Modern Love: how to teach design history

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock you’ll have noticed it’s the 100 year anniversary of the Bauhaus this year. I graduated from a 4 years industrial design degree from the University of Montreal in 2004. I graduated knowing nothing about the Bauhaus and not only that but I thought design history started with Raymond Leowy, in the 1950s. Many people today not only think that this is true for design but also technology and advertising.

Being a voracious reader and then researching my book, I realised that it wasn’t just about being taught about the Bauhaus but talking about design in a wider context and describing earlier influences. But let’s start with a little visual experiment I put together.

What am I highlighting here?

  • Most design books do not contextualise what is happening elsewhere in the arts nor how ideas travel. Before social media, the internet or even cheap newspapers there were fairs and museums. Those museums were born out of the private collections of the rich or filled with the leftovers of wars and conflict elsewhere in their empires. ‘Ethnography museums’ started popping up when the most influential architects of the last century were kids. Once you think about this, it’s very very difficult not to recognise the influence of Japan’s aesthetics on modernism and the African continent’s influence in the arts and cubism. The irony is of course that we then went back to those parts of the world selling them back a western version of ‘modernism’. That process of influence, money, power and war on ideas is really key and not talked about much in design history.
  • Design isn’t a 20th century profession but it’s a 20th century marketplace. At a time of the industrial revolution in the 1800s, people had plenty of access to new designs but we don’t consider those worthy because the authors of that work aren’t running well-funded foundations and managing image rights in the modern world. We also don’t collect 19th century furniture as much as we collect mid-century designs. We simply value that older industrial design and those designers less. There’s also a plethora of wonderful designers who died young, or (in the case of Mallet-Stevens) wanted their archive of work destroyed when they died.
  • There’s also an awful lot of ego, jealousy and bad behaviour we don’t talk about in design history books. In an era of #MeToo best not to look too closely at Le Corbusier’s abuse of Eileen Gray’s fantastic E-1027 nor read too much into his losing the Villa Noailles contract to Robert Mallet-Stevens. He also made sure the young Eugene Beaudoin wasn’t chosen to design the UNESCO building in Paris but got his mates from the Bauhaus in instead (his own design had been refused but he was on the advistory committee). There’s a reason why we remember some architects and designers more than other and it’s the same reasons in any industry: they were probably abusive as hell. But we prefer calling that ‘larger than life’ in design books. That’s dangerous, to make people believe that design, architecture, all these areas of creativity have somehow a naturally meritocratic environment around them. Tech suffers from the same delusion.
  • Who were the pioneers then? I dropped by ProQm in Berlin the other day and picked up a couple of books on Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann and Peter Behrens. These men taught or were the early employers of Mies Van Der Rohe, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and many more. And they sound interesting and did some amazing work. And they aren’t very well known. When you look at Le Palais Stoclet in Bruxelles and you look at Le Corbusier’s work, you get it. Ahhh, there is the master and this is the student. The continuity is crystal clear. Why don’t we see these lines of influence more in design books? Why do we keep talking about design and architecture like the ‘lone geniuses’ of the art world (which also didn’t work that way, as per Braque & Picasso who were best mates). Who does it serve? It just makes young designers think that group work and collaboration is somehow not as good as being able to express themselves alone.

So there, if someone wants to re-write a good design history book some day, call me. Otherwise, next time you open a design history book or go visit an exhibition of one person’s work, ask yourself: I wonder what was invented that year? what kind of music did they listen to? who did they admire? whose work did they see in museums when they were young? It makes it all so much more interesting than the 1950s.

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.

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