design suspicion: a little history

coming to terms with the nineteenth century (or not)

under
media & business
with
graphic design, medieval revivalism, socialism, word meanings
in
undesign
Thoughts? Questions? Contact me.

Further Reading

What I mean to explore by way of ‘design suspicion’ undoubtedly owes a lot to the ideals of the 19th-century medieval revivalists, guild socialists, and assorted companions. Those theorists and critics of culture, economy, and social order famously saw the world that liberal industrialism was bringing into being as contrary to and destructive of human and non-human nature. In answer, they offered visions of a society renewed through recovery of the moral and aesthetic underpinnings of European civilization as it had flourished, in their understanding, in the centuries ahead of the Renaissance. (The Renaissance itself, of course, likewise a set of developments marked by revivalism, oriented to the pre-medieval — that is, to the Latin- and Greek-centric ‘classical’ civilizations of Europe and western Asia — as the 19th-century turn here is to the medieval.)

The medieval revivalists were early objectors to rationalization, atomization, and acceleration in the social domains of an industrializing world. They sought a return to denser, more viscous, organically developing society. And if they weren’t successful in achieving that return, their cause nevertheless had colossal cultural impact. The specter of rationalization, atomization, and acceleration the medieval revivalists deplored sped on pretty much without letup, it can be said. Yet their critique, especially considered as a totality with the popular reception it received and positive cultural ambition it engendered, was massive in scope and weight. There was no sidestepping or suppressing it; rather, its language, its rich conflicting array of historicist, realist and spiritualist utopian styles and imagery, had to be appropriated and adapted as the dominant liberal industrial project evolved through the nineteenth century and onward.

In a general way, it’s just necessary to acknowledge the social medievalism of Ruskin et al. as foundational (alongside, notably, Marxism) to much that follows in critical response to liberal order, evolving with it into the present century. Though if there’s any clarity in our acknowledging this set of 19th-century personalities and preoccupations, we’ll bear in mind here, then we’re bound to recall and invoke them with caution as much as with appreciation. There is something undeniably Quixotic about the movement. The medieval revivalist legacy is complicated and problematic.

But it’s necessary to acknowledge it as foundational also in that this language and these ideals have been enormously influential particularly in the emergence of what we’ve since come to call — what were not called, significantly, a century and a half ago — the design professions.

William Morris’ neat exhaustive dictum, c. 1880, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,’ is something more than a distillation of principle for living creditably on both the consumption and production sides of our idealized existences as participants in modern economy, I think it’s right to say. The publishing of those words can perhaps be taken as the very birth of something without which modern economy doesn’t appear intelligible at all, something hard to name but to which this collection of interlinked professions, from architect to UXD, lies very near the heart. And yet ‘modern economy,’ in the sense I mean it, Morris and others like him dedicated their lives to the hope not of establishing but rather of thwarting.

A thorough understanding of the contradiction entailed is much more than I have any idea of taking on in these notes. Exposing it somewhat to daylight, though, is probably unavoidable as I go ahead, and we might as well let that get said right here.

Is any of this more than academic? Does the question of the integrity of these long-dead figures’ beliefs become practical — business-wise, particularly — in any dimension? I guess the easy, hand-wavy short answer is that if the effects of societal rationalization, atomization, and acceleration that worried the medieval revivalists aren’t less concerning in our time than in theirs, then we have reason at least to pay attention to their attempts and failures to do something about it, as we project strategically under conditions of doubtful economic stability in our own time — not so far removed from theirs, after all.

Attempt at a better answer will have to come piecemeal, with a bit more noodling about history and further effort to think about words.

Further Reading