The Environment as ‘Context’ in Design Historiography

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Abstract for Making and Unmaking the Environment, the Design History Society Annual Conference, 7-9 September 2017, University of Oslo. Context stinks – Rem Koolhaas That design artefacts and practices ought to be understood in terms of their ‘environment’ has become a moot point in contemporary design scholarship. Yet, what exactly design’s environments are, what role design plays in their making, and how one should go about studying the relationship between the two are still contested topics and in need of elaboration. This paper contributes to these debates by contextualizing the changes in the use and meanings of the notion of the environment as design’s context in design historiography and by proposing a ‘new materialist’ approach to the relationship between design and its environment beyond anthropocentrism. In the 1980s, design historians seeking to bypass the difficulties associated with the discipline’s traditional approach to design as a purely aesthetic phenomenon situated in the vacuum of an art history of styles turned to the idea that the surroundings of design—its social, economic, political circumstances—provide insights into its meanings. This strategy has certainly contributed towards the (necessary) ‘de-essentialization’ of design as autonomous object. Yet, it has also covertly introduced a problematic and tenacious anthropocentric perspective on the relationship between design and its environment, implying as it does an understanding of design artefacts as passive and empty vessels whose arbitrary meanings are inscribed by its social contexts. In contrast to this ‘linguistic’ or ‘culturalist’ approach to materiality, a more recent body of research that has been labeled ‘new materialism’ views the material world not as a second-hand reflection of social relations, but as having agency to create social relations and meanings. Rather than predetermining design’s contexts, this perspective entails instead the examination of the ways in which the materiality of design creates its own times and its own spaces and where these idiosyncratic environments do not necessarily coincide with those of established and conventional—read: human— geographies or temporalities. As such, this approach offers a way to rethink afresh the relations between design and the environment in times of the Anthropocene.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication[Proceedings / Book of Abstracts]
PublisherDesign History Society
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2017

Bibliographical note

Making and Unmaking the Environment, the Design History Society Annual Conference, 7-9 September 2017, University of Oslo.

Writing Visual Culture volume 8.0 (2017): 40th anniversary of the Design History Society and 30th anniversary of the Journal of Design History, editor Grace Lees-Maffei [not found in this Special Issue].


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