Design Studies and Food Studies: Parallels and Intersections

  • Update:2013-03-13
  • Victor Margolin Translator: Wang Yun

 Design Studies and Food Studies are comparatively new research fields and the two have much in common. Their subject matters are extremely broad and not as easily defined as might be imagined. The study of food can run the gamut from boutique food creations at exclusive restaurants to issues of mass famine in parts of Africa. Design can range from a decorative Karim Rashid interior to the freeway system of a major city. Food and design are ubiquitous and necessary for everyone, yet each confronts a politics that may strongly affect public access to them.
Food is a biological requirement, while design is not; yet humans have never been without some form of design, beginning with the earliest tools, which were actually necessary to obtain food.
The example of the earliest hunters and gatherers, who devised tools in order to hunt and then to farm makes clear the inextricable relationship between food and design. Given that the production, distribution, and consumption of food is a central human activity and requires the involvement of every person on earth in some aspect of that process, it is worth noting that as humans developed ever more sophisticated tools and devices to secure and prepare food, design was at the core of that process.
Des ign has been cent ral to every development in food production from tools for hunting and fishing to those for sewing seeds, plowing, and harvesting. Advances in food preservation through refrigeration and prepa r a t ion t h rough cook i n g equipment have also resulted from design. In fact, cities could never have existed without numerous advances in how food was produced and distributed. The economy of food, for example, created vast new categories of employment related to growing, transporting, selling, and cooking food and for every new category of employment, whether farming, trucking, wholesale distribution, retail marketing, or selling food in supermarkets, stalls or restaurants, design has been a central component.
Why then have food studies and design studies remained so far apart? I have been an active proponent of design studies since the early 1980s but until recently I was unaware of food studies as a field and until recently I never gave any thought to food studies as a valuable compliment to the study of design.1 Motivated by the challenge of preparing a paper for a conference on food and design, I discovered that it makes perfect sense to consider the complementarity between the two fields and to look seriously at what researchers in each field can learn from each other.2
First, an awareness of food studies can help design studies scholars recognize that a considerable volume of design activity has been motivated by situations related to food. In the most obvious sense, this involves the history of technology that has been devised to produce food: knives, bows and arrows, spears, guns, fishing rods, plows, and yokes for domesticated animals. It also involves a vast array of objects for cooking, eating, and storage: grills, pots and pans, eating utensils, tea and coffee pots, stoves, microwaves, refrigerators, and more recently juicers, mixers, blenders, and even seltzer machines. (Fig. 1) In the history of domestic architecture, the kitchen and dining room evolved as places within the household for the preparation and consumption of food. Designers have also been the ones to devise vessels for transporting food and the packaging for selling it. Within design practice, in fact, the design of food packaging is a recognized specialty that has achieved a high degree of development. Packaging design has also perpetrated numerous derogatory social stereotypes that have become associated with particular foods. Moving beyond packaging, consider Milton Glaser’s redesign of the Grand Union supermarkets in the United States. Glaser was hired in the mid 1970s to undertake a total makeover of the supermarket chain that touched every aspect of marketing from the corporate identity and the store layout to the packaging. He and his team sought to create the feeling of a small town square with specialty shops within a large mass-market food emporium. To do this, they designed separate visual identities for the different retail areas. This project has been well documented within the design community but it has never been connected with scholarship related to food, most notably research on how people buy food. (Fig. 2) Well before Grand Union, in 1916, it was through design that Clarence Saunders invented the first self-service grocery store, Piggly-Wiggly, which enabled customers to choose their groceries right from the shelves instead of having to depend on a clerk behind a counter to do it for them. This was a major revolution in food retailing and today can serve as a leading example of retail design.

Essential to the relation of design and food is the forging of mass societies as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Not only was design crucial to the new division between urban life and the countryside but it was also vital to the ways that food was transported from remote locations to cities where it was distributed and consumed.
As mass societies emerged in the 19th century, social classes formed in the cities and merchandising began to shift from small farmers and craftsmen to the mass production of food and hard goods.
Not only did design address the new requi rements for t ranspor t ing food in refrigerated containers but it also contributed to preparing it in large batches in factories and then distributing it in tins, cans, and boxes, all of which bore designed packaging. When consumers were unable to observe directly how food was prepared, they needed other assurances of quality as well as advice on why to choose one brand rather than another. Thus, food marketing spurred the growth of advertising, especially in cities, where posters and billboards announced and promoted new brands, followed by increasingly sophisticated printed advertisements that linked food purchases with grander visions of idealized lifestyles.
With the advent of mass advertising, food became embedded in the public imagination, not just as a comestible but also as a commodity that was strongly implicated in issues of identity formation. The food industry has many facets, ranging from restaurants and the purchase of prepared foods to the encouragement to cook at home with cookbooks and equipment purchased from a multitude of vendors. Reay Tannahill and other food historians have traced the cookbook back at least to classical Greece where Tannahill identified Archestratus as one of the first “gastronomic pedants” who counseled the public on where and how to eat particular foods.3 The cookbook is a designed artifact, one of many that range from restaurant facades and interiors to the creation of new items for the home such as tableware, dishes, glasses, and even tablecloths. Let us also not forget that several categories of furniture design, notably furniture for the kitchen and the dining room, arose because of their relation to food, as did the multitude of appliances ranging from refrigerators and stoves to microwaves, toasters, and mixers. Studying food and design  Given the deep involvement of food and design with each other throughout history, it is regrettable though not surprising that scholars are yet to recognize the close connection between the two.
There are good reasons for this. First, it is possible to build a body of knowledge about food or design without explicitly mentioning the other. In the history of food, one can discuss the continuity of food cultivation, preparation, and so forth without emphasizing the fact that the devices, instruments, and machines that are necessary for the development of food systems have their own particular histories. A food history text cannot possibly ignore these technological objects and their role in food culture but they are easily taken for granted and not recognized as possessing historical trajectories of their own. So long as food and its description remains at the forefront of such histories, it will be difficult to understand how, along with design, food might be related to larger historical movements. Actually, it is not possible to write about the history of food without mentioning the technology such as plows and stoves that are required for its cultivation, preparation, and consumption. By contrast, design studies scholars can discuss the machines, objects, and devices that are integral to the food system without writing about the food to which they are related.
A book that shows how food became mass-produced as a consequence of mechanization is Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command. It is a classic design history text that describes the multifarious inventions of things and processes that led to a mechanized culture. In a telling section on “The Assembly Line in the 20th Century,” Gideion juxtaposes on facing pages a photograph of an assembly line that turned out automobile frames with one that processed hog carcasses. In his discussion, he subordinated the mass slaughter of animals for food to discussion of the assembly line itself as a mode of production. In fact, Gideon was more concerned with issues of automation than with food preparation.
The modern assembly line as it appears, probably for the first time, in the packing houses of Cincinnati, and certain measures of scientific management, which use man as part of an automatic process, are transitional phenomena, prevailing only so long as machinery is unable to perform certain operations of its own accord.4(Fig. 3) Elsewhere in Mechanization Takes Command, as an example of his uneasiness about the cultural transition from the organic to the mechanical, Giedion included a long section on making bread. He described the mechanization of the baking process as well as the milling of flour, which both contribute to a loaf of bread whose ”inside was elastic as a rubber sponge and completely tasteless.”5 Giedion argued that uniformity was a necessary outcome of mechanization and stated that striving for this outcome contributed to the poor quality of the bread. He saw the negative consequence of this striving for uniformity as well in the desire to produce egg yolks with a consistent color. “Industry provides the corresponding chicken feed,” he wrote, “which, with the help of artificial coloring, never fails to produce yolks of the same shade.”6

Giedion is unusual among historians of design and technology in addressing the topic of industrial food preparation. He did so because he wrote from a moral position. He was concerned with the loss of organic life that mechanization was bringing about and he included changes in food production in that loss. Unlike Giedion, neither design historians nor design theorists tend to give sufficient attention to the ways that the objects of their research belong to the study of larger issues. For some theorists, semantic issues are paramount. They talk endlessly about an object’s meaning yet rarely insert the object into situations of use. Numerous examples can be found in the decorative arts whose methodology is still crucial for many design historians. Scholars might single out objects such as dishes, tableware, or dining room tables and discuss them as if they had no relation to the purpose of eating.(Fig. 4) As examples, one can cite a set of tableware by the Austrian Secessionist architect and designer Josef Hoffmann and a set of china by the Hungarianborn ceramist Eva Zeisel. In the history of design, these objects have achieved iconic prominence for aesthetic reasons.

First, they are continuing evidence of great talents, adding to the cadre of beautiful objects by Hoffmann and Zeisel, who are among the best designers of the modern era. Second, they are evidence of a stylistic movement, modernism. Hoffmann’s simple tableware, evidence of the Vienna Secession, represents a rejection of the highly decorative Ringstrasse style of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie, while Zeisel’s ceramic set exemplifies the modern spirit that the Museum of Modern Art was promoting for middle-class consumers in the 1940s and 1950s, hoping it could persuade them to adhere to the museum’s aesthetic values. (Fig. 5) The separation from use is also evident when such objects are exhibited in museums. Frequently, museums display tableware, glasses, pitchers, or plates in glass cases but only rarely does a daring curator contextualize them by showing them as place settings on a dining room table. Yet, in neither instance, is there any relation to food, even to contemporary recipes.\

There is a similar effect when design historians discuss mechanized objects related to food production such as threshing machines, tractors, or grain harvesters. People like Cyrus McCormick, who invented a reaper and then founded a company that built agricultural equipment, are recognized for their technological and marketing ingenuity and their impact on agriculture but this latter impact is never related to how the production or preparation of food changed as a consequence of their inventions. Food has actually entered the design realm in a surprising way as design itself. Food design is a relatively new activity that now has its own organization, the International Food Design Society.7 (Fig.6) As photographer Inge Knölke, has said about food designer Martí Guixé, “A food designer is somebody working with food, with no idea of cooking.”8 This is true for some designers like Guixé, trained as an interior and product designer, for whom food is a material to be shaped just as another designer might choose glass or aluminum.Guixé has stated clearly that his food projects have no connection to cooking or gastronomy. “I am only interested in food, as I consider it is a mass consumption product and I like the fact that it is a product that disappears – by ingestion –and is transformed into energy.”9 For Guixé food design is part of a larger conceptual project to question issues of consumption and the circulation of objects in contemporary culture. (Fig. 7) Other artist-designers such as Bompas & Parr incorporate food into happenings and installations intended to raise social issues or simply offer some fun to the participants. They design jello molds in shapes such as St. Paul’s cathedral and use jello in their installations but they have also begun to work with chocolate as well as in their project to create a chocolate climbing wall at an English holiday resort. (Fig. 8) Although designers and artists like Marti Guixé and Bompas & Parr make art and conceptual design out of food, the design of food is actually a serious business for élite chefs such as Ferran Adrià, former head chef at El Bulli whose concern with the visual presentation of their dishes has become integral to their cooking. The sculptural combination of small pieces of food along with a patterned sauce drizzle on a big white plate is not only the signature of the world’s greatest and most expensive restaurants like El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, which has now closed, and Alinea and Next in Chicago, two restaurants that are stages for the exotic creations of star chef Grant Achatz., who employs many unique serving devices that are the result of a collaboration with the industrial designer Martin Kastner. Elaborate food arrangement has also become standard rhetoric for lesser restaurants that aspire to elevate their status. The focus on food design is a new and inventive activity but it has little to do with the real reason why exploring affinities between food studies and design studies is worthwhile.10

Elective affinities
Perhaps the most significant difference between food and design is that food can exist in a natural form, although it rarely does, but design is entirely artificial. Everything that is designed is a consequence of human action. With the exception of organic products, most foods also have some relation to an artificial process, whether plants are sprayed with pesticides, animals injected with hormones, or both modified genetically during their production.
Consumers and end users for the most part relate to food and design as products or commodities that are embedded in a social structure. Both are part of the human social experience and as such go through similar cycles to become commodities. Therefore it may be helpful to think of the two as elements of systems that cover their respective lifespans from production to consumption and disposal. In systematizing the study of both, we can begin to see their respective complexities and identify points of intersection where studying the two together may be fruitful.
Such a project was not an outcome foreseen when design studies and food studies began thei r separat e developments. The term “design studies” was most likely first used in 1979 as the name of a British academic journal that was rooted in a culture dominated by architects and engineers. It now refers to a much wider field of investigation than that of the journal that bears its name. Many design programs now have courses in design studies by which they mean a body of texts that addresses theoretical and or historic issues related to design. Most recently, several universities have begun to offer MA degrees in design studies11, although many higher degree programs incorporate design studies within a much wider field of design research that forms the basis for numerous doctorates in design. There are also a growing number of academic journals, both general and specialized, in which design studies scholars can publish.12 The term ‘design studies’ suggests a field with defined parameters whi le the term “design research” is simply unbounded activity that parallels the practice of design.
Food studies have a relatively shorter history than design studies, although interest in it is growing fast. As Jan Ellen Spiegel wrote in a New York Times article, the first food studies programs started in the mid-1990s at several American universities.13 As with design studies, which is represented by the Design Research Society and a number of related organizations worldwide, food studies has its own academic organization, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, which publishes a journal Food, Culture & Society and holds an annual meeting and conference.14 In addition, they’re other food journals such as Gastronomical as well as academic blogs such as “Critical Studies in Food and Culture”, hosted by the University of California, Davis.
Both f ields have prof i ted f rom the development of interdisciplinary studies in other fields that have occurred since the 1960s. This includes not only the various programs that focus on ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation groups such as black studies, Latino studies, Chicano studies, Native American and Asian American studies, feminist studies and queer studies, but also the study of phenomena that are too complex for a single discipline such as war and peace, globalization, and technology.
What may be mos t helpful in thi sprel iminary explorat ion of relat ions between food studies and design studies is to consider both food and design as embedded in systems and to initiate a mapping process that can define the scope of each system and identify parallels and points of intersection between the two. In this way, we can expand the conceptual space of each field and consequently discover themes and issues that may result in new methodological, narrative, and activist approaches by scholars in both of them.
Let us consider first of all what food and design have in common. Both exist as market commodities as well as products that can be produced outside the market. The world’s food within the market is sold in a variety of forms from large wholesale batches of unprocessed raw material to highly processed and elaborately prepared restaurant meals. Outside the market, millions of people grow their own food, which is what enables them to survive with little cash for market purchases. Design too begins as raw materials and ends up as finished products. There is an active DIY movement and many people make some of their own products such as clothes and furniture, though few can make their own transport vehicles or electronic appliances.
Thus, production is the first stage in either the food or design system. This phase is important because it is the locus for many current political issues such as chemicals that are added to the production process, labor policies for workers who grow and harvest food or work on the assembly lines where products are manufactured. Historically, labor concerns have been at best marginal to design studies but the exposure a few years ago of sweatshop conditions in Asian factories that produced Nike shoes or current factories where Apple products are made calls attention to issues of production that should not be excluded from the study of designed products once they become consumables.
There is also much to study in the mass production of food and the way this is regulated. Recent incidents concerning contaminated food products imported into the Uni ted States f rom China implicate the regulatory agencies in the study of food. Currently, there is some disagreement between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which seeks stricter regulations and some members of the Congress and the White House staff that want to reduce them.
There are many social tendencies in the realm of food production such as the growing community garden movement and the resurgence of small farms to counter the hegemony of big agribusiness that can serve as examples of small-scale design projects. There is also a useful point of intersection between the community garden movement, the growth of farmers’ markets, and new urban planning theories that put a greater emphasis on neighborhood self-sufficiency and strive to integrate local production and support for small businesses into neighborhood economies.
After production, I would introduce circulation and distribution as the next stages of development for both food and designed products. This addresses the study of how food is transported, how it is brought to the different kinds of markets, whether in developing countries or the large supermarkets in the industrialized world, what the policies of those markets are, what their health standards are, how the food or design is displayed and what the different mechanisms of exchange are that move goods from producers to consumers. This phase also involves the ways that public conversation about food or design products is generated.
What are the discourses in which the two are embedded? What publications or media or Internet outlets are devoted to them? What techniques are used to advertise and promote them? How do researchers study these techniques? What research tendencies relate to them? In the circulation/distribution phase, there are additional issues that connect to urban life. This is the realm in which to deal with issues such as hunger and food deserts (neighborhoods in which there are no food stores), both of which result from the faulty distribution of food.
The third phase is consumption. For food this takes in restaurants and the ways that people buy prepared food as well as how they cook at home. What are the different ways that prepared food and products are sold? (Fig. 9)What is the role of street vendors and black markets? How do people decide what to cook in their own homes? The realm of food and product consumption is already addressed to some degree within the field of cultural studies but without the focus that a specialized field of food studies makes possible.15 (Fig.10) Design does enter into the food realm in the sphere of consumption, particularly in the design of spaces where prepared food is sold, restaurants, stands for street vendors, food trucks. Here we can take up the issue of how consumers are introduced to new products, whether new dishes in restaurants or even new kinds of restaurants, and how the design of places where food is sold becomes part of the food experience. The term ‘experience design’ is now being used quite broadly both in relation to products as well as to food consumption.

The final phase is disposal and here we can see an obvious intersection between food and design around the issue of waste. In the consumption process both food and design generate enormous amounts of waste and the two can easily merge into a single strategy of waste removal. Composting has its proponents as does recycling electronic waste but insufficient thought is given to what the combination of the two might mean within a larger theory of waste disposal.
The past and the present
From the literature on food studies that I have reviewed, it appears that scholars in that field do not have a problem with integrating history and the study of contemporary issues. This is an approach I support because I believe there is an inherent dynamic between the past and the present. The complexity of the present raises issues about the past and how it might be studied. Within design history, for example, there has been little work on labor issues or on recycling or waste disposal, all of which are closely related to design today. Conversely, knowledge derived from a study of the past helps to clarify issues in the present. Looking back one can identify actions and their consequences that might serve as either precedents to evaluate the possible outcome of related actions in the present. I have argued elsewhere that design historians need to broaden their focus in order to make their concerns interesting and relevant to scholars in other fields of history.16 Fernando Braided, a member of the French Annals school of historians, set a good example in his three-volume study Civilization and Capitalism, 15th– 18th Centuries in which he included sections on food along with his account of material culture, science, and commerce. Braided did not address the full range of technologies that today we might consider within a definition of design. In fact he concentrated on furniture and clothing; but he did recognize the potential for connections between different phenomena if the right frame could be found.
To return to an earlier theme, I suggest that food and design can come together for the historian in studies of the transition from rural villages to urban mass societies. There could be much more work done on how the production, distribution, and consumption of food intersected with other fields such as design during this transition. Such research could also be helpful in setting a precedent for how we might consider the relation of food studies and design studies to better understand the present and conjecture about the future.
The future
Numerous theorists believe we are making a transition to a new kind of society that is as different from the one brought about by the industrial revolution as the industrial revolution was from the agrarian societies that preceded it. Speculation on what the future will look like takes many forms from eco-utopias to techno-dystopias.
Those who are working for a sustainable future believe that nature will continue to be an important part of our lives and those natural modes of living are the wave of the future. Others think that we are already overwhelmed by the artificial and that the future will simply bring more of the same. (Fig. 11) One interesting area of comparison is the relation between the slow food and the slow towns movement, both of which began in Italy. Slow food was founded in Italy in1986 with the aim of preserving traditional and regional cuisines and encouraging farming that is related to local ecosystems. Slow towns, known as Cittaslow, also of Italian origin, aims to improve the quality of life in towns by reducing the pace of life and making new use of both public and private spaces. (Fig. 10) The two movements come together in a Turkish town I visited, Seferihisar, which was the first in a growing network of slow towns in Turkey.17 (Fig. 12) Food is central to the mayor’s urban design to improve the quality of life in Seferihisar and to promote it as a tourist destination. Regular weekend markets, for example, give local residents an opportunity to prepare local dishes and specialties and sell them to tourists, thus offering a meaningful local experience while also giving local people a chance to earn extra money.

No matter which scenario becomes more prevalent, however, design and food as exemplified in the case of Seferihisar are heavily implicated. Though the desire for organic foods is growing, numerous forces are at work to inject more chemicals into the food chain or ignore those that are already there. The movement towards more genetically modified foods is also extremely strong although there is powerful resistance to it. Design is implicated in the debates about how much technology we want to live with and to what degree we want to interact with non-human systems. Just as the transition to a mass society provided a powerful intersection for the study of food and design during that period so can the current transition to a new society that we will experience both locally and globally offers an intersection where scholars in food studies and design studies along with scholars in many other fields can find common ground and together think through in a responsible way the issues that will help us create a life that will benefit all of us and the generations to follow.

1. See “Design History and Design Studies”and “The Multiple Tasks of Design Studies” in Victor Margolin, The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies (Chicago a n d L o n d o n ; T h e University of Chicago Press, 2002): 218-233 and 244-260.
2 .This t h eme was explored at the 2nd Agr indust r ial Design Symposium, sponsored by the Izmir University of Economics, in April2012. The paper on which thi s ar t icle i s based was prepared for that symposium.
3. Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York:Three Rivers Press,1988), 68-69.
4. Siegfried Giedion,M e c h a n i z a t i o n Ta k e s C o m m a n d ; A C o n t r i b u t i o n t o Anonymous Hi s tory (New York and London:W.W. Norton, 1969, c. 1948), 125.
5. Ibid. 196.
6. Ibid. 198.
7. In November 2010,t h e I n t e r n a t i o n a l Food Design Society joi n ed wi t h London Metropolitan University t o s p o n s o r t h e F i r s t I n t e r n a t i o n a l Symposium on Food Experience Design. T h e a n n o u n c eme n t f o r t h e symposium made reference to an “emerging discipline of Food Experience Design” and stated i t s p u r p o s e a s”examining the aspects that constitute food experiences and the bodies of knowledge t h a t c o n t r i b u t e t o t h e p r o c e s s o f designing food.” Accessed November12, 2012.
8. http://www.foodd e s i g n i n g . c o m / .Accessed Apr i l 17 ,2012.
9. Marti Guixé quoted i n M a r t i G u i x é , Wi k i p e d i a , h t t p : / /,accessed A p r i l 17,2012.
10. While food design as a form of contemporary d e s i g n p r a c t i c e i s new, the considered presentation of food is not. We can consider, for example the Feast of Trimalchio, Roman poet Ovid’s account of an extravagant banquet in his Satyricon.
11. One good example is the new Master of Arts program in Design Studies that has recently been inaugurated at P a r s o n s T h e N e w School in New York City.
12. The leading general a c a d e m i c d e s i g n jour nals are Des ign Studies, Design Issues, and The Design Journal.
13. Jan Ellen Spiegel,“Truly Food for Thought,”The New York Times,April 13, 2012. See also Marion Nestle and W.Alex McIntosh, “Writing t h e F o o d S t u d i e s Mov ement , ” Food,Culture and Society:An International Journal o f M u l t i d i s c i p l i n a r y Research, 13 no. 2( J u n e 2 0 1 0 ) : 1 5 9 -1 7 9 a n d J o s é e Johnston, “Struggles for the Up and Coming: Challenges Facing New Scholars and Food Scholarship,” Food,Culture and Society:An International Journal o f M u l t i d i s c i p l i n a r y Research, 11 no. 3 (September 2008):2 6 9 - 2 7 4 . I n v i t e d commentary.
14 . S e e t h e Association’s website, h t t p : / / w w w. f o o d - Accessed April 17, 2012.
15 . S e e F a b i o P a r a s e c o l i , “Food, Cultural Studies, and Popu l a r Cu l t u re ” i n Ken Albala, ed. The Routledge International Handbook o f Food S t u d i e s ( O x f o r d : Rout ledge, 2012) :pages
16. Vi c tor Ma rgol i n “Design in History”, Design Issues, 25 no. 2 (Spring 2009): 94-105.
17 . Se e t h e t own ’s website http://www. cittaslowseferihisar. org/eng/ . Accessed November 12, 2012.


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