Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Undesigning history

Unidentified designer, cover of Design 1900-1960, a collection of papers delivered at the inaugural conference of the Design History Society held at Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic in September 1975

As with many scholarly disciplines, new and old, design history is constantly undergoing what might be described as tectonic shifts in the way it’s structured, interpreted, critiqued, focussed, written, promulgated and understood. Design history, as a ‘solid field of academic study’ emerged in Britain during the early 1970s and in the United States in the early 1980s. According to Jonathan Woodham, its origins lie as a branch of art history that developed to accommodate the curriculum requirements of polytechnical institutions. However, the relative novelty of its subject matter and its capacity to embrace a range of disciplines has seen its adherents reject the traditional methodologies of art history employed in universities and museums, even when they condescended to deal with the same subject matter. More recently, some exponents of the discipline have embraced new theoretical concerns with a fervour that at times seems to dehistoricise the history under analysis.

Design history in New Zealand as an identifiable field of scholarship has no discernible profile either in or outside the country. The Journal of Design History, established in 1988 and internationally recognised as the leading journal in the field has published – under the aegis of the Oxford University Press on behalf of the Design History Society – four scholarly articles with New Zealand subjects (very roughly, about 0.04 per cent of the total number of published articles), two book reviews of New Zealand publications and a note relating to the formation of the short-lived and now defunct New Zealand Design Archive. New Zealand-resident sociologists are responsible for two of the articles and one is by a London-domiciled American graphic design historian. This scant number not only reflects the marginality of the discipline in New Zealand but also the Eurocentric framework of much of the design historiography undertaken to date.

The only locally published journal to address design history issues with any claim to critical integrity is the delightfully quirky but nonetheless immensely rewarding The National Grid, published annually between 2006 and 2012, It was, not so incidentally, the subject of one of the four scholarly articles relating to New Zealand that has appeared in the Journal of Design History. Sadly for the discipline, future appearances of this publication seem uncertain.

Three monographs published over the last decade can be classified as 'general' design histories: Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ 2004 At home: a century of New Zealand design and his 2006 40 legends of New Zealand design; and Michael Smythe’s anecdotal 2011 New Zealand by design: a history of New Zealand product design. All three publications proffer a nationalist and canonical ‘great men of design’ take on the history of design in New Zealand. All three publications are production-driven interpretations of a small aspect of New Zealand material culture, ignoring not only the mediation of design but also its consumption. As the Australian design theorist Tony Fry observes ‘Design in these formations of knowledge progresses by the assumed asserted power of exemplary objects.’ <A Fry, Design history Australia (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988), p. 27>In addition to these there have been a number of related survey texts published over the same period including: Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart 2013 Promoting prosperity: the art of early New Zealand advertising; Dave Bamford, Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s 2012 Selling the dream: the art of early New Zealand tourism; and Hamish Thompson’s 2007 Cover up: the art of the book cover in New Zealand.

Notwithstanding these generalist histories, the sad corpus of New Zealand design historiography is characterised by various empirical, object-driven, histories, such as Valerie Ringer Monk’s 2006 Crown Lynn; a New Zealand icon and her 2013 Crown Lynn collector’s handbook; Damian Skinner’s 2011 Lalique vases: the New Zealand collection of Dr Jack C Richards; Angela Lassig’s 2010 New Zealand fashion design; Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault’s The dress circle: New Zealand fashion design since 1940, also appearing in 2010; and William Cottrell’s 2006 Furniture of the New Zealand colonial era. These have supplemented earlier publications such as: Stanley Northcote-Bade’s 1971 Colonial furniture in New Zealand; Gail Henry’s 1999 New Zealand pottery: commercial and collectable, a revised edition of her (as Gail Lambert) 1985 Pottery in New Zealand: commercial and collectable; Jennifer Quérée’s 1993 Royal Doulton: illustrated with treasures from New Zealand and Australia; and Winsome Shepherd’s 1995 Gold and silversmithing in nineteenth and twentieth century New Zealand. Contemporary craft production has also contributed to the historiography of design in New Zealand with a number of survey publications, biographies of leading makers and handbooks of marks and other aids.

A populist strand of the material culture history of New Zealand and a great generator of unsubstantiated myths concerning the origin, production, design and ownership of things is found in ‘Kiwiana’, a localised version of ‘Australiana’.  Kiwiana publications, such as Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett’s 2001 (republished in 2007) Classic Kiwiana: an essential guide to New Zealand popular culture uninhibitedly indulge in an uncritical celebration of flag-waving, drum-thumping, number-eight-wire nationalism, one untroubled by an interest in wider, critical contexts.

Additionally, a number of public and private museums and art galleries have exhibited aspects of design, some with a New Zealand connection, and have accompanied these with appropriate publications. Over the past decade or so the most notable of these have been initiatives of the regional Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery (now MTG Hawke’s Bay) – Keith Murray in context (1996), Avis Higgs: joie de vivre (2000) and Frank Carpay (2003) - and Objectspace, a private trust-operated venue in Auckland – Clay economies (2008); and Printing types: New Zealand type design since 1870 (2009). More often than not disinterested in theoretical or historiographic concerns, these exhibitions and their associated publications reinforce the visuality of what passes for design historical discourse in New Zealand. Institutional art has however provided one of the more interesting critical design historical statements when the artist Michael Stevenson published a number of design historical papers as a part of his Biennale di Venezia installation ‘This is the Trekka’ in 2003.

Adding to this body of literature, but generally ignored in such surveys, is the material generated by historical archaeologists, operating all too rarely on the all too common sites of demolished structures, notably in Auckland. Reports such as those by: Simon Best and Rod Clough, Pollen brickyard and Wright potteries: early colonial ceramic industries on the Whau peninsula, site R11/1509 (Wellington: DoC, 1986); and Robert Brassy and Sarah Macready, The history and archaeology of the Victoria Hotel, Fort Street, Auckland (site R11/1530) (Auckland: DoC, 1994), which have researched and analysed the material history remnants of early European settlement sites, provide a solid basis for a greater understanding of the economic social and cultural contexts of the design process. Such resources have, in the past been difficult to locate however, one of the benefits of digitisation has meant that they are now easily accessible, even if neither recognised nor appreciated by those outside the historical archaeology sector. 

But despite all this published material relating to the history of design in New Zealand, and an apparent appetite for more amongst the reading public – Lloyd Jenkins’ At home has gone through at least three printings - design history isn’t taken seriously by those determining the curricula in New Zealand’s tertiary art and design sector. Regarded as theory’s dowdy sibling, it’s sometimes included as an optional component in first year degree courses, usually taught by someone with absolutely no interest in, let alone knowledge of the field. A few years ago at the redundantly-titled AUT University, the token design history course available to design undergraduates (it involved, from recollection, about two or three lectures) was delivered by a member of staff who thought it a wheeze to dress up in what he guessed was appropriate costume of the periods under discussion. Despite this pervasive institutional indifference, some post-graduate research has been undertaken, notably in the University of Otago’s Department of Applied Science.

Ironically, AUT University was, briefly, host to the rather ambitiously described New Zealand Design Archive. Established in 1998, primarily as a research grant earning mechanism, the archive was closed in 2004 when both the server on which its digital content was stored failed and its physical collection was deemed by university management to be occupying space that would be better allocated to other activities. The collection, which never achieved formal status within the university, appears to have been dispersed subsequently.

This anti-intellectual condition, increasingly a characteristic of the contemporary university, accords with the view expressed in 2003 by a New Zealand government-sponsored ‘Design Taskforce’, a committee comprised of a roll call of the current New Zealand corporate design establishment. It effectively asserted a positive take on the absence of an historical dimension to local design practice. Nothing has changed over the subsequent decade. If anything, the perception of design history as a valid critical tool for understanding design in its context has receded even further in that variable, ascholastic environment that passes for contemporary design pedagogy in New Zealand.

Recently the Journal of Design History launched a virtual special issue ‘Reframing Australian design history’, introduced by Daniel Huppatz a senior lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. The issue pulls together a selection of the Australian content of the journal (nine papers) and Huppatz’s introduction identifies a set of common concerns and contextualises them within the wider frameworks of Australian historical research and global design histories. Three themes emerge from the Huppatz’ essay: design history’s acceptance as a valid discourse within a wider Australian historiographical context; the existence of a strong theoretical formation based, notwithstanding Huppatz’s evident disagreement, on Tony Fry’s 1988 text Design History Australia; and the enormous potential to be found in advancing design history scholarship in both in Australia and other ‘settler colonial contexts, such as […] New Zealand’.

Is this a path that the study of the history of design in New Zealand should take; a shared design history with Australia? Huppatz attributes his tentative suggestion to informal discussions with Noel Waite at the University of Otago who commented that ‘despite efforts to identify distinctive design cultures in Australia and New Zealand, the framework and narratives of design history on both sides of the Tasman are remarkably similar’. If this is a possible future, then the position of design history in New Zealand will require considerable investment, no less than a complete reworking, because, institutionally and critically at least, it isn’t there at the moment.