The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.16.06

Jessica Helfand

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design History

From the packaging of our belongings to the presentation of our surroundings, most of us recognize that design has, over the course of the past century, become a ubiquitous component in everyday life. Design is signage and graffiti and labels and lace, posters and propaganda and toothbrushes and teapots: objects and artefacts that captivate and delight us, frustrate or provoke us, but why?

This is where design historians come in.

Design history is, after all, social history: it's an evolutionary (and somewhat cautionary) tale of use and abuse, of innovation and migration, of the inevitable tide of obsolescence that puzzles some of us to such a vexing degree that we simply have no other choice but to become design historians to start making sense of things.

And we begin, like all historians, by doing research.

At the core of a historian's research lie the archives that often accompany a collection, pieces of documentation that support a collection's holdings. Not infrequently, space constraints demand the annexation of certain, less critical materials: yet reports this week that the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has decided to move some of its archives to other branches of its parent, the Smithsonian Institution, suggest that archival unity is, at least in a geographic sense, central to governing a museum's holdings. Some critics disparage the Cooper-Hewitt's decision as wrong, at least insofar as scholarship is concerned: they argue that collections should all be housed in one place, to both facilitate access and encourage use.

This is a flawed conceit, not least due to the misguided assumption, to space-deprived New Yorkers, that a building as generously proportioned as the Andrew Carnegie mansion has no claim citing real estate limitations. (In truth, not only is the Cooper-Hewitt's exhibition space diminutive compared with most major New York City museums, its storage capacity is egregiously compromised as well.) The core criticism points, too, to the impatience that characterizes modern communication and increasingly, the acquisition of information, otherwise known as data: this is, after all, the kind of thing we've become primed to expect with a certain degree of uncompromised efficiency. But information is not the same as knowledge, and a historian's hunt more closely resembles an archaelogical excavation than a digital download. Finally, there's a skewed sentiment at play here that seems to suggest that venturing further afield for source material will diminish the curatorial value of one-stop shopping at the Cooper-Hewitt. Yet the opposite is much more likely to be true: in an age that will likely be remembered for its internet links and hypertext interconnections, such distance may prove to be an added benefit. (And where the Smithsonian museums are concerned, what is the likelihood that a truly dedicated researcher might locate additional treasures find along the way?) Finally, alarmists may choose to see the train ride from New York to Washington as a burdensome and ill-advised harbinger of museum policy, but it is a pragmatic solution to an ongoing problem. And it is a common choice for many museum administrators, eager to preserve the role of ongoing scholarship by setting priorities — in this case, about what goes where. (It is probably worth remembering, too, that it is the archives being retired from active duty — not the collections themselves.)

And what of the distance, from the New York-based Cooper-Hewitt to the Smithsonian, sited in our nation's capital? Scholars in general (and historians in particular) will go to great lengths to unearth what they need. Hungry for discovery, they yearn to make connections where none have previously existed: this is especially true of design historians, for whom visual material is like a treasure hunt, awash in cryptic suggestion and complex inference. Design history is an art of conjecture, brought magnificently to life by illuminating material evidence that recasts a vague hypothesis as a dazzling reality. A hunt for rarified material often means extending your reach beyond the narrowly-parsed domain of internet search engines and online finding aids and doing more, much more. It means talking to librarians, (the unsung heroes of scholars everywhere) who expertly navigate, and selflessly decode those dense troves of mysterious materials, whether they're shelved at your local public library or buried in the distant land of microfiche. It means taking the time to seek (and more importantly, find) the supporting materials that clarify your chosen topic — whatever that might be, and wherever that might take you.

Design history takes the object as its point of departure and probes beneath its surface for meaning, significance and a clear rationale. It is in the conceptual excavation of the made thing that the design historian serves a need both personal and public, reminding us of the design in humanity — and of the humanity in design. At the end of the day, being a design historian means being observant and fearless, stubborn and driven, principled, passionate and anything but lazy. It means going where you have to go to get what you need. Even if that means the Smithsonian.