An Introduction to 15 Things
As someone who is neither a designer nor a design historian, but is engaged in various domains of design practice and in the study of the material culture of the industrial era, I tend to puzzle over how exactly to teach design history. The field is rich but still young. It remains underrepresented in research universities. Despite the bold promise of pioneering enterprises such as Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen, the disciplinary traditions of art history have mostly cast it outside the mainstream of forms of cultural historical inquiry (often to the detriment of the latter).
I open the first of my contributions to the West 86th Street blog with these reflections, intended as an incipit both to future blog entries and as a preface to the document attached here: the syllabus for an experimental seminar taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design during the fall 2009 semester, my first at the GSD. The experiment, entitled 15 Things, was shaped by scholarly appetites and curatorial experiences, but also by a sense of dissatisfaction with many of the standard sources on modern Italian design. It sought to distance itself from the “designer as artist/auteur” model of design historiography and, in so doing to also cross the history/theory/practice divide: to mingle historical and anthropological inquiry with the speculative making of plausible (but imaginary) objects from the past or future descendants of real iconic objects, always animated and constrained by historical precedent. An exhibition, entitled The Thing Tank, featuring student projects from the seminar, was held at the GSD in January-February 2010.
15 Things presupposed the notion that industrial objects—even industrial objects—do more than document the development of industries and production processes, shifts in real or perceived social needs, or patterns of consumption, not to mention the intentions of individual creators. Such objects belong to families. They are indebted and haunted at birth. When interrogated, they tell tales that conjoin the actions of individual actors to those of collectivities, local microparticulars to global macroprocesses, in complex and unpredictable ways that can be reduced to labels like commodification only at the expense of historical nuance and anthropological completeness.
Commodification is a useful term under which to circumscribe the ever expanding universe of goods that accompanies the industrial revolution. It gazes down upon this universe from an altitude of 10,000 meters and what it observes are processes that, though undeniable, have necessarily been abstracted away from the everyday: into capital flows, alienations of labor from craft, animations of the thing at the expense of labor. What commodification, like its cousin consumerism, cannot adequately scrutinize, are the odd couplings of craft tradition and industrial fabrication techniques that shape much of the history of design; the unpredictable choreographies of self and things that can end up investing even the most standardized, trivial, or functional of objects with individual meanings or make them worthy of personalization. Here, a gaze at or below ground level is required and, with it, a methodology based on the “excavation” of sites where the residues of history (genealogy, material incrustations, documents, human traces) are concentrated. At least, that’s how I envisage my own approach to design history.
15 Things was an experiment that sought to probe the actual density that characterizes the world of industrial objects within a single national tradition: a density made up of crisscrossing forms of intentionality and intelligence (craft, thinking, technique, understandings of social needs, social fantasy) that extend from the process of making itself—napkin sketch to prototyping to production to the elaboration of plausible use scenarios—to patterns of human adaptation and use inflected by culture, society, and politics.
Jeffrey Schnapp is professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Design. A cultural historian and curator who has collaborated with institutions such as the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Wolfsonian-FIU, and the Milan Triennale, his Trento Tunnels project—a 6000 square meter pair of highway tunnels in Northern Italy repurposed as a history museum—was featured in the Italian pavilion of the 2010 Venice Biennale. Visit his website.