianism. In the spirit of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, the conference title “How We Live & How We Might Live” invited scholars from all over the world to reflect on how design is shaping the future. By assessing historical approaches, through various case studies ranging from IKEA, camping, design philosophy, microprocessors, megacities and home computers, Critical Utopianism was utilized to view design as both ethic and aesthetic means of envisioning utopian futures.

Many of the presentations touched upon themes relevant to the Back to the Sustainable Future research project, such as Alison Clarke’s paper on the Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO). By discussing its cooperation with contemporary design figures like Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek, Clarke emphasized the organization’s impact on the 1970s discourse on social design. In a panel on the dissemination of modern design in the 1950s to 70s Latin America, the role of education was discussed by both Livia Rezende and Patricia Lara-Betancourt. While Rezende investigated what visions of better living conditions, economic and cultural autonomy that was to be found in the two different and innovative pedagogical approaches of the Open City in Chile and modern design schools in Brazil, Lara-Betancourt discussed the influence of Gui Bonsiepe and Victor Papanek to Latin American design education.

In her keynote speech, associate professor of Architecture at Columbia University, Felicity D. Scott, shared her research on the open land counterculture communes in California in the 1960s and 70s, which is part of her research project Outlaw Territory: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counter-Insurgency, 1966-1979.

Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford University, closed the conference with an inspiring keynote lecture on “The Democratic Surround.” Turner showed how the government in the United States considered museum exhibitions as the perfect tool to display - and impose - the democratic ideal both in the US and overseas. According to Turner, the US state employed exhibitions as political propaganda; the exhibitions had an accordingly democratic layout, where audience could move freely throughout the exhibition space and thus make their own choices. However, inscribed into this democratic surround was an optional compulsion of democratic ideals.