Anti-technological avant-garde design in the 19th and late 20th century

  • Update:2009-12-08
  • J.W. Drukker & Marjolein van Velzen
  • Source: No.197 | September 2009

"Anti-technological avant-garde design in the 19th and late 20th century
——Arts and Crafts and Dutch Postmodernism
J.W. Drukker & Marjolein van Velzen 

Henry Cole and the Great Exhibition
Whenever the British Queen Victoria deemed the progress of one of her projects unsatisfactory, she would一allegedly一put on a stern tone of voice and say: ' We need some steam. Get Cole.' [ILL.1]Henry Cole, a great promoter of the Arts who was so popular in his time that the PUNCH magazine published a full-page caricature of him, was a sort of a turbo dwarf of the type one would expect to find on the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. [ILL. 2]. As a matter of fact, he and Dickens were good friends; the author based at least two of his novels' protagonists on Cole, and presumably named one of his sons after him. Cole's small frame hid a boundless energy that he used for myriads of projects and inventions, among which the adhesive postage stamp and the Christmas card. [ILL. 3]
One of Cole's biggest successes was the London World Exhibition. Even in our day and age, over 150 years and dozens of world exhibitions later, there is only one that is ever given the epithet of The Great Exhibition, and that is Henry Cole's, in 1851. The exhibition was held in a revolutionary, new building, the so called `Crystal Palace' [ILL. 4a, 4b & 4c] by Joseph Paxton [ILL. 5] in Hyde Park that was in fact nothing more than a modular structure of mass-produced pig iron standard elements and glass. Paxton, former head gardener at one of the most famous gardens in England, had earlier experimented in building enormous glass houses for exotic plant collections, a popular hobby among the Victorian British elite, and had found wood, glass and steel to be strong and durable materials, eminently suitable for the speedy building of large constructions. The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in the early 20th century, and nothing lasts but countless illustrations plus... the very first sketch made by Paxton when designing the building [ILL.6] The Great Exhibition attracted over five million visitors in an era in which tourism hardly existed, let alone mass tourism
Cole's exhibition was a novelty for another reason,too:before the 1851 World Exhibition, this type of events used to have a strictly national character, aimed at showing the world the very best of the hosting country's agriculture, industry and technology. At the Great Exhibition, half the floor space was reserved for the United Kingdom and its colonies. The other half, however, consisted of what was officially termed The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. In this project of Cole's, approximately 15000 contributors from as many as 40 countries showed their produce and products, among which a country that nineteenth-century western nations considered to be highly exotic, namely: China, exhibiting porcelain, textile, jade, furniture, bronzes, ivory, lacquer and silk paintings, and taking two prizes: one for a collection of carvings and one for silk. The international character of the exhibition did not mean that the proverbial English national chauvinism had made place for an unexpected eructation of international solidarity. The official propaganda praised the international fraternization fostered by the exhibition, but behind the scenes feelings of British superiority were at play: by exhibiting the English goods within an international context, the audience would realize how technologically advanced the British Empire
was when compared to other nations.
The Victorian Design Debate and the South Kensington School System
However, this plan backfired in a most grandiose way. Although the majority of the thousands of awards and distinctions were indeed given to England, it was remarkable that these were mainly awards for science and technology. In the realm of product design, France was the great champion and the organizers noted to their dismay that both juries and the international, even the national press, were openly disdainful of the inferiorEnglish product design. [ILL. 7a&7b]. This was clearly unacceptable to someone like Henry Cole, and as usual he took matters in hand in his own energetic, larger-than-life way
Once the exhibition was finished developed a national network of brand design schools, partly financed through enormous profits from the Great Exhibition, aimed exclusively at training designers to work in and for industry. These schools used a revolutionary structure, unheard of in the mid-nineteenth century. Courses were, on principle, taught part-time and were aimed at people already working in the industry. Judging from the large numbers of students enrolling for the course, the so-called South Kensington School System, named after the first establishment of the schools in London, must have been a raging success. [ILL. 8] But however progressive the idea itself may have been, it had little or no practical significance since no-one had even the slightest idea about a possible curriculum for an industrial design course. Therefore, courses did not amount to much more than a lame derivate of existing art schools and consisted mainly of drawing lessons. Even in our time, remnants of the educational methods of the South Kensington School System can still be seen: the cellars below the Victoria and Albert Museum in London harbor a vast collection of plaster of Paris copies of master works from all ages. The V&A is the direct inheritance of the museum collection that was gathered in the South Kensington School as an aid to drawing lessons. [ILL. 9a&9b]
Around the same time, and just like the design schools inspired by the devastatingly negative comments on English design at the Great Exhibition, artists and critics started a heated debate, the "Victorian Design Debate", about the question what high-quality design should ideally be founded on. This discussion took an unexpected turn as a consequenceof two matters that at first glance are totally unrelated to product design.
Roman Catholic emancipation and antimodernism
First, there was the paradoxical fact that in spite of technological and scientific superiority, nineteenth century England was a place where the majority of the population, the industry workers, lived in historically unprecedented barbarian circumstances. One of the corner stones of Marx's theory on the development of capitalism,the Verelendung (misery, poverty) of the proletariat, was anything but a theoretical construct: both Marx and Engels witnessed Verelendung as a part of daily reality, as can be read in Engels' 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England. Secondly, a successful emancipation process of Roman Catholic minorities had been put in motion in the predominantly protestant countries of North-West Europe. In 1851,the year of the British Great Exhibition, England gave permission to celebrate Roman Catholic mass, a religious practice that had been banned since England's separation from papal authority, 300 years earlier during the reign of King Henry VIII. Two years later, in 1853, Roman Catholic masses were allowed once again in the Netherlands, where they had been banned since 1573.
Within the intellectual circles that fostered the spiritual inspiration for this emancipation process, a vehement antimodernism was born, fed by the miserable living conditions in the slums surrounding the modern hubs of industry. [ILL. 10] This antimodernism culminated in a total rejection of the novel, mechanised production methods, practiced in factories and characterised by labour division and specialisation, and give rise to a blind veneration of the medieval guild system.
This utterly uncritical adulation of the Middle Ages and of all things medieval inspired a veritable wave of retro-architecture inWestern Europe, among which the so-called Gothic Revival: a sobering realization for the modern tourist who, when visiting for instance the Houses of Parliament in London, wonders how this medieval building complex has withstood the ravages of time in such mint condition. The Houses of Parliament, however, are no more medieval than the Underground that delivered him to their doorstep, but were in fact a brand spanking new design by Victorian architect August Welby Pugin. [ILL. 11 a, 11 b&11 c]
Even in the Netherlands, where national culture has been dominated by a deeply engrained anti-catholic brand of Calvinism, the nineteenth century influence of retro- architecture is easy to see, as can be witnessed in the building style of the national museum Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And the Amsterdam Central Station, the ultimate symbol of nineteenth century modern technology, wears the disguise of a...Renaissance palace. [ILL. 12&13]. Bothwere designed by P.J.H. Cuypers (1827一1921),one of the first Roman-Catholic architects who managed to win important government contracts in Calvinistic Holland and an exponent par excellence of the retro-architectural styles.
Gradually, the influence of the antimodernist movement, originally religious on the one and marxist on the other hand, grew to such an extent that its ideas began to resonate within other social reform movements of the time, utterly unrelated to Catholicism, but, in most cases, rooted in socialism. The bizarre combination of the essentially highly reactionary ideas of John Ruskin's and August Welby Pugin's gothic revival on the one hand, and the somewhat naive brand of utopian socialism of William Morris' group of social reform adepts on the other, was to become the foundation of the Arts and Crafts movement: the most influential design philosophy of the second half of the nineteenth century, that lasted well into the early decades of the 20th century.
Arts and Crafts as antimodern utopianism
At the core of the Arts and Crafts philosophy was an absolute rejection of the modern industrial factory system一the inferiority of English product design that had inspired the entire Victorian Design Debate was deemed to be a direct consequence of the modern principle of labor division and specialization that was the essence of the mechanized production methods. William Morris and his followers reasoned that reducing the human worker to a simple machine element had introduced two fatal flaws into the production system. [ILL. 14a&14b]. The craftsmanship that in the confraternities of medieval guilds had been imparted from masters to apprentices and journeymen had been replaced by blind routine jobs that did not require any skills. Brute capitalist love of gain had destroyed both the quality of the product and the job satisfaction of creating one entire artifact. Mechanical production was the root cause of the "ugliness" of English products. Abandoning these modern methods, returning to the principles of the medieval guild system, would allegedly achieve two major feats一the cognitive blunting generated by the industrial wage slavery would disappear right away, and the craftsman would regain his professional pride and job satisfaction. [ILL. 15] The re-valuation of manual crafts would automatically lead to a better quality of product design. The practical realization of these ideas led to the foundation of a large number of guilds, modeled after the medieval examples. In that sense, the Arts and Crafts movement was highly successful: within a few years, the manually produced guild products (mainly furniture, furnishings and wallpaper) were the best on the market.. [ILL. 16a, 16b&16c」
And even though these products were based on medieval examples, the designs were of a refreshing, unadorned simplicitythat, however strange this may seem, comes across as quite modern when compared to the rather pompous and absurdly overdecorated furniture characteristics of the mainstream Victorian design.
Arts and Crafts soon gained international fame: both on the European mainland and in the United States of America similar movements were initiated and in the last decades of the nineteenth century, William Morris was without a doubt the most influential designer of the entire Western world. The odium of tastelessness that had tainted English design in 1851 had disappeared without a trace, and there is no doubt at all that this was solely due to the movement. It goes without saying that as a logical consequence of this success, Henry Cole's design schools in England underwent a strong influence of the ideas propagated by the Arts and Crafts movement.
However, this raging success in dominating the design discipline in the western world, misfired completely in its most importantintentions. Bearing in mind that the movement was originally aimed at social reform, we can not but conclude that its influence in that particular domain, i.e. the improvement of the social conditions of the working class, was nil. [ILL. 17] Admittedly, working and living conditions of the industrial proletariat were patently improved by the end of the nineteenth century, but this improvement process was unrelated to the nostalgic adulation of a would-be and utopian medieval guild system. The first bits of legislation curbing the blatant exploitation olfactory workers and encouraging a municipal hygienic infrastructure (running water and a sewage system) were the result of the modern social reform organizations of the era: the Hygienist movement, social-liberalism and (nonrevolutionary socialist) Revisionism.
Another of the Arts and Crafts ideals the spiritual edification of the masses by offering the population a chance to procure high一quality products, proved to be an impracticable illusion. The Arts and Crafts products were indeed of a clearly superior quality compared to the more usual mass-produced goods of the time, but the manual production process entailed forbiddingly high prices, unaffordable for working class households. Arts and Crafts products were not found in working class homes, but solely in the mansions of the noble and the well to do, so called `socially enlightened' elite and the new industrialists who, by decorating their houses in Arts&Crafts style, gave off the subtle message that they were, from a social point of view, on the "right" side, i.e. the correct, the reform-oriented, side. The question whether the great masses would have been spiritually uplifted papering their walls with William Morris wallpaper is moot: this particular wallpaper was simply unaffordable for the mass markets for whom it had originally been intended.
Therefore, however important the Arts and Crafts movement may have been for the emancipation of English craft, from a social point of view it was a complete failure. Moreover, this is not the only downside of the Arts and Crafts. As soon as we view the larger picture by enlarging the perspective of product design to encompass not only arts and crafts per se but consider industrial design as well, we see that the predominance of Morris' viewpoints had a disastrous effect. The Arts and Crafts ideals may have been democratic in theory, but practically they turned out to be highly reactionary and elitist. The considerable influence of Arts and Crafts ideas on design schools一not only in the United Kingdom but elsewhere as well一led to a situation where the schools, that had originally been established in order to aid the industry, completely ignored the consequences of industrial modernisation on the discipline of product design. In other words: within the design schools, there was no room whatsoever for the specific product design requirements for mass production. Design schools managed to completely overlook the gigantic social revolution that was the beginning of the mass consumption era in the twentieth century in Western Europe for dozens of years. As a consequence, the industry totally ignored existing design schools, especially in England, and the discipline of industrial design was developed and practised largely outside the academic design world.
Postwar functionalism and the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm
Even though up to the first decades of the twentieth century Arts & Crafts exerted a strong influence on design education in the entire western world, its influence in England was, if anything, more pervasive than anywhere else. Its strong presence in England is one of the reasons why a successful collaboration between designers and industry on a more than incidental basis could never have been initiated in England: industry and design moved along separate tracks, ignoring each other because of their essentially divergent philosophies. In other countries, however, design institutions and industry started to drift closer together.
Early projects took place in the 1930s in the United States of America; designers like Raymond Loewy Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague managed to turn design into a powerful marketing tool contributing to the survival of American industry during the Great Depression that had started in 1929 and lasted all through the 1930s. [ILL. 18] In those days, however, American design was exclusively led by a number of highly talented 'self made men' and industrial design was only rarely taught in academic settings.
In Europe, Germany was the epicentre of modern developments. This is where industrial design really took off. As early as the first decades of the 20th century (from 1907 onwards), Peter Behrens worked as a corporate designer for AEG, a leading German manufacturer of electrical household and other equipment. [ILL. 19a&19b] This unique collaboration was in fact a forerunner of the American situation in the 1930s. Moreover, Germany was the first country where design education broke radically with the Arts & Crafts heritage. This happened in the famous Bauhaus that initially, during the first years after its establishment, was still strongly influenced by the 19th century English design philosophy. In 1923, the very first and most influential Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius, delivered a manifesto called "Kunst and Technik: eine neue Einheit" (Art and Technology: A new Union), in which he posited and defended the at the time totally revolutionary idea that design should not be rooted in decorative art, but in science and technology. [ILL. 20] Designers are not essentially artists, said Gropius一 they are engineers. Theoretically speaking, this concept constituted a veritable breakthrough; practically, however, the ideas remained virtually unimplemented in the years that followed Gropius' manifesto. The fact that Gropius' ideas were not snapped up for immediate implementation was mainly due to the 1933 Nazi decree to close down Bauhaus, which they considered to be a bulwark of Jewish-communist agitators. Many of the leading Bauhaus professors fled to the United States, where they were received with open arms andwere given eminently prestigious appointments at the best universities of America. Both Gropius and Marcel Breuer, for instance, were appointed full professors of architecture at Harvard University.
It was only in the 1950s that Gropius' revolutionary plans as formulated in his "Kunst and Technik" could be successfully implemented. In 1953, the Hochschule fiirGestaltung was founded in the city of Ulm (Germany). [ILL. 21a&21 b] In this design college, a design curriculum was established that was firmly rooted in the principles of the later Bauhaus period and entailed a radical breach with craft-based traditions. These were replaced by a design methodology that was strictly based on science and technology and which even in our day and age is known as "functionalism". Surprisingly, within a couple of years the skepticism with which the industry had viewed design schools for almost a century disappearedas if it had never existed. This was the beginning of a productive era of close collaboration between the Hochschule and a large number of leading industrial companies in Germany. The most famous example is BRAUN, manufacturers of electrical and household equipment, who had their own Design Studio, featuring the sober and abstract mathematical forms that had originated in the late Bauhaus and collaborating closely with the Hochschule. [ILL. 22a, 22 b&22c] These co-operations between college and industry had far-reaching consequences: from the late fiftiesuntil the late seventies of the twentieth century, German industrial design became the example of choice for the rest of the world. and what is more, the Ulm programme became the blueprint for each and every leading design programme in Europe. The first curricula of both the predecessor of the Academie voor lndustriele Vormgeving (Academyfor Industrial Design) in Eindhoven (The Netherlands) and the Faculty of Industrial Design of Delft University of Technology founded in 1969, were literal copies of the great German example. Even the direct descendant of Henry Cole's SouthKensington School, the Royal College of Art in London, was in time transformed after the model of the Hochschule.
The enormous influence of the Ulmer Hochschule is best illustrated by the fact that even today, international designers' jargon still refers to this college as "the" Hochschule. There are dozens of so-called 'Hochschulen' (colleges) in Germany, but designers always refer to one, and one only: whenever a designer mentions the word 'Hochschule' or even plainly 'Ulm', colleagues all over the world will immediatelygrasp the meaning: this can only be one institution, i.e. "the" Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm. Even stranger, perhaps: Anglo-Saxon designers use the bizarre expression "to ulm up a product", meaning to redesign a product according to the stern, minimalistic principles that were characteristic of the Hochschule. All's well that ends well? Well, no, not quite. After the successful alliance of industry and design schools in the 1960s and `70s, the last quarter of the 20th century saw the beginning of a process that looks suspiciously like the Victorian Design Debate and the ensuing dominance of the Arts and Crafts movement. The consequences, whether they be planned or unplanned, were the same as in the 19th century: just like before, once again it looked as if modern industry on the one hand and avant-garde design and design education on the other, were being driven apart. In order to understand this antimodernist reaction. we need to consider a few social and cultural changes taking place in the Western world of the 1970s and 1980s of thelast century, culminating in a radical revolution of society's appreciation of modern technology. The 1950s and 1960 had been characterised by a strong belief in progress, based on technological advances and supported by an unprecedented rapid growth of prosperity in those years. [ILL. 23a&23b] In the 70s and 80s however an inverse development was seen: a slowdown of economic growth, at least in the West, coupled with a mass aversion of一mainly large-scale一modern technology
When一and why一modernism becameold fashioned
The intellectual and cultural climate in the 1970s was in contrast with that of the 60s. In the Sixties, the ideals of "making the world a better place " had flourished in virtually each and every  aspect of society, and the realization of this future paradise on earth was, so it was generally  thought, going to be made possible only by one dominating force: modern technology. However,  after 1970 the Western world was increasingly prey to doubt, despair and often completely irrational and violent protest rallies, aimed against modern-especially large scale-technology.
The precursors of this "culture change" had been witnessed in the second half of the sixties. The  protests at several European universities from May 1968 onwards can be seen as a suddenly  emerged resistance against the authoritarian and outdated nature of universities at that time. But  there is more to them. The student rallies and protests in France and Italy, but also in Germany and  the Netherlands, at certain universities in the US and almost all universities in South-America  were rooted in a long-standing tradition of intellectually tinted affinity with left-wing radical  theories. As modern technology is anathema to the ideals of anarchism and the student revolts  were inspired by anarchist ideals, it goes without saying that these rallies were inspired by, and  inspired in turn, strong feelings against modernism and technology. Yet, it would be wrong to  attribute these sentiments of antimodernism and the suddenly manifest distrust of modern technology solely to the ideological conflicts at universities. On the one hand there were respectable lobbies from the political and scientific establishment, aimed at "fine-tuning" the   course of the modernisation process. They limited themselves to showing an increasing concern  about the degradation of the global ecological balance as outlined in the first report of the Club of  Rome and to debating about adapted一read: simplified, ‘low’一technology for the Third World.   On the other hand there were the massive non-violent rallies against the American role in the  Vietnam war, against nuclear energy and, a few years later, against the installation of American  cruise missiles in Europe. Last but not least, there were small but, seen from a cultural perspective, rather influential groups of predominantly French and Italian intellectuals who claimed to be "Maoists". For these groups, Chairman Mao served as the impersonation of the `New Man', precursor of an equally 'New World'. Needless to say, in these circles even mildy critical comments on the consequences of the Cultural Revolution in China and the collective re-education of the people of Cambodia under Pol Pot were bluntly denounced as imperialist lies. [INSERT ILL. 24 HERE] Gradually these intellectual "elites" opened the door to highly irrational and extremely antitechnological attitudes. By and by, even the political establishment was to a certain extent influenced by these radical groups, in the sense that they at least also started wondering if a technological Utopia was indeed feasible. Thus, antimodernism in the Western world reinforced itself.
There were, however, other major factors and events contributing to antimodernism in this era. First of all, there was the completion of the most ambitious spaceflight project ever, the Apollo Project with the successful "splashdown" of the Apollo 17 in December '72. In spite of NASA's adamant claims about the immense scientific importance of this project, many people experienced a certain degree of doubt. This reserved attitude was一to say the least一reinforced when in 1986 the American space shuttle Challenger exploded in full flight, killing all astronauts on board. The disaster, so it turned out, was caused by the failure of a 5 dollarcent 0-ring. The fact that the project had cost hundreds, even thousands of millions of dollars was crystal clear, but what were the practical results? And how could the enormous cost of the project be tallied with the growing realisation that the so called "Great Society", the ambitious social reforms program of the American government, was turning into a total failure? President Johnson had launched parts of this program, among which the "War on Poverty", in the mid-sixties, adding extra pressure to a national budget already at risk from the Vietnam war and the ambitious space program. What were American patriots to think of the total absence of military successes in South-East Asia, where generals as a last resort took recourse to defoliants and napalm bombings while the devastatingly horrible consequences for Vietnamese villagers were shown in large pictures on the front pages of American newspapers?
By themselves, these events would have sufficed to cause lots of people to start doubting the merits of modernism. Perhaps the greatest deception, however, was that during the early seventies it became increasingly clear that even the most powerful, the most modern and the richest nation on earth could not afford to continue paying for these titanic combined government efforts of space flight, large scale social reform and war. Due to tremendous overspending, within a few years the international financial status of the US changed from creditor to debtor nation. In December 1971 president Nixon had to apprise the nation of the fact that the value of the American dollar was no longer linked to the price of gold. The ensuing devaluation meant an abrupt ending to the international monetary system that had been the bedrock of modern Western society: the Bretton Woods Agreements, regulating post-war international finance and establishing the International Monetary Fund.
A totally unrelated factor causing a radical change in the way the role of technology was seen, proved to be the first Report of the Club of Rome, conceived and drafted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors like Forrester and Meadows, published in 1972 [ILL. 25a&25b]. MIT can without a doubt be considered the Mecca of Western technological establishment, and the report, titled Limits to Growth, was financed by one of the internationally most prestigious group of intellectuals and politicians (the so called `Club of Rome') and written by the highest ranking scholars of the MIT, in short: a group of people that could most definitely not be called a bunch of idealistic losers. The know-how of the authors and their affiliation with this famous technological university caused the report to create a crushing impression and to change the international political agenda permanently. The analysis was not seen as a sacrosanct conclusion: in later years the econometric basis proved to be meagre, to say the least. It was the apocalyptic message itself that packed the punch. According to the report, the world was at the brink of an unprecedented, threefold crisis. First, there was the menace of mass destruction of human civilisation by nuclear, bacteriological and chemical weaponry. Second, there was the catastrophic development of a growing rift in income between a minority of ever richer countries on the one, and a majority of poor lands on the other hand. And finally there was the menace of a ever faster world population growth, that would manifest itself in acute famine on a global scale, in worldwide exhaustion of natural resources and in global poisoning of the environment. Early critics of modernism like Vance Packard who in the optimistic sixties had been lonely prophets, now suddenly found support for their ideas from unexpected sympathisers.
In this political climate, ideas about desirable and undesirable forms of industrial production, energy, "special" technology for the Third World and the desirability of a new international economic order underwent an radical change. Also in this climate, an organisation like Greenpeace, that had been operational since 1968, was suddenly given worldwide news coverage. [ILL. 26]
Unfortunately, a side effect of these developments was that small, extremist groups in the Western world felt the need to misuse this climate as an alibi to deploy all available means in their rebellion against Western establishment. The decade of the seventies would be characterised by city guerrilla groups operating on a global scale: the Brigate Rosse in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof group in Western Germany, the Japanese Red Army in Asia and their countless successors. Once more. The alarming success of these groups and the panicked reaction patterns of the political establishment illustrated the vulnerability of modern technological society, as was also seen in the massive and ultimately successful resistance of the Iranian people against the Shah of Persia in 1979. The Shah had failed in his attempts to enforce an ultrafast modernisation of his country, not sparing the rod in doing so and receiving substantial support from the US for his efforts. After the Shah's flight to the West, however, fundamentalist groups within Islam managed to establish a medievally tinted theocracy within the blink of an eye. Thus, it became clear that Western modernist ideology might not be as universally transferable or even desirable as had been thought in the sixties: Iranian society was not against change per se, as was illustrated by the ayatollahs' rapid success, but had been opposed to the modern, inspired life style that the Shah impose. "Western"-had tried to impose.
Postmodernism and the undermining of functionalism
The emergence of new, antitechnological ideals and the undermining of modernism that went hand in hand with it, had certain consequences for the ruling ideas on architecture and design. In the 1950s and 1960, modernism in architecture and its direct counterpart: functionalism in design, had been solely and solidly founded in the principles of large scale, modern technology. Undermining these principles inevitably meant undermining the most influential current to date in 20th century architecture and design. The first blows were dealt in the field of architecture, when Robert Venturi published his Learning from Las Vegas (1972), together with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, and Charles Jencks wrote The language of postmodern architecture (1977), which contains the phrase that's possibly the most cited in all of postmodern architecture critique: "...Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri onJuly 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm..." [ILL. 27a&27b] The assault on functionalism in design was initiated in Italy, more precisely in Milano一where two avant-garde studios gained tremendous success shortly after having opened their doors: Alchimia, established by Alessandro Guerriero in 1976, and Memphis (1980) by Ettore Sottsass. [ILL 28]
One does get the impression that the principles of postmodern design were initially mainly inspired by the dominance of functionalism, which was felt to impose an irritating restriction. As a consequence, postmodernist design seemed to limit itself at first to a total rejection of the large majority of functionalist design principles. The abstract minimalism of Ulm was labeled as "boring" and the taboo on decoration that was part and parcel of it, was violated time and time again, sometimes with an almost sadistic alacrity. The functionalists' central principle of "Form follows function" was ironically rephrased and replaced by the rather gratuitous "Form follows fun". [ILL. 29] And after the self-proclaimed 'democratic' nature of functionalist design, i.e. the attempt to create affordable products of good quality that the masses could procure, postmodernists adopted a purposefully elitist attitude: mass production was forsworn and the idea was to produce exclusive, manually crafted products, manufactured in small numbers and sold for outrageous prices to a well-to-do, artistically inclined clique of connoisseurs. The functionality of a truly postmodern product was of secundary importance, which led to the absurd situation that products had no discernable function anymore: postmodern chairs tend to be unsuited as seats, and postmodern bookshelves are not primarily meant to contain books. [ILL. 30a, 30b, 30c&30d] But above all, postmodern design reflected, just like Arts&Crafts had done in the 19th century, a vehement aversion to modern, large-scale technology.
In the last part of this paper we shall describe how industrial design as a discipline can be affected by the consequences of this change from functionalism to postmodernism; we shall do this by discussing the developments within Dutch design in the last decade of the 20th century.
Dutch postmodernism: Droog Design
Even before the Second World War Dutch design was fully dominated by the Bauhaus principles of the later years. There were two reasons why this influence was stronger in the Netherlands than elsewhere. First, a purely Dutch avant-garde art movement, the so一called De Stijl (The Style) with figureheads like Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, had left an unofficial一Van Doesburg's repeated attempts to apply for a job as a lecturer歌the Bauhaus had been successfully thwarted by Gropius一but even so, a highly important impression on the design practices at this famous German institution. [ILL. 31a&31 b] Secondly, the straight-lined and sober Bauhaus-design fit seamlessly into the Calvinistic culture of the Netherlands. Small wonder that the post-war legacy of the Bauhaus, the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm, had a profound, one might even say a paralysing, influence on Dutch design philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s. That is why a relatively long period went by before postmodernism could start taking root in Dutch soil. But once postmodernism had established itself, Dutch design experienced a wave of unparallelled international success. The institutionalisation of postmodernism in the Dutch design world happened along two separate but closely entwined lines. The first development in this sense was a radical revolution in the curriculum of the most important non-academic design college in the Netherlands, the Academie voor Industriele Vormgeving (Academy for Industrial Design) in Eindhoven, initiated by one of the lecturers: design guru and trend watcher Lidewij Edelkoort. [ILL. 32] In the last decade of the 20th century the entire course, previously wholly based on Ulm functionalism, was changed into an orthodox postmodernist program. In 1999, when Edelkoort was elected president of the Board, the college had gained international fame and its Dutch name was changed to the more internationally oriented Design Academy. [ILL. 33]
A second milestone was the establishment of a platform for young, talented designers in 1993 by an other lecturer at this same Design Academy, designer Gijs Bakker and design critic Renny Ramakers. The platform was named Droog Design. [ILL. 34]. "Droog" is Dutch for "dry', a tongue-in-cheek reference to the intended simplicity and humor in the products it promoted. [ILL. 35a&35b] Nothwithstanding the criticism one might like to utter at Droog Design's address一and in the next paragraphs we shall maintain that there is ample room for criticism一no-one can deny that this very movement was the main contributor to the great international success of Dutch design of the past twenty years. Never before have Dutch designers received such lavish international praise and acclaim, and never have Dutch design colleges attracted so many students. Virtually all successful designers starting their career at Droog Design's studio, had been recruited amongst students of the Design Academy. On the other hand一and that is the drawback of Droog Design's overwhelming success一:never before has an avant-garde design movement caused so much vagueness and confusion about quality criteria in design and about the very foundations of the discipline itself.
The other side of the coin: vagueness in foundations of product design
What are the grass roots of this paradox? We maintain that it had to do with the fact that exactly at the apogee of the successful alliance between design and industry (approximately the 60s and early 70s of the twentieth century), fostered by `Ulm-ian' functionalism, a complete turnaround in the dominant design philosophy took place with the advent of postmodernism. As stated before, postmodernism was strongly antimodernist and it indeed seriously undermined functionalism, the then universally accepted foundation of product design. The ensuing boom of conceptual design in the eighties and nineties is in our view the main reason for the vagueness and ambiguities surrounding the fundamental principles of product design as a discipline that characterises the design discourse since the last quarter of the 20th century, and that lasts in fact until today.
The enormous success of the Design Academy and Droog Design contributed to the fact that postmodernist ideas exerted considerable influence on the curricula of other art academies offering some type of design training. Each and every gradually veered more and more towards the Droog viewpoints, becoming ever "dryer". Of course, there is no objection to this slow but certain change in taught design philosophy, as long as one bears in mind the fact that Droog Design was, and is, an important innovative current, featuring artisanal, small-scale product development, strongly rooted in the tradition of artisinal crafts.
On the other hand, Droog Design had and has nothing to do with the technological innovations that are, as we speak, causing a revolution in the realm of the production techniques of mass produced consumer goods surrounding us. A first glance will prove this viewpoint: a single look at lamps, furniture, flower vases and other decorative objects will suffice to conclude that the product assortiment that Droog Design is offering, is literally the same as what made the Arts and Crafts movement such a success in the late nineteenth century. [ILL.36 a&36b]And once again, just like what happenend with the Arts&Crafts products, a century before, the inevitably exorbitant prices of these pieces, handmade in small numbers, make Droog一products available only to a small and exclusive circle of connoisseurs.
Thus, the comparison between the English nineteenth century eclecticism of the Arts and Crafts movement and the huge influence of, equally eclectic, Droog Design on design academies is complete. Droog's influence does admittedly take those aspects of product design that are rooted in craftmanship to the next level, but at the same time it causes an ever increasing chasm between the know how that large scale production companies expect from an industrial designer and the curriculum taught at the academies. In that sense the gigantic popularity of conceptual design in general and the influence of a movement like Droog Design in particular are, just like the role of Arts&Crafts in the past, in fact nothing but "A Great Inhibition" to the necessary modernisation of design education.
Thus, by the end of the 20th century postmodernist ideas had gained a dominant influence on design curricula in art academies, not just in the Netherlands but elsewhere in the Western world, too. However, the situation was different at technical universities, where postmodernism was indeed also one of the factors contributing to the development in curricula of industrial design, but here in a completely different way. The fundamentally questioning character of postmodernism一"anything goes" is a favorite saying among postmodernists一,the aversion to modern technology and the return to pre-Gropian viewpoints, i.e. the elevation of design to some form of applied `fine art', led to a situation where postmodernism could in no way be integrated in design curricula at technical universities. The vociferous way postmodernism dominated design discourse in general, forced other crucial issues concerning the future of design to the background.
This means that one question remained unanswered, namely how the technology of the `third technological wave’ (miniaturisation, electronics, bio- and gene technology) that was drastically changing our living environment during the very heyday of postmodernism, should be incorporated into design practice. Apart from some odd, rather ad hoc adaptations, for instance the introduction of 'sustainable design', design education at technical universities continued to be based on the technical-scientific foundations of Ulm-ian functionalism. This meant that academic training in industrial design in the early 21st century was based on technological principles of, by that time, nearly half a century ago!
Epilogue: A plea for a more technological attitude in design
This realisation carries certain implications. The current technological development is mainly fed by ultrafast developments in the realms of electronics, artificial (man made) materials, construction techniques and, last but not least, bio- and gene technology. It is more than obvious that these developments are changing both the products we use and their production methods to the point where products and methods are rapidly becoming unrecognisable. In turn, this will lead to a revolutionary change with respect to product design requirements. There can't be the slightest doubt that existing design schools will only be able to develop the required revolution within design philosophy and establish the necessary curricula in close collaboration with the disciplines mentioned above in which these technological breakthroughs are actually happening and with those branches of industry that are experimenting with the practical application of new technologies. However, if for the time being we limit ourselves to the recent design developments in our own country, the Netherlands, it looks as if there is very little chance of this happening in the near future.
If design studies and training, at the existing design academies and technical universities alike, will not somehow manage to incorporate the current technological revolution in their curricula, the designing of high tech objects will very soon be taken over by other disciplines. In fact we have already started witnessing some first steps of this shift: industrial designers do not play a noteworthy role in, for instance, computer software development, minimal invasive surgery and practical implications of nano technology, to name a few fields that are characterised by ultrafast changes, and that are revolutionizing from day to day the material world that surrounds us.
If this trend continues designer's task will soon the product be limited to the invention of an umpteenth variation on an age-old theme with, for sole social relevance, the fact that the "happy few" will from time to time be treated to the sight of a new, utterly charming lampshade or other trivia.
Authors' Info
J. W . Drukker is professor of design history at the University of Twente (The Netherlands). Following a guest lectureat Tsinghua University in 2008, he was invited to contribute to ZHUANGSHl magazine
Marjolein van Velzen holds an MSc in neuropsychology and is an independently working scholar and writer at Garminge(The Netherlands).


  • gogobird
  • 2009-12-23 23:47:29


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