Blogs

9 September 2021

A Micro History of Industry Design

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Author Note: This is a “bootleg track” of unused material from the upcoming Handbook of Military Science textbook published by Springer. Being new to the study of design, I wanted to look at the historical roots of the term and how the discipline arose. I went beyond the scope of the project and delved deeply into the history of Industrial Design and the reactionary art movements it spurred. About half of he introductory paragraph is Ben Zweiblson’s contribution but the rest is me.

The original blog can be found: https://www.undergrounddesigns.us/writing-discourse/a-micro-history-of-industrial-design

Innovation does not come easily. To usher in that which society or the organization or client needs for tomorrow (or today) requires not just the sheer act of creation, but the imagination to foster the risk-taking drive to discover this new thing or idea. Further, once the innovation enters into reality, it takes another difficult journey from the designer’s understanding into the minds of the organization or groups skeptical or unaware of the design’s propensity. Innovation is rarely straightforward and often requires entirely new language, metaphors, and even cognitive behaviors to understand and exploit the innovation. Newness is foreign, and change is terrifying in all but the most simplistic and controllable contexts. Every step of the way, innovation fights against a system that prefers the certainty of yesterday to continue to flow into today, instead of the unfamiliar tomorrow demanding adaptation and change. It is the enduring mission of all designers to foster acts of innovation throughout their efforts to design.

Design required the appropriate environment to emerge, the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution dislodged a millennium of standard social, economic, and political arrangements. It altered the “where” of people (i.e., villages to cities), the “what” of their activity (i.e., agriculture to factories), the “who” of power (i.e., shift to industrial and bourgeois class). Positively, the Industrial Revolution and democratic movement flattened previous hierarchies and allowed previously barred access. The flattened order was noticeable in more available political power and delicate items to the more significant population. Industrialization increased the availability of mass-produced carbon copy luxury items (ISDA) that only the upper classes previously enjoyed.

The effect of access to luxury is more significant than the simple act of purchasing a commercial item. Consider the mass-produced automobile. Early versions were costly. Cheap ones were the proper forcing functions to change mass transit resulting in highways for the common folk.

However, trade-offs existed. Previously, small shops and households produced high-quality artisan goods (Smithsonian)that were far from disposable. Transactions between the client and the maker were also intimate and often long-lasting. For instance, Cobblers made a pair of shoes intended to last 10-20 years. They would re-sole a pair of shoes multiple times for the user. Entrepreneurs effectively ended this economic arrangement through the employment/development of technologies and production systems (Smithsonian). Product and worker standardization and working to the clock characterized the new financial system (Smithsonian).

For all its reliability, standardization, and access to goods, the Industrial Revolution created a “disposable society.” Entrepreneurs and business owners mastered quantity; however, they sacrificed quality. While engineers invented valuable items for the public, the end products lacked the creativity required to enhance the appearance of providing the human feel from an artisan touch (Sciencestruck, 2009). The personalized experience and loss of empathy were the price of industrialization [Zweibelson]. Industrial Design emerged to address this tension.

First used in 1839, the term “Industrial Design” described how the school of St. Peter instructed draftsmen how to prepare patterns for silk manufacturers (Machine Design, 2019) and flourished in subsequent years. The new field was where art, technology, and commerce converged to create successful products related to human needs and interests (Sciencestruck, 2009). This new practice concerned itself with the design of mass-produced consumer products that were aesthetically pleasing and subsequently possessed a competitive advantage (Britannica-Industrial Design). These designers straddled the line between artist and engineer (ISDA) to satisfy that lost touch before mass production.

This emergent design was on display at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World Fair. Inside the specifically built Crystal Palace, the exhibition showcased 100,000 scientific and technological marvels and art and craftsmanship influenced by design (Britannica-Worlds Fair). Visitors saw printing machines, folding pianos, steam engines, and, as Queen Victoria noted, every conceivable invention (The Great Exhibition). The exhibition impressed many but infuriated a minority contingent of artists and designers who saw the exhibition’s art and creations forming a debased style, created by mindless craftsmanship, resulting in a soulless taste (Arts and Crafts Movement-Britannica).

Known as the Arts and Craft Movement, these artists and designers sought to improve art and design through a comprehensive philosophy (not merely an aesthetic style), whose scope would extend to decorative arts, design, and architecture (Art and Crafts Movement-Art Story). While they were in an asymmetric relationship against the orthodoxy of the day (notably late 19th century progressives), their influence on design spread to other countries, especially the emergent Art Nouveau (Arts and Crafts Movement-Britannica). Arts and Crafts’ insistence on past practice would eventually doom it to obsolescence. It failed to adjust the times and steadfastly held onto Luddite principles. However, the subsequent European Art Nouveau movement continued the goal to reform art and design.

Building on Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts, Art Noveau attempted to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism and traditional values of clarity and structure that dominated much of 19th-century art, architecture, and design (Art Nouveau Crafts Movement-Britannica). Like Arts and Crafts, they sought to produce items that reflected the utility of the object. Unlike its predecessor, they were unafraid of emergent technologies and materials, embraced complexity, and incorporated a broad stylistic base from across the world (Arts and Crafts Movement-Art Story). While their influence spread across Europe, Art Noveau was finished by 1914. Accusations of subversive political undertones, the expenses of Art Noveau projects, and World War I contributed to Art Noveau’s downfall (Arts and Noveau-Art Story).

Following World War I, the Bauhaus movement emerged to continue the tradition of innovative design. Formed by Walter Gropius, this German school influenced art education, design, graphics, and architecture and affected people’s understanding of the relationship between art and society (Dredge, 2017). Like Art Noveau, Bauhaus focused on the future, integrated modern technologies and machine production as the preconditions for design to impact the world (Bauhaus-Britannica). The school’s influential curriculum started with six months of fundamental design and six years of practical workshop-based instruction oriented towards technical crafts and skills (The Art Story-Bauhaus). The purpose of the program, in addition to its equalitarian principles, was the abolition of barriers between fine arts and crafts, which would create beauty in modern industrialized society (Dredge, 2017).

Like Art Noveau, political suspicions and societal forces would shut down the school. The Nazi Party closed its Berlin location in 1933 due to perceived left-wing sympathies (Bauhaus-Britannica). Many Bauhaus faculty members immigrated to the United States due to Nazi persecution and continued their influence. Gropius, for instance, taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and ended up having a significant impact on the International Style (The Art Story-Bauhaus), the following notable influencer on design.

The International Style, defined in the Museum of Modern Arts 1932 Architecture Exhibition literature (MoMa Exhibition Catalog), incorporated cast iron, plate glass, aluminum, and reinforced concrete (new concepts in buildings at the time) and eschewed classical requirements like symmetry and ornamentation (MoMa History). Like Bauhaus, the International Style intended to solve problems via society through sculpture, architecture, industrial design, film, and photography to democratically benefit all via a positivist lens (MoMa Exhibition Catalog). Its dominant influence on design continued through World War II and afterward. Bauhaus did have a brief resurgence via the Ulm School of Design in Germany (The Art Story-Bauhaus), but the International Style monopolized design.

Its students and adherents spread across urban design, government, and academia and continued the philosophy and aesthetic of the International Style. By the 1970s, the school began to lose its dominant position. The faith in technological progress to master nature via the expertise of scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and other intellectuals (Scott 4) failed to discern the relationship between theory and cultural considerations (Tschumi, 1994, 17).

For instance, one of the great projects undertaken by the International Style was to solve public housing. Public policy analysts, city planners, and architects (all of the International Style) converged to solve these issues in the late 1960s. Instead of solving the problem, it exacerbated them. St Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe Project now contained kid row in a glass box (Wolfe, 63). New Haven’s Oriental Gardens (built in 1970, demolished in 1981) was a cluttering of prefabricated modules that didn’t fit together (literally), and the cracks in the modules allowed unpleasant Northeastern Weather into the domicile (Wolfe, 64). These public housing projects and others were a failure across the United States. They ignored client desires and catered to the whims of the elites (Wolfe, 64). This entire design conception was not only inadequate but self-indulgent. From the 1970s onwards, the focus turned from environment focus to user focus. It incorporated Postmodern skepticism, participatory, interaction, transformative, service, and human-centered design emerged as the prominent variants from second-generation civilian design (Jackson, 2020, 15).

Curiously, these principles just listed have found a home in military arts under a general sub-field dubbed Military Design.   When developing military design in the mid-1990s, Israeli military theorist Shimon Naveh saw similar command and control reductionism of military planning blunting the effectiveness of the Israeli Defense Forces. Others recognized Naveh’s insight, and he brought design (see Alex Ryan’s short history of Military Design) to the US to revolutionize thinking about conflict in the early 2000s. Design thinking has had its ups and downs in the US military since Naveh but remains the most dynamic piece of hardware they can embrace. With the collapse of Kabul fresh in our minds, perhaps a radical change in thinking is required. That change might be design thinking.

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