MA thesis: The Designer, the Socialist and the Philosopher

By Malin Kristine Graesse.

In the midst of the late 1960´s modern and industrialized way of life, in a small weaving workshop in Damstredet in Oslo there was a woman committed to utilizing local craftsmanship for its full social potential. Sigrun Berg was the midwife, turned textile designer, turned social entrepreneur. Her method was that of old knowledge and simple technology. Her ideas were of and for the future. She envisioned a way of production that would enable a sustainable way of life for inhabitant in small agrarian communities. Maintaining a life of dignity, happiness and one that would celebrate diversity.

In the early days of environmentalism these ideas seems to be recognized by a variety of other interested parties. In the world of design, the designer Victor Papaneck, for example called for a more socially responsible design in his book Design for the Real World – Human Ecology and Social Change from 1971.

Sigrun Berg's weaving workshop. Photo: Ørnelund, Leif/ Digitalt museum

In this same period of time the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss developed an environmental philosophy that later was coined as deep- ecology. This was indeed the time for awareness, both of social and environmental consequences of the industrialized world.  

Arne Næss uses the word “deep ecology” not as an autonomous philosophy, but to describe a movement of people that, among other things, believes that consumerism and increased industrialization is a major contributor towards an environmental crisis. [1] This movement works around a common ideological platform, which Næss articulated in 1972 and revised together with George Sessions in 1984. [2] It consists of a number of different points, trying to articulate ideas for change in action, and policy-making that can lead towards a more sustainable way of life for both humans and nature alike. Core values are the identification with all living beings, and the happiness derived by simply being a part of nature. Within this platform we find two aspects particularly relevant within the context of design history: the notion of complexity – like the versatile and creative use of resources  – and diversity – like geographical distinctive characteristics and the exploration of different forms of artistic expressions within local communities. [3]

Næss considers the notions of complexity and diversity as an analogy to biodiversity and he emphasizes that the “[…] development of local, soft technologies, will make room for a basic assessment of any technological advances based on cultural parameters”. [4]

Just short of a century earlier there was someone else whose scepticism towards an increased industrialisation was based on thoughts similar to Næss´. William Morris, within the filed of Art History mostly associated with the British Arts-and Crafts movement, was a man of many talents. In addition to being an artist and designer, he also was an active writer and a social activist. In her essay “An Aesthetic Ecocommunist: Morris the Red and Morris the Green” Florence S. Boos focuses on another aspect of Morris’s cast of mind: his views on the preservation of the environment. [5] Boos describes Morris´ writings on nature as cultural- anthropological. [6] His ideas on nature gravitate around the relationship between human beings and their social environment, where artistic freedom and work are of crucial importance. [7] Morris considered the destruction of nature, caused by an increasingly industrialized society, to have devastating effects on social equality and human life. In his 1888 essay “Revival of Handicraft” he argues, though from a more aesthetical perspective, the industrial production of goods and the resulting social inequality being the prerequisite for the deterioration of beauty, and self-expression. [8]

Among his writings on the preservation of nature, his best-known work is the ‘ecotopian’ novel “News from Nowhere”, published in 1890. Set in the future, this novel depicts an ecological utopia where socialist ideologies are the foundation of a society whose agrarian structure functions as a result of its inhabitants´ satisfaction with their way of life. In this utopian future there no longer is a distinction between city and countryside, nature has taken over and reclaimed the cities. It is an egalitarian society and its inhabitants find pleasure in being a part of nature, which in turn lets them find pleasure in their work. Could this be the kind of society envisioned by the deep-ecological movement?

Many scholars within social and ecological studies have made a connection between Morris and Næss. Boos draws a clear connection between Morris` somewhat spiritual environmentalism and Næss` deep-ecology. [9] She states that Morris’s “[…] conviction that spoliation of natural beauty leads straight to other forms of deprivation made him an important predecessor of late twentieth-century environmentalism in all of its various hues of green – from ‘deep’ ecological and ecofeminist ‘theorists’, to ‘pragmatic’ activists and resource planers.” [10] She further states that Næss came to express an almost Morris-like utopian faith in his essay “Deep Ecology for the Twenty-second Century” from 1991, where he articulates a vision for the future where humans are capable of shaping a better future through appropriating the right actions. [11]

In a seemingly familiar spirit Sigrun Berg initiated a small-scale arts and crafts project where she utilized local craftsmanship in order to improve socio-economic conditions of local farmers in rural Norway. Berg’s designs for tapestries, clothes, and other textiles were woven by local women and then sold in the cities. [12] The project was a result of Berg’s observations on how local communities, especially the women, were in need of purposeful work, not only for financial but also for emotional reasons – working strengthened their feelings of self worth and happiness.

I will claim that within a design historical framework that works on tracing different visions of sustainability, there seems to be sufficient reasons for investigating the ideological familiarities between Næss, Morris, and Berg. Morris envisioned a utopian future - based on socialist principles - that benefitted humans as well as nature. At the centre of this ‘ecotopia’ stands handicraft with its resulting benefits of self-expression and artistic freedom.

Arne Næss was looking to nature’s own model of biodiversity. He claimed that humans could shape a society where diversity and complexity would not only result into a better future for the environment, but also for humans by achieving a more just and fair distribution of goods. He called for local societies where soft technologies, local skill sets and artistic expression constituted their inhabitants´ livelihood.

Sigrun Berg’s visions of small scale production that would benefit people in smaller communities, give them purposeful work and aid the local economies, seems to be based on an inheritance from Morris` socialism. What connects the three of them is the common belief that a shift from industrialized means of production back to craftsmanship is crucial in order to ensure a sustainable way of life.

  1. Haukeland, “Dyp glede”, 195

  2. Ibid., 203

  3. Ibid., 209

  4. (My translation) ”…utviklingen av lokale, ”myke” teknologier vil gi rom for en grunnleggende kulturell vurdering av alle tekniske nyvinninger.” Ibid., 200

  5. Boos, “An Aesthetic Ecocommunist”, 21

  6. Ibid., 23

  7. Ibid.

  8. Morris, ”The Revival of Handicraft”, 153

  9. Boos, “An Aesthetic Ecocommunist”, 22

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid., 41

  12. NRK, ”Brukskunstneren Sigrun Berg i nærbilde”