24th Biennial of Design
Ljubljana, Slovenia
18. 9.—7. 12. 2014
3, 2, 1 ... Test
29 December 2014 — #Feature

David Crowley, the interview

David Crowley is a professor in the School of Humanities at the Royal college of Art, London, where he runs Critical Writing in Art & Design MA. The interview is published in the Designing Everyday Life book.

– As a researcher and historian, you have been confronted with differences in the design histories of Eastern and Western Europe. Is there a fundamental difference in how design – industrial design – is perceived and understood?

A few years ago I curated – with Jane Pavitt - an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that explored the ways in which modern design in the 1950s and 1960s was stimulated by Cold War competition. The dominant rhetoric of the Cold War – propagated by both Moscow and Washington – was that the two systems of capitalism and state socialism were fundamentally different and so the material culture that they produced should be different too. The problem, or so it seemed to me, was that the designs of both worlds, whether buildings, products or graphic systems, looked very similar. Far from producing difference, competition seemed to have produced a mirror world. We were not the first to say this: in the late 1960s, the New Left argued that East and West were converging. This was an accusation perhaps most strongly directed at the Soviet Union, which seemed to have given up its claim on leading world revolution, on utopia.
There are lots of explanations for this mirror effect. Cold War hawks in the US liked to accuse the East of copying the West. Soviet culture was, they trumpeted, unable to innovate, particularly in high-tech fields like electronics. This was sometimes the case but there were many examples of Eastern innovation too. The problem was not necessarily one of design but of the way that the economies of the Eastern Bloc were organized. The gulf between the ideal – say visionary architectural schemes or plastic-bodied cars – and reality, namely shortage and faulty goods, was the source of considerable frustration.
What has been striking for me in the last few years is that researchers across Eastern and Central Europe have done much to excavate these architectural and design histories. Too young to have strong personal connections with the communist regimes, writers like Ondrej Benes in Prague, the author of a comprehensive survey of socmodernist architecture in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, have looked at these the often highly ambitious and imaginative structures and products with fresh eyes.

– Has that concept evolved in the last 50 years? Do you recall any specific example from former Jugoslavia/present-day Slovenia?

Declaring itself to be non-aligned to either the East or the West, I have the sense that Yugoslavia offered a kind of double perspective. Its intellectuals knew much about state socialism and about capitalism. There was relatively little censorship compared to neighbouring countries in the Eastern Bloc and Yugoslav artists and architects were often well travelled. A central figure in the first Ljubljana design biennial, architect Edvard Ravnikar, certainly felt able to judge East and West. A high profile architect, he spoke out against the high aestheticism of much Western European modern design as mere styling. But Soviet products were flawed too because they were not well grounded in industrial culture.
BIO – like other international gatherings including the Nove Tendencije exhibitions and colloquia about abstract art and new technology in Zagreb in the 1960s – brought new thinking from the West and the East (though rarely from the Soviet Union) to Yugoslavia with, it has to be said, the side-benefit of accentuating the country’s reputation for freedom. It was one of those vantage points that offered a double perspective.

– Similarly, is there a fundamental difference in the conception and use of design events between East and West? Have design events changed and expanded in the last 50 years, from the proverbial trade fair to today's biennials?

Was BIO a trade fair when it started in 1964? I am struck by the differences between the Biennial of Industrial Design in Ljubljana and the Zagreb Trade Fair where nations and businesses vied to sell their products on international markets. Already long-running, it was relocated to a new set of modernist pavilions on the edge of the city in 1956. The emphasis was on spectacle, particularly during the Cold War: in 1957 the US Department of Commerce constructed, for instance, a show called ‘Supermarket USA’, a life-size, fully functioning self-service supermarket there. It must have been quite an exotic experience for Yugoslav citizens, just twelve years after the end of the Second World War. And that was the point: the American authorities were using the event to promote the American ‘way of life’, just as they had done with the Marshall Plan.

The mood at the Design Biennial in Ljubljana – another international gathering – was generally more thoughtful. Nothing was on sale, at least in a direct sense. Here designers and national design organisations – and could demonstrate their commitment to what the Germans once liked to call ‘Gute Form’ – tasteful, reserved and functionally-minded design. A well designed product could somehow improve its user. When one British visitor went to BIO 2 in 1966, he was struck by the fact that he could not tell where the industrial products had come from. The cameras, electronic goods, textiles, household wares were organized by category and not by country. I think that the internationalism implied by this gesture was meaningful. Late modernist design believed itself to be an inherently progressive force that would ultimately lead to a kind of Esperanto of things. This was a kind of modest utopianism that saw the erasure of borders as a benefit of modernity. The clouds of globalization were yet to be spotted on the horizon.

This was also clear when – in 1966 – the organisers of BIO were involved in hosting the second ICOGRADA meeting, an international graphic design congress in the Slovene city of Bled. The organisers set the matter of an international symbol language as a challenge to participants. They were looking to update the tradition of the pictogram. International symbols – road signs, wayfinding systems - could escape the pull of local languages, even nationalism. This must have had special appeal in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.

23 countries were represented at the Bled conference. Buckminster Fuller was the keynote speaker. One cannot deny the fact that socially-minded designers from the West were very attracted to come to Yugoslavia and socialist Eastern Europe because they saw the command economy and perhaps self-management as ways of bringing their scientific and rationale perspectives on the material world to fruition. Tomas Maldonado, director of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm at the second ICSID Congress in 1960 claimed that the only opportunities to keep a check on the usefulness and pertinence of design in the future would be found in the socialist half of Europe. The West had already given itself over to commercial kitsch, to advertising and market research. I think that in some ways designers and theorists like Maldonaldo were persuaded by Soviet rhetoric but they sensed something else too, namely that the resources of the world need to be managed and not simply traded, particularly when they are in short supply.

– Have design events in Eastern Europe changed from communist rule to today? Do they accompany recent changes in the design discipline — from local socially-engaged design to the proliferation of maker culture and open-source?

Design fairs and festivals in Eastern Europe are, of course, different today. The idea of ‘official design’ represented by professional societies and institutes has largely declined, and the practice of design is today largely framed by market interests. But the question to me is whether design imagines itself only in terms of the market and sales. Social proposals, speculative design practices, hacked products, design activism don’t claim to be the kind of ‘progressive’ projects to which the late modernists behind BIO in 1963 subscribed, but neither are they the outcome of out-and-out pragmatism either. The idea that design can and should contribute to the social good marks a line of continuity between then and now. This is what stops design - in its various forms – from simply being a service to capitalism.

– What is your opinion of the program and brief elaborated for BIO 50? In your opinion, what are the traps and perils that such an initiative — markedly experimental — can face?

Design has often declared itself – rather grandly - as being the business of ‘problem solving’. I think that the BIO 50 progamme, and the themes in particular, embrace the idea of the problem: How can housing be affordable? How can local knowledge about food be tapped in the face of its industrial production? How can the sealed character and closed knowledge of the products that we used be cracked open? These are good questions which stretch the conventional definitions of design and the creative muscles of the designer. BIO 50 is unlikely to provide solutions, at least in the sense of resolved, testable answers, to all or perhaps any of these questions. There is more of a note of hubris in these kinds of promises anyway. Ultimately, I think that this is part of a shift to the social, process-orientated practices in some realms of design and in the practice of biennials too – this is a pattern in art too. The challenge is to make these shifts genuinely public. Coterie activism is little more than another form of privatization.

– BIO 50 shifts the attention from individual authorship to team collaboration, and from finalized product to the overall process. What are the consequences of this shift within the context of a design event?

Collaboration is a kind of everyday norm in the practice of design, obscured by the way in which it is talked about. The design press, galleries and museums as well as manufacturers and retailers have sustained a culture of celebrity for too long. Yet design is a collective work. A biennial which eschews celebrities or gurus as well as spectacle is perhaps staking a claim on this kind of realism. As a social act, collaboration requires the exchange of skills and knowledge: it also creates the possibility of disputation and negotiation - all of which is to be encouraged.
It also strikes me that the themes which have been highlighted by BIO 50 - food, infrastructure, modular transportation – don’t necessarily depend on the skills and bodies of knowledge which designers have claimed as their own. Whilst it is clear that the practice of design is not what it once was (the expert deployment of materials and shaping of form) it is less clear what it is becoming. This is clear in the cack-mouthed language which is on the rise – should a designer really be a user experience architect now? I think that designers need to know what they contribute when they work with others. Perhaps working this out is one of the challenges of this kind of Biennial –one which explains the rather educational and speculative tenor of the many workshops planned for BIO 50.

– Can a design biennial become a catalyst for transformation, in the design discipline or at a wider, more impactful level of society, politics – and ultimately everyday life?

I am a historian by training, happier to report events in hindsight rather than offer prognoses. Let’s see …

  1. The interview was made by Vera Sacchetti.
  2. It was published in the _Designing Everyday Life_ book, published at the 24th Biennial of Design.
  3. © © Museum of Architecture and Design and authors.
  4. The book is available at the shop of the Museum of Architecture and Design or via e-mail: infobio(at)mao.si.