Historicism and Retro: The Question of Timelessness in Design (1)

Friday 9th Sept, 16.30-18.00, Room CG09

Chair: Dr Bharain Mac an Bhreithiun, Middlesex University

How do we understand the passage of time in relation to notions of ‘retro’ designed objects? Or in relation to ‘revivals’ of the design of previous periods? How should we understand nostalgia? Where are the boundaries between the authentic, the antique, the artificial and the a-historical? This is part one of a two panel theme.

hazellA design out of time: the persistence of the utility Land Rover in post-war British car design
Paul Hazell, University of Worcester
E: p.hazell@worc.ac.uk W: LinkedIn Profile

At just after 9:30am on Friday 29 January 2016 the final example of the Land Rover Defender rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, England. This marked the end of more than 67 years of continuous production for a vehicle that had initially been developed in seven months, was born out of post-war expediency and yet seemingly defied the transfigurative powers of automotive fashion. This is in sharp contrast to current transient car designs, which, despite taking an average of three years to develop, are being redesigned at an ever-more rapid pace with new and significantly re-engineered models replacing old in as little as five years. In this mercurial automotive environment how did the Land Rover survive for so long and arguably become a design out of time?

Although anachronistic in many ways, the unchanging appearance and nature of the utility Land Rover has frequently been celebrated as a virtue, with the vehicle increasingly characterised as being ‘fit for purpose’, ‘legendary’ and the continuation of a fundamentally sound functional ‘design classic’ both through its application and marketing. The reasons for the vehicle’s survival are still more pragmatic than this characterisation would suggest, however, being determined by circumstances and expediency as a matter of necessity rather than strategic thinking or as an automotive manifestation of functional perfection. There were in fact several unsuccessful attempts to fundamentally redesign and replace the existing utility Land Rover from as early as the mid-1960s, but far from being detrimental to the vehicle’s reputation, the ubiquity and petrification of the original design led to an almost mythical status for the Land Rover as a perpetually willing workhorse and automotive icon. This reputation, along with the vehicle’s diverse application, informed its value complexes and was gradually absorbed (and reinforced) through cultural and social osmosis by consumers and other actors.

This paper examines the notion of ‘timelessness’ in automotive design by examination of the persistence of the utility Land Rover into an era of rapid redesign and replacement in the automotive industry. Factors that lead to its seemingly unchanging design, the thwarted attempts to replace it with more modern vehicle concepts and the consequences of longevity for the Land Rover brand are explored, along with subjective concepts such as nostalgia in car design and the nature and ontological value of a ‘timeless classic’ in the automotive industry.

“Like motherhood or apple pie”: how East Germany public art and design has served the myth of a united Germany

Jessica Jenkins, Senior Lecturer, Falmouth University
E:  jessica.jenkins@falmouth.ac.uk

In March 2011, local councillor in the Saxony town of Plauen in the former East Germany, was invited to inspect a newly renovated primary school. Dismayed to discover the existence of a socialist realist mosaic which remained from the GDR era, he asked: “Does the town administration believe, that it serves the basic free and democratic educational mission of the school to put on show symbols of a totalitarian organisation and state without commentary?”

Dr. Kowalzick’s outrage echoed the inflamed debates about East German art in the years following German reunification.  However, most of those whose opinion was solicited by journalists on the topic of this remnant of East German socialism, offered more moderate responses. By 2011, a Socialist Realist mosaic in a primary school had become detached not only from its original political meaning, but also from the emotions of the early 1990s; Kowalzick, more than the mosaic, seemed out of step with the times.

The material heritage of East Germany, as a tangible reminder of a defunct society, has been central to intense­ – and fiercely contested – efforts from the federal authorities to “design the past”, and public perception of it. This paper will argue that over the quarter century since the unification of East and West Germany in 1990, the fate of this heritage has played a proxy role in imagining the united Germany of the future. This has compelling implications for the role design heritage has to play in the imaginary of nationhood.

42134488_candelaMaking ‘Atomic’ History:
Collapsing Past and Present in the ‘Unofficial’ Digital Archive
Dr Emily Candela, Visiting Lecturer, Design, Royal College of Art
E: emily.candela@network.rca.ac.uk T: @ladymeanlice W: Personal Website

This paper explores how narratives about postwar British history and the passage of time itself are mediated by ‘retro’ designed objects on eBay today. eBay has altered the way retro objects are consumed in Britain, contracting geographies and time, changing how sellers describe and categorise objects, and, I argue, redesigning the way both retro consumers and academic historians understand histories of design. As a vast database of artefacts from the past, accessible by almost anyone with an internet connection, eBay is an example of a new breed of dynamic, publicly accessible archive generated online. Jacques Derrida’s observation that “archivisation produces as much as it records the event” holds for eBay just as it does for traditional archives (Derrida and Prenowitz, 1995). Through its display design and the indexing functions of its software, eBay acts not only as a platform for ecommerce but also as a digital archive that exerts a powerful narrativising influence on popular and scholarly understandings of history.

I focus specifically on the contemporary social and commodity life on eBay of a class of postwar British furnishings distinguished by their ball-and-rod form, which are often described by the appellation ‘atomic’. The passage of time and changes in the technologies mediating postwar ball-and-rod furnishings correspond with great shifts in the status and significance of these furnishings for their users between the postwar era and today. As current archetypes of the postwar past, they are eagerly snapped up by contemporary retro enthusiasts, for whom online platforms – principally eBay – have become a primary site of consumption.

Ball-and-rod furnishings are categorised and narrativised on eBay in ways that afford them new meanings and positions within historical categories (such as ‘atomic furniture’). These designed objects mediate narratives of the past that reinforce mythologies of a timeline in the history of science that positions the Atomic Age in relationship to the current place of science in British society today. This paper focuses on forces shaping the consumption of ball-and-rod furnishings online that solidify such historical narratives: the function of metadata on eBay, such as the keyword ‘atomic’ and its links with the materiality of postwar objects today, and users’ interactions with the site (including scrolling, tagging and titling auctions).

This analysis takes into account eBay’s multiple identities as an archive, social media, software, and platform for commodity exchange. Drawing upon scholarship on retro culture, collective memory, public history, digital media studies, and empirical research into the social lives of ball-and-rod furnishings in postwar and contemporary contexts, it offers several insights for design historians. These include findings on the role of memory in the long history of the use of ball-and-rod furnishings; how new technologies of archivisation collapse, overlay and shape design historical timelines; and how understandings of the past within academic design history are influenced by new cultures of collecting.

This paper reports on AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award research on relationships between industrial design and the science of X-ray crystallography in postwar Britain, and the scholarly and popular memory of this relationship, as mediated by designed objects today.

Further Reading

Candela, E (2015) Review of ‘Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places’, in: Midcentury America by Amy F. Ogata, Home Cultures, 12(1):115-118.

Candela, E (2015) Atoms, Flows, and Networks: Histories of Science and Design’, in: Inflating Curiosity, London: RCA and MIT Media Lab Tangible Media Group.

Derrida, J and Prenowitz, E (1995) ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, 25(2):  9-63 (17).

Fallan K and Hazell P ‘The Enthusiast’s Eye: The Value of Unsanctioned Knowledge in Design Historical Scholarship’, Design and Culture.

Kristoffersson S (2014) Design by IKEA. A Cultural History, London: Bloomsbury.

Lees-Maffei G (2014) ‘The Ford Model T’, chapter in: Iconic Design: 50 Stories of 50 Objects, Berg (ed).

Sparke P (ed) (2016) ‘A difficult road: designing a post-colonial car for Africa’, in: The Routledge Companion to Design Studies, London: Routledge