Design Historiographies and Design in Academia in the Netherlands

Until recently, most researchers looking into the subject of design would come from an art-historical background, but this is slowly changing. With an MA programme for design cultures at the VU, a joint programme of TU Delft and Leiden University on design, and an increasing amount of courses in other universities on for example fashion theory, the question arises what the discipline of design history entails. A mini-symposium organized by NICA (Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis) and the MA Design Cultures at the VU University on the 11th of December focussed on the difference between design history (product and graphic) and fashion. Taking this as a starting point the initiators wanted to discuss their historiographic traditions and wondered whether these studies should merge. The session was a follow-up on the study day of Designhistory NL and will lead to more explorations in the year to come.(1)See the articles and Dr. Javier Gimeno-Martinez, assistant-professor at the VU, and Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz, currently working on a PhD on Dutch design, invited Dr. Frederike Huygen and Prof. Dr. Anneke Smelik to give an introduction on these traditions in the fields of design respectively fashion. Questions such as boundaries of subject and discipline, theory and methodology have been raised since design started to be studied academically. Now that this discipline seems to be maturing, the subject of design is continuously expanding and the diversity in approaches augments.

Frederike Huygen summarized the origins of design history in the Netherlands in the 1970s as the joint effort from art history departments at universities and museums. Their research led to exhibitions and catalogues and opened up the field. A social historical approach dominated. Together with architecture and photography design was a new subject of study and emancipated. The legacy of Nikolaus Pevsner and his Pioneers of Modern Design accentuating style and modernism was considered outdated. Authors such as Gert Selle – emphasizing capitalism and a critical approach – and Reyner Banham – who questioned modernism – were widely read. However, design did not develop as a discipline of its own with a specific methodology.

In the 1980s design became popular in museums. Many of them started new departments and collections, for example the Rotterdam Boijmans Van Beuningen museum. The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague shook up the art world with their exhibition series on mass culture. New magazines and books on design were published. Discussions on design focussed on how to display design and what objects to collect. Should all man-made artefacts be included or only a specific type of objects? The relationship between design, art, sociology and technology was debated. Even though the writing paid attention to techniques, production, industries and agencies, most of it put the designer in the centre. The catalogues Industrie en vormgeving in Nederland 1850-1950 (Industry and Design in the Netherlands 1850-1950, 1985) and Holland in vorm 1945-1987 (Dutch Design 1945-1987, 1987) were important as inventories of the field as well as a book series issued by the Drents Museum in Assen.

Huygen touched on some points of debate. Design history may seem a discipline but it is characterized by many sub specialisms. If fashion has a historiography of its own, subjects such as crafts and graphic design may also be considered as having separate discourses and communities. Design history does not seem to have a theory or methodology that unifies all these areas. The limitlessness of the subject makes it hard to talk about a discipline. It seems to her that design history lacks theory. ‘We borrow from art history but also from anthropology and many other disciplines. There is too little theory and too much theory at the same time. Also, a proper historiography has not been written and a structure of terms and definitions is missing. We are looking for an umbrella theory, but maybe the field is too large and splintered?’ Huygen concludes that the great expansion of the field of design seems to be in contradiction with the wish to be a discipline.

In the second keynote lecture Anneke Smelik, Professor of Visual Culture at the Radboud University Nijmegen, provocatively questioned whether we really need to recreate a national history of Dutch fashion as such. Of course, fashion historiography is always necessary, but it should be included in an interdisciplinary and also international approach to fashion. ‘Fashion is becoming increasingly popular. More and more exhibitions have been dedicated to fashion. However, although some courses have been running on fashion in a few universities in the Netherlands, fashion history is mainly taught in art and design academies; within the universities it is not yet an academic discipline. Most books on fashion that deal with its history are international in scope and mainly a study of pictures in which history often functions as a backdrop for fashion.’ Two perspectives towards fashion seem to be prevalent, according to Smelik. ‘On the one hand, fashion itself can be taken as an object of study: the clothing, the design, representations of fashion, or the designer himself. On the other hand, the cultural studies approach looks at the social and technological context of fashion; the history of production, consumption and distribution. It seems that there is a gap in between these approaches: how do we perceive fashion?’

Smelik questions whether we need a ‘grand narrative’ of fashion: ‘What would it be? Where to start? A history of Dutch fashion? Of costumes? What we wear? A history of Dutch industry? Of class relations?’ When one considers the huge diversity of fashion studies, Smelik wonders why we would still want a classical (i.e. 19th century) foundation for a new discipline along national lines for the 21st century. The ‘old’ disciplines such as art history or literary studies have developed into interdisciplinary fields under the influence of cultural studies and media studies. Although she agrees with Huygen that an interdisciplinary approach can be difficult and involves more work, it is the most fruitful perspective for studying a field as diverse as fashion. Smelik argues that traditionally there used to be a clear line between history and theory, but that post-structuralism has brought these two much more together in an interdisciplinary perspective. In the past decades, the theory vs. history debate was a familiar one in the broader field of cultural and media studies; one that, she believes, should be left behind in order to productively advance in the field of fashion studies. In her view, definitions of what is to be included in the study of fashion or design depend on the research question and perspective, but she would generally argue for a generous definition because fashion is such a wide field, including production, distribution, consumption and media. Her point is that one cannot start a new discipline, fashion studies, without taking into account the enormous developments in cultural studies of the last few decades.

The discussion, moderated by Yara Cavalcanti of the VU, centred around a number of questions and issues. Most participants seemed to agree that the theoretical tradition of design history is young compared to a discipline like art history. The art historical foundation however, maybe prevents us from looking at theory developed at institutions like the Technical University of Delft. Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz argues for more coherence in an institutional structure, a journal or other frameworks to discuss the discipline and exchange research. The British (and some Americans) have been leading in the development of design history and their platforms are internationally dominant. Dr. Grace Lees-Maffei, Reader at the University of Hertfordshire and Visiting Professor at the VU, agrees that there are many different subjects, approaches and theories. Regarding design and fashion she argues for as few limiting definitions as possible. ‘Why would we need national histories? It seems that design is so global, and therefore I think we need International histories. It would be a shame if your discourse on Dutch design would continue in a vacuum.’ Instead, she suggests that a comparison between Dutch and English or other national design historiographies would show interesting parallels or idiosyncrasies. Smelik argues that in order to advance knowledge, debate is needed, rather than coherence glossing over differences. She is highly in favour of eclectic, i.e. interdisciplinary, approaches. Meroz however, suggests that it is not a given that just any approach can be incorporated into design research. Returning to the object and to materiality, might be a valid approach that is in need of further development (like professor Smelik already did with the NICA organising a study day last April on ‘New Materialism’). This approach could highlight the existence of a design field in the Netherlands, and concurrently its relations to international design discourses.

Rosa te Velde, 2014.

The other participants in the symposium on the 11th of December 2013 were Dr. Ellinoor Bergvelt (UvA), Dr. Christine Delhaye (UvA) and Dr. Javier Gimeno-Martinez. VU.

Rosa te Velde is an MA Design Cultures student at the VU.

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