Design as ‘Hard Power’: Design Diplomacy during the Cold War

The best-known example of an occasion in which design played a fundamental political role is likely the confrontation between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, known as the ‘kitchen debate’. After the Soviets had proven to be competitive in the space race, this encounter was a test of strength to see which of the superpowers would prove superior on a more mundane level. The kitchen embodied different values for each leader, and served as a highly propagandistic and ideological tool.(1)See: Susan Reid, ‘The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the Scientific-Technological Revolution’, in: Journal of Contemporary History, 40 (2005) 2, pp. 289-316. For Nixon, the American kitchen embodied the American Dream, serving “as the ideal platform from which to challenge Soviet state socialism”. To the contrary, the Soviet kitchen presented by Khrushchev emphasised a more modest design, which underlined equality between men and women. It opposed the American approach to kitchen design, which was directed at the woman as a professional housewife; and, moreover, it did not encourage the ‘fetishization’ of modern equipment. In design history this case represents a classic example of the way design functioned in relation to politics at the height of the Cold War. This example only scratches the surface of a period in which design was to play an increasingly prominent role. This was the topic addressed by a symposium organised by design historians Harriet Atkinson and Verity Clarkson of the University of Brighton in November 2015 (http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/research/design-art-history/events/diplomacy-by-design). The symposium, as part of the Internationalising Design History research cluster of the University of Brighton, aimed not only to internationalise Brighton’s design department, but also to internationalise design history. Bringing together scholars from various parts of the world is a particularly relevant practice (and a diplomatic endeavour in itself) which allows for a comparative approach to the topic of diplomacy. The many proposals received upon the call for papers for this symposium, and the overwhelming enthusiasm for the topic, proves that the interest in design diplomacy has by no means waned. As a result, the organisers have announced that this day was only the first in a series of conversations and explorations on design and diplomacy to come.

Centuries of friendship

Sealing and shaping diplomatic relations through design has in fact occurred for ages. Swords, porcelain, indigenous crafts, technological masterpieces and jewellery of all kinds have been used as diplomatic gifts, to celebrate ‘centuries of friendship’, to impress, to appease and to demand privileges or protection in return.(2)See: Marcel Mauss, The Gift, 1954. The occasions in which the exchange of these objects took place were – and still are – carefully orchestrated. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, world expos and other international exhibitions were powerful sites of ‘cultural exchange’ through which national institutions could propagandise particular political messages. Moreover, architectural buildings, such as pavilions on international fairs, embassies and consulates have been employed to convey ideological values on the world stage.(3)See: Jane C. Loeffler, The Architecture of Diplomacy, Building America’s Embassies, (1998) 2010. Recently, digital communications and persuasion of not only governmental bodies, but also foreign and domestic publics – known as ‘public diplomacy’ – have further broadened and complicated the role design plays in this context. Many countries have formulated design policies in order to increase their global economic competitiveness.(4)Jonathan Woodham, ‘Formulating National Design Policies: Recycling the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’?’, Design Issues, 26 (2010) 2, pp. 27-46. Design is high on the political agenda, which may explain a revived interest among scholars in what can be called ‘design diplomacy’.

Expo 1958, het Amerikaanse paviljoen.
Expo 1958, the American pavilion.

According to the organizers of this symposium, design historians have predominantly studied exchange through design between the USA and Europe after the Second World War, while other geographies have received less attention. Many academics have researched the construction of particular national stereotypes through design exhibitions. For example, the way Scandinavian countries gained success abroad in the 1950s, and the way in which an image of Scandinavia was constructed has recently received a considerable amount of scholarly interest.(5)See for example: Kjetil Fallan, ‘Milanese Mediations: Crafting Scandinavian Design at the Triennali di Milano’, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History 83 (2014) 1, pp. 1-23; Gay McDonald, ‘The Modern American Home as Soft Power: Finland, MoMA and the ‘American Home 1953’ Exhibition’, Journal of Design History 23 (2010) 4, pp. 387–408; Jørn Guldberg, ‘‘Scandinavian Design’ as Discourse: The Exhibition Design in Scandinavia, 1954–57’, Design Issues, 27 (2011) 2. Other scholars have looked into the role of objects, graphic design, architecture, crafts, and fashion within the context of international relations, exchanges and diplomacy in a variety of geographic locations. It seems, however, that scholars have framed their research within different paradigms (presumably also dictated by language barriers) and, therefore, some of this research has been conducted independently and segregated from other research. Of course, design is an interdisciplinary field of study, which encompasses a broad range of academic disciplines. A symposium dedicated to the topic of diplomacy thus offers an opportunity to bring together a body of scholarship that might otherwise remain in isolation.

Expo 1958, het Russische paviljoen.
Expo 1958, the Russian pavilion.

Materialised power

Even though it may seem obvious that design is embedded in networks within which actors and objects enter into specific power relations, the context of diplomacy particularly charges it with ‘secrecy, delicacy and sensitivity’, as keynote speaker Susan Reid (Professor of Cultural History at Loughborough University) reminded the audience. It therefore demands a thorough identification of those agents of power and the agency of the objects moving into the diplomatic sphere to explore how design is exploited within the context of international politics. Finding reliable sources may be difficult, and reading between the lines is crucial. What is not said through official channels may be just as relevant as what is said. During the panel discussion at the end of the day it was noted – rightfully so – that the centrality of archival research presents a challenge because archives (personal archives in particular) can be coloured, as they are often self-congratulatory and one-sided. To overcome this biased perspective, images and photos are important documents for checking the reliability of textual archival material.

Traditional cultural diplomacy has mainly been played out in official institutions and governmental bodies and is often classified as a form of ‘soft power’, famously coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s, as opposed to hard, military power. According to international relations scholar Simon Mark, many politicians and diplomats consider cultural diplomacy “a lesser tool of foreign policy”(6) Simon Mark, ‘A Greater Role for Cultural Diplomacy’, Clingendael Discussion papers, 2009, p. 2. http://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20090616_cdsp_discussion_paper_114_mark.pdf)), or a ‘lubricant’ for economic goals.(7)Elco Brinkman, Dutch minister of culture, 1982-1989. However, the title of this conference, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design from 1945 Onwards, suggests that ‘design diplomacy’ may be a very persuasive, materialised form of power, which is perhaps not as soft as we are inclined to think. Unfortunately, presumably due to a limited amount of time or the ambitious scope of the symposium, a more theoretical and elaborate account of what diplomacy may entail, or an explanation for the increased popularity of design as a tool for government diplomacy during the Cold War, was only briefly touched upon. An obvious explanation for the increased attention on design during this period is that material and visual culture are more ambiguous and may therefore be a more appropriate and persuasive means to convey political ideas than bold, verbal, or militant statements. In the emerging ‘information age’, credibility was central to soft power; and, as culture is often perceived as an ‘honest’ expression of its national identity,(8)Op.cit. note 3, p. 22. design, just like other forms of culture, was a perfect fit for the creation or projection of a reliable, honest image.(9)Art and jazz were also important tools in the US for spreading ideals of racial equality and freedom as a means to propagandise against communism. See for example: http://www.stedelijk.nl/agenda/forum/porter-mccray-jonas-staal. Another explanation for the increasing importance of cultural diplomacy was the need to engage with non-state actors: because of the emerging welfare, mass consumption and mass communication technologies, the general public gradually became more important. Exhibitions offered pertinent platforms to disseminate culture and expose it to a larger global (or mostly Western-European) audience, eager to experience other cultures.

Expo 1958, the Russian pavilion, interior.
Expo 1958, the Russian pavilion, interior.

World expos as sites of ideological negotiations

Most presentations focused on the way diplomacy was given form in exhibitions. The (world) exhibition as an object for study in the context of diplomacy is highly relevant as exhibitions often serve as promotional platforms and spaces of confrontation between countries, ideologies and economical parties. Exhibitions are complex, multidimensional objects of study, but they make visible the so often obscured world of diplomacy. Reid argued that a world expo like that in Brussels in 1958, was a site of “ideological contestation, negotiation and compromise”, “where differences between national ideals and global aspirations were fought out”.(10)Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The objects presented, the promotional materials, the architecture of the pavilions and layout of the exhibitions, the reception of the audience and the media, are all carriers of the political messages conveyed. While the fair was officially themed ‘A New Humanism’ in order to overcome tensions or to create a global dialogue, most countries seized the opportunity to show the best they had to offer. With more than forty-million Western European visitors, and a much larger ‘virtual’ global audience reached through extensive media coverage, this exhibition was a major event in visible diplomacy.

According to Reid, art and design exhibitions can be considered cultural performances in which international polemics are played out through images, architecture and artefacts. She argues that the concept of ‘contact zones’, as coined by Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes (1992), is valuable to researching the way international exhibitions act as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other”.(11)Mary Louise Pratt, quoted by Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The 1958 World Expo in Brussels was the first world expo of the Cold War era. This exhibition took place at an important moment after the end of the Second World War: a moment in which all nations could publicly exhibit their recovery, progress and advancement as ‘modern nations’. As Reid argued, the self-representation of the USSR was very much shaped in anticipation of what they expected the USA to present. This confrontation was all the more poignantly emphasised by the position of the pavilions of these superpowers, directly next to one another. The USA tried to impress their audience with perceptions of the American way of life, in which equality, freedom, individuality, democracy and entertainment were key values, and via a fashion show at the pavilion. In response, the USSR filled its pavilion with a spectacular but more conventional exhibition, in which science and technology were a central focus as well as ordinary home design. Sputniks, vodka and model houses were intended to appeal to ordinary people.

Brussels as a ‘hub for diplomacy’

Many other presentations addressed the city of Brussels as a zone of confrontation and negotiation between the USA and the USSR, or more broadly, between capitalism and socialism. Some noted that the explanation for Brussels to have staged itself as ‘a hub for diplomacy’ is often attributed to its symbolic role as the ‘the heart of Europe’. Another presentation situated in Brussels was given by architectural historian Fredie Floré, who dealt with the long and complex process of the design of this city’s Royal Library. Although the library initially does not seem to relate directly to international relations or diplomacy, this building was intended to embody a new image of the nation and its building process shows how its design was entangled in national and international exchanges. While the first plans to construct the library date from the 1930s, it was not until 1963 that it finally opened to the public. The long process revealed the inherent conflict of different approaches seeking to express a national image through design. The Royal Library was supposed to be a ‘living monument’ for the beloved King Albert I as well as a ‘collective work of all Belgians’, to collect and preserve Belgium’s literary production, constructing ‘a national consciousness’.(12)Fredie Floré, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The long building process and its design reflect the political crisis of Belgium after the Second World War and conflicting visions of how to present the nation. In contrast to the library’s classicist exterior, the interior, designed by the Kunstwerkstede Gebroeders de Coene, was modern and contemporary. Selecting this company was by no means self-evident due to their collaboration with the Germans during the war. But as De Coene was licensed to produce the famous American Knoll furniture, the company was able to reconstruct and reinvent their reputation by presenting themselves as the agents of international modernist design. In this way they distanced themselves from their war activities and established themselves, once again, as a leading, international interior architecture firm. Floré showed that while the library may seem at first to be an emblem of the nation, its interior design shows the entanglements within international commercial networks, exemplifying the global expansion of the design practice at the time.

Designing relations

While scholars have extensively studied the influence of (commercial) American design culture in Europe as conducted by companies like Knoll, design exchanges between the USSR and the rest of the world are still a blind spot, according to Katarina Serulus, a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. In her presentation, Serulus noted the establishment of design centres in the 1960s and the 1970s, not only in Europe, but also in the Soviet Union. Following the successful example of the British Design Centre founded in 1956, many countries set up design centres to promote national design and prosperity, including Belgium in 1962. The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) officially recognised these design centres in 1967 as ‘important official bodies for design’. The director of the Belgian design centre was Josine Des Cressonières, who was also a key figure in the ICSID as its Secretary General.

Exchanging exhibitions between design centres in various countries was a common practice, but the Soviet Union was disregarded in this respect. As Belgium increasingly positioned itself as the facilitator of a dialogue between east and west – and also as a result of her ‘well-designed relations’ – Des Cressonières was able to organise two exhibitions in collaboration with Yuri Soloviev of the Soviet design centre in Moscow. Des Cressonières managed to score a world premiere by organising the first exhibition of Soviet design in the West in 1973 at the design centre in Brussels. A year later a Belgian exhibition travelled to Moscow. The position of Des Cressonières at ICSID allowed her to strategically plan a meeting for the board during the opening of the Soviet design exhibition in Brussels. The Soviet exhibition comprised various objects, ranging from heavy machinery to domestic products, many of which were still prototypes. The exhibition intended to highlight the scientific Soviet approach to design. Many reviews of the exhibition expressed a sense of exoticism, underlining stereotypes of the ‘hard-to-get Soviet superpower’. The Belgian exhibition in Moscow one year later was mainly driven by the aim to increase trade between Belgium and the Soviet Union, seemingly ahead of the Helsinki Act of 1975. With this presentation, Serulus showed that these design exhibitions were tools to manipulate the image of a country to the outside world by carefully selecting its content. Yet it also showed that Des Cressonières was absolutely a key figure in establishing diplomatic relations through design between the Soviets and Brussels.

The significance of personal relationships for diplomacy was also noted during the panel discussion at the end of the day. Many exchanges can be traced back to an exclusive group of designers, diplomats, directors, consul-generals, design promoters and curators. This insight was also demonstrated by the presentation of Sonnett Stanfill, curator and researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Stanfill traced the establishment of the Italian fashion industry on the international stage after the Second World War, thanks to exclusive and strategic diplomatic gatherings.

Beyond Europe

A different national history was addressed by Meghen Jones (historian of Japanese art, Alfred University), who followed cultural exchanges between Japan and the USA through a study of their ceramics. The Japanese were known to excel in ceramics and strategically exploited their fame, as did the USA. In the 1950s Japan’s image was transformed from an imperialist threat into a peaceful democratic ally of the US against communism. Ceramics were already a tool for soft power in the 19th century, but the ‘craze’ for Japanese ceramics and Zen philosophy increased after the Second World War and reached its zenith in the 1970s. Various institutions in the US invited Japanese pottery artists for exhibitions and lectures in order to highlight pre-modern ceramic practices. Examining the personal histories of the artists selected to represent the country, Jones discovered that craftsmen like Shoji Hamada were highly cosmopolitan, considering their copious travels and ability to speak English fluently. However, during such workshops Hamada would work in silence behind his pottery wheel while wearing a traditional costume, and an interpreter would speak on his behalf. Jones pointed out how many of these lectures, exhibitions, and other events contributed to a construction of Japanese ceramics in the US as pre-modern and ensured its alignment with Zen philosophy.

Other presentations looked at geographies beyond Europe. The global decolonisation processes of the 1950s and 1960s forced ex-colonial powers to reconceptualise their histories and relations with ex-colonies. At the same time, newly independent countries were in need of constructing their own national images. Analyses of exhibitions organised by the Commonwealth Institute and its predecessor, the Imperial Institute in London, make evident the transition from an institute promoting its imperial power into an institute attempting to reimagine the relationship between the Commonwealth members, as shown by design researcher Tom Wilson. In India, an exhibition to commemorate Nehru’s death played an important role in displaying the independence of India, as shown by Claire Wintle. Wintle also addressed the role international designers such as Charles and Ray Eames (who were deeply involved in the design of the exhibition) played in establishing the National Institute of Design.

Contemporary design diplomacy

The symposium closed with an example of contemporary design diplomacy practice. Design consultant Michael Thomson was interviewed by professor Jonathan Woodham. Thomson elaborated upon his involvement with projects such as ‘Design Europe 2020’, an initiative of the European Union to raise awareness about how design can be used for innovation, efficiency and growth.((http://ec.europa.eu/growth/industry/innovation/policy/design/index_en.htm)) According to him, the design field and its industry have their own ‘diplomats and ambassadors’, promoting the importance of ‘design thinking’. Thomson offered a different perspective on the concept of design diplomacy, highlighting how design has matured into a category all its own. Rapid changes that have occurred over the past decade, including globalisation, the internet and neoliberalism, have changed cultural diplomacy and the design profession altogether, though these differences were not explicitly addressed by Thomson or Woodham. While in the 1950s and 1960s many governments made great efforts to instrumentalise design with the hopes of overcoming post-war economic challenges, at the same time political profiling was fundamental. For example, Finland’s exhibition at the Triennali di Milano in 1951 was a great success in terms of boosting the nation’s self-image and profiling it internationally as a country not “behind the iron curtain”. This success however, did not immediately create export markets.((Jaakko Autio, ‘Finnish Design Exports: Cultural Exports in an Economic Framework’, in: Paula Hohti (ed.), Boundless Design, Perspectives on Finnish Applied Arts, Helsinki: Avain 2011, pp. 37-56 (pp. 45-47). The way design is implemented nowadays in cultural policies, for example by ‘Design Europe 2020’, is indicative of how design has moved from an expression of both political and economic objectives, to an important economic asset to stimulate profits. But to be fair, in comparison to the Cold War era, governments today use design much less to propagate political values (other than, of course, neoliberal values). Instead, they have extensively formulated design as part of their creative industries’ policies and as a marketing tool to profile their countries as economically competitive on the global market. In fact, design might be so high on the neoliberal agenda nowadays precisely because it is often perceived and presented as apolitical. However, a comparison between today’s design politics and earlier approaches to design diplomacy is in need of further investigation. We may wonder whether the Cold War has actually come to an end and in which ways ‘design’ is embroiled with current international tensions. An analysis of the historical transformation of design as an important vessel for promotion of particular ideologies into today’s strategies was beyond the scope of this symposium, but it would be an interesting and poignant topic for the next one.

With this symposium the significance of diplomacy within the field of design history and the power of design in international exchanges appears to have established itself. Diplomacy is often shrouded in mystery, and therefore ensures intriguing and significant presentations. Bringing together a range of cases offers great insight into the variety and the overlapping notions of national promotion through design, global design exchange, the rise of design institutions, and into the way design acts as hard power in disguise. The difficulty with this topic is, of course, its broad global scope. By focusing on the Cold War period and the exhibition format as an object of study, the organisers restricted the scope drastically; but by providing even greater limitations in scope they could have stimulated more productive comparisons during the closing panel discussion. Furthermore, the next symposium should perhaps include more theoretical reflection on diplomacy. How does diplomacy differ from the broader concept of international relations? How does diplomacy work as a space in which design mediates between ‘others’? How did design diplomacy evolve in relation to discussions of national identity and globalisation? By combining a broader theoretical framework of diplomacy, we may be able to better understand today’s practice.

Rosa te Velde, 2016. Rosa te Velde was trained as a designer at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and has an MA degree Design Cultures (VU University). She is editor for the journal Kunstlicht and for the website designhistory.nl.

Photographs: Wouter Hagens, commons.wikimedia.org.

References   [ + ]

1. See: Susan Reid, ‘The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the Scientific-Technological Revolution’, in: Journal of Contemporary History, 40 (2005) 2, pp. 289-316.
2. See: Marcel Mauss, The Gift, 1954.
3. See: Jane C. Loeffler, The Architecture of Diplomacy, Building America’s Embassies, (1998) 2010.
4. Jonathan Woodham, ‘Formulating National Design Policies: Recycling the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’?’, Design Issues, 26 (2010) 2, pp. 27-46.
5. See for example: Kjetil Fallan, ‘Milanese Mediations: Crafting Scandinavian Design at the Triennali di Milano’, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History 83 (2014) 1, pp. 1-23; Gay McDonald, ‘The Modern American Home as Soft Power: Finland, MoMA and the ‘American Home 1953’ Exhibition’, Journal of Design History 23 (2010) 4, pp. 387–408; Jørn Guldberg, ‘‘Scandinavian Design’ as Discourse: The Exhibition Design in Scandinavia, 1954–57’, Design Issues, 27 (2011) 2.
6. Simon Mark, ‘A Greater Role for Cultural Diplomacy’, Clingendael Discussion papers, 2009, p. 2. http://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20090616_cdsp_discussion_paper_114_mark.pdf)), or a ‘lubricant’ for economic goals.((Elco Brinkman, Dutch minister of culture, 1982-1989.
7. Elco Brinkman, Dutch minister of culture, 1982-1989. However, the title of this conference, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design from 1945 Onwards, suggests that ‘design diplomacy’ may be a very persuasive, materialised form of power, which is perhaps not as soft as we are inclined to think. Unfortunately, presumably due to a limited amount of time or the ambitious scope of the symposium, a more theoretical and elaborate account of what diplomacy may entail, or an explanation for the increased popularity of design as a tool for government diplomacy during the Cold War, was only briefly touched upon. An obvious explanation for the increased attention on design during this period is that material and visual culture are more ambiguous and may therefore be a more appropriate and persuasive means to convey political ideas than bold, verbal, or militant statements. In the emerging ‘information age’, credibility was central to soft power; and, as culture is often perceived as an ‘honest’ expression of its national identity,((Op.cit. note 3, p. 22.
8. Op.cit. note 3, p. 22. design, just like other forms of culture, was a perfect fit for the creation or projection of a reliable, honest image.((Art and jazz were also important tools in the US for spreading ideals of racial equality and freedom as a means to propagandise against communism. See for example: http://www.stedelijk.nl/agenda/forum/porter-mccray-jonas-staal.
9. Art and jazz were also important tools in the US for spreading ideals of racial equality and freedom as a means to propagandise against communism. See for example: http://www.stedelijk.nl/agenda/forum/porter-mccray-jonas-staal. Another explanation for the increasing importance of cultural diplomacy was the need to engage with non-state actors: because of the emerging welfare, mass consumption and mass communication technologies, the general public gradually became more important. Exhibitions offered pertinent platforms to disseminate culture and expose it to a larger global (or mostly Western-European) audience, eager to experience other cultures.

Expo 1958, the Russian pavilion, interior.
Expo 1958, the Russian pavilion, interior.

World expos as sites of ideological negotiations

Most presentations focused on the way diplomacy was given form in exhibitions. The (world) exhibition as an object for study in the context of diplomacy is highly relevant as exhibitions often serve as promotional platforms and spaces of confrontation between countries, ideologies and economical parties. Exhibitions are complex, multidimensional objects of study, but they make visible the so often obscured world of diplomacy. Reid argued that a world expo like that in Brussels in 1958, was a site of “ideological contestation, negotiation and compromise”, “where differences between national ideals and global aspirations were fought out”.((Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015.

10. Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The objects presented, the promotional materials, the architecture of the pavilions and layout of the exhibitions, the reception of the audience and the media, are all carriers of the political messages conveyed. While the fair was officially themed ‘A New Humanism’ in order to overcome tensions or to create a global dialogue, most countries seized the opportunity to show the best they had to offer. With more than forty-million Western European visitors, and a much larger ‘virtual’ global audience reached through extensive media coverage, this exhibition was a major event in visible diplomacy.

According to Reid, art and design exhibitions can be considered cultural performances in which international polemics are played out through images, architecture and artefacts. She argues that the concept of ‘contact zones’, as coined by Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes (1992), is valuable to researching the way international exhibitions act as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other”.((Mary Louise Pratt, quoted by Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015.

11. Mary Louise Pratt, quoted by Susan Reid, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The 1958 World Expo in Brussels was the first world expo of the Cold War era. This exhibition took place at an important moment after the end of the Second World War: a moment in which all nations could publicly exhibit their recovery, progress and advancement as ‘modern nations’. As Reid argued, the self-representation of the USSR was very much shaped in anticipation of what they expected the USA to present. This confrontation was all the more poignantly emphasised by the position of the pavilions of these superpowers, directly next to one another. The USA tried to impress their audience with perceptions of the American way of life, in which equality, freedom, individuality, democracy and entertainment were key values, and via a fashion show at the pavilion. In response, the USSR filled its pavilion with a spectacular but more conventional exhibition, in which science and technology were a central focus as well as ordinary home design. Sputniks, vodka and model houses were intended to appeal to ordinary people.

Brussels as a ‘hub for diplomacy’

Many other presentations addressed the city of Brussels as a zone of confrontation and negotiation between the USA and the USSR, or more broadly, between capitalism and socialism. Some noted that the explanation for Brussels to have staged itself as ‘a hub for diplomacy’ is often attributed to its symbolic role as the ‘the heart of Europe’. Another presentation situated in Brussels was given by architectural historian Fredie Floré, who dealt with the long and complex process of the design of this city’s Royal Library. Although the library initially does not seem to relate directly to international relations or diplomacy, this building was intended to embody a new image of the nation and its building process shows how its design was entangled in national and international exchanges. While the first plans to construct the library date from the 1930s, it was not until 1963 that it finally opened to the public. The long process revealed the inherent conflict of different approaches seeking to express a national image through design. The Royal Library was supposed to be a ‘living monument’ for the beloved King Albert I as well as a ‘collective work of all Belgians’, to collect and preserve Belgium’s literary production, constructing ‘a national consciousness’.((Fredie Floré, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015.

12. Fredie Floré, From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards symposium, University of Brighton, 27 November 2015. The long building process and its design reflect the political crisis of Belgium after the Second World War and conflicting visions of how to present the nation. In contrast to the library’s classicist exterior, the interior, designed by the Kunstwerkstede Gebroeders de Coene, was modern and contemporary. Selecting this company was by no means self-evident due to their collaboration with the Germans during the war. But as De Coene was licensed to produce the famous American Knoll furniture, the company was able to reconstruct and reinvent their reputation by presenting themselves as the agents of international modernist design. In this way they distanced themselves from their war activities and established themselves, once again, as a leading, international interior architecture firm. Floré showed that while the library may seem at first to be an emblem of the nation, its interior design shows the entanglements within international commercial networks, exemplifying the global expansion of the design practice at the time.

Designing relations

While scholars have extensively studied the influence of (commercial) American design culture in Europe as conducted by companies like Knoll, design exchanges between the USSR and the rest of the world are still a blind spot, according to Katarina Serulus, a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. In her presentation, Serulus noted the establishment of design centres in the 1960s and the 1970s, not only in Europe, but also in the Soviet Union. Following the successful example of the British Design Centre founded in 1956, many countries set up design centres to promote national design and prosperity, including Belgium in 1962. The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) officially recognised these design centres in 1967 as ‘important official bodies for design’. The director of the Belgian design centre was Josine Des Cressonières, who was also a key figure in the ICSID as its Secretary General.

Exchanging exhibitions between design centres in various countries was a common practice, but the Soviet Union was disregarded in this respect. As Belgium increasingly positioned itself as the facilitator of a dialogue between east and west – and also as a result of her ‘well-designed relations’ – Des Cressonières was able to organise two exhibitions in collaboration with Yuri Soloviev of the Soviet design centre in Moscow. Des Cressonières managed to score a world premiere by organising the first exhibition of Soviet design in the West in 1973 at the design centre in Brussels. A year later a Belgian exhibition travelled to Moscow. The position of Des Cressonières at ICSID allowed her to strategically plan a meeting for the board during the opening of the Soviet design exhibition in Brussels. The Soviet exhibition comprised various objects, ranging from heavy machinery to domestic products, many of which were still prototypes. The exhibition intended to highlight the scientific Soviet approach to design. Many reviews of the exhibition expressed a sense of exoticism, underlining stereotypes of the ‘hard-to-get Soviet superpower’. The Belgian exhibition in Moscow one year later was mainly driven by the aim to increase trade between Belgium and the Soviet Union, seemingly ahead of the Helsinki Act of 1975. With this presentation, Serulus showed that these design exhibitions were tools to manipulate the image of a country to the outside world by carefully selecting its content. Yet it also showed that Des Cressonières was absolutely a key figure in establishing diplomatic relations through design between the Soviets and Brussels.

The significance of personal relationships for diplomacy was also noted during the panel discussion at the end of the day. Many exchanges can be traced back to an exclusive group of designers, diplomats, directors, consul-generals, design promoters and curators. This insight was also demonstrated by the presentation of Sonnett Stanfill, curator and researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Stanfill traced the establishment of the Italian fashion industry on the international stage after the Second World War, thanks to exclusive and strategic diplomatic gatherings.

Beyond Europe

A different national history was addressed by Meghen Jones (historian of Japanese art, Alfred University), who followed cultural exchanges between Japan and the USA through a study of their ceramics. The Japanese were known to excel in ceramics and strategically exploited their fame, as did the USA. In the 1950s Japan’s image was transformed from an imperialist threat into a peaceful democratic ally of the US against communism. Ceramics were already a tool for soft power in the 19th century, but the ‘craze’ for Japanese ceramics and Zen philosophy increased after the Second World War and reached its zenith in the 1970s. Various institutions in the US invited Japanese pottery artists for exhibitions and lectures in order to highlight pre-modern ceramic practices. Examining the personal histories of the artists selected to represent the country, Jones discovered that craftsmen like Shoji Hamada were highly cosmopolitan, considering their copious travels and ability to speak English fluently. However, during such workshops Hamada would work in silence behind his pottery wheel while wearing a traditional costume, and an interpreter would speak on his behalf. Jones pointed out how many of these lectures, exhibitions, and other events contributed to a construction of Japanese ceramics in the US as pre-modern and ensured its alignment with Zen philosophy.

Other presentations looked at geographies beyond Europe. The global decolonisation processes of the 1950s and 1960s forced ex-colonial powers to reconceptualise their histories and relations with ex-colonies. At the same time, newly independent countries were in need of constructing their own national images. Analyses of exhibitions organised by the Commonwealth Institute and its predecessor, the Imperial Institute in London, make evident the transition from an institute promoting its imperial power into an institute attempting to reimagine the relationship between the Commonwealth members, as shown by design researcher Tom Wilson. In India, an exhibition to commemorate Nehru’s death played an important role in displaying the independence of India, as shown by Claire Wintle. Wintle also addressed the role international designers such as Charles and Ray Eames (who were deeply involved in the design of the exhibition) played in establishing the National Institute of Design.

Contemporary design diplomacy

The symposium closed with an example of contemporary design diplomacy practice. Design consultant Michael Thomson was interviewed by professor Jonathan Woodham. Thomson elaborated upon his involvement with projects such as ‘Design Europe 2020’, an initiative of the European Union to raise awareness about how design can be used for innovation, efficiency and growth.((http://ec.europa.eu/growth/industry/innovation/policy/design/index_en.htm)) According to him, the design field and its industry have their own ‘diplomats and ambassadors’, promoting the importance of ‘design thinking’. Thomson offered a different perspective on the concept of design diplomacy, highlighting how design has matured into a category all its own. Rapid changes that have occurred over the past decade, including globalisation, the internet and neoliberalism, have changed cultural diplomacy and the design profession altogether, though these differences were not explicitly addressed by Thomson or Woodham. While in the 1950s and 1960s many governments made great efforts to instrumentalise design with the hopes of overcoming post-war economic challenges, at the same time political profiling was fundamental. For example, Finland’s exhibition at the Triennali di Milano in 1951 was a great success in terms of boosting the nation’s self-image and profiling it internationally as a country not “behind the iron curtain”. This success however, did not immediately create export markets.((Jaakko Autio, ‘Finnish Design Exports: Cultural Exports in an Economic Framework’, in: Paula Hohti (ed.), Boundless Design, Perspectives on Finnish Applied Arts, Helsinki: Avain 2011, pp. 37-56 (pp. 45-47).