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An Introduction to Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century
Book by Penny Sparke; Basic Books, 1987
This book sets out to explore the parameters of a new subject - the cultural history of twentieth-century design - in terms both of its related areas and its essential subject-matter. It also aims to introduce students of design and of design history, as well as anybody who has an interest in the environment, to examples of the kind of material that needs to be researched and documented if a composite picture of design in this century is to emerge. To write a book which tells its readers all they need to know about twentieth-century design in its cultural context would be an impossible task. Problems of definition; of the sheer mass of essential contextual material; and of the growing bulk of information on modem design, renders it a subject for several books, each one written, preferably, from a different perspective.
This study sets out, therefore, to act as an introduction to design and culture since 1900. In order to present both the story of design in this period and the complexity of its allegiances, I have opted for a combination of a chronological and a thematic case-study approach: as a result, the structure of the book needs some preliminary explanation. Available definitions of design are varied, complex, contradictory and in a state of permanent flux. Most would agree, however, that as a cultural concept design is determined by the outside forces that have shaped it and by the contexts within which it has manifested itself, as well as by the numerous faces it has presented to the world. It is these which have determined the basic structure of this book.
Where chronology is concerned, I have divided this century into three main periods. Part One of the book concentrates on the formative years of modem design-1900-17 (with numerous inevitable forays back into the previous century to explain the background to the period); Part Two focuses on the years 1918-45 - the period of consolidation and heroism for modem design; and Part Three -1945 to the present - concerns itself with design's absorption into society and culture at large. These specific periods are explored most fully in the first chapters to each section, Chapters 1, 5 and 9 - which provide a background for the evolution of modem design.
The Contexts of Modern Design
Now that 'Design' is understood from Tokyo to Moscow, from Buenos Aires to Montreal, it is obvious that each country according to its politics, its economics, its sociology, its industry, uses 'Design' in a different way; but one must add that a universal language is being constructed daily. 1 This book is about design and culture in the twentieth century. The word 'culture' is used throughout the text in its most democratic sense, that is, as a concept which embraces the ideas and values expressed by modem society as a whole, rather than one which only touches one level of human endeavour. In parallel, design is understood here as a phenomenon which affects everybody.
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| This definition of culture has to be considered within a broad context which subsumes economics, politics and technology as these are the forces which have determined the dominant cultural patterns in modem society. Design is also formed and sustained by these forces and, as a result, designed artefacts act as cultural ciphers. In this book, I have set out to examine both the way in which culture has influenced design in this century and the manner in which design has, in its turn, played a part in creating culture through the objects, institutions, personalities and the patterns of behaviour and thought that have accompanied it. Since 1900 design and culture, in this wide sense, have become increasingly interdependent and the implications of this relationship will re-emerge constantly in the following chapters.
My main thesis is that, within the framework of industrial capitalism which created it and continues to dominate it in contemporary Western society, design is characterized by a dual alliance with both mass production and mass consumption and that these two phenomena have determined nearly all its manifestations. Like Janus, design looks in two directions at the same time: as a silent quality of all mass-produced goods it plays a generally unacknowledged but vital role in all our lives; as a named concept within the mass media it is, however, much more visible and generally recognized. In this latter guise design becomes an extension of marketing and advertising. The 'designer-jeans' phenomenon, which persuades us to buy a product because it has been designed, is, culturally speaking, totally distinct from the activity of the anonymous designers within industry who resolve the problems of cost, appearance and use in consumer products. The way in which design as an adjunct of marketing has grown out of design as an aspect of mass production is a major theme within the story of modem design and the focus of this book. It is a change which directly mirrors the way in which the model of mass-production industry, as presented by Henry Ford, which dominated American ideas about industrial organization in the early twentieth century, has been challenged by an alternative model which stresses batch production, a smaller scale of operations (or set of operations), and, at times, a fair amount of hand or skilled work. This latter model - best expressed by Sloane's work at General Motors in the USA in the 1920s and by contemporary developments in Japan and Italy - puts the demands of the marketplace above those of the logic of mechanized mass production and tends, as a result, to value the diversification of products rather than, or as well as, standardization. These two models of industry coexist in this century and have different implications for the meaning of design. An important subtheme is the way in which the aesthetic of designed artefacts has swung repeatedly backwards and forwards from production to consumption as sources of metaphorical inspiration.
While this book concentrates on design as it has come to be defined and understood since the advent of mechanization, and emphasizes those themes which have made it part of recent history, it is also important to remember that the concept has an earlier history which is largely responsible for the way we comprehend it today. Design has always been one aspect of a larger process - whether of manufacturing, in the craft or mechanized sense, or, from the consumer's point of view, of participating in social or economic life - and its definition has, from the moment the word entered the English language, been in a state of constant flux due, primarily, to the changes in the socio-economic framework which has sustained it. Thus the difference between a seventeenth-century pattern-maker and a modem industrial designer is less one of the nature of their respective creative activities than of the economic, technological and social constraints within which the activity is performed. What have remained constant are the visualizing and...