From Things as They Are to Things as They Ought to BeDavid Mah | Leire Asensio Villoria
The study of design history can never be complete without the dedicated study of its material artifacts. Different narratives, biographies and theories can be woven together to ascribe meaning as well as significance to the material products of design history. However, this book argues that a focus on examining and describing the material things themselves may also offer us an immediate and tangible window into the many concerns, sensibilities, preoccupations and know-how that have informed their creation.
The way in which the study of design history is undertaken can be influenced by a wide field of motivations, approaches, and frames of reference. However, the public and disciplinary imaginations are typically captured by the explication of design artifacts relative to their place within larger stylistic periods or through their significance within authors’ biographical narratives. The longstanding focus has often been on the personal influences that compel designers, or on a contextualization of these works within an associated zeitgeist. Works are always discussed from and given meaning through their positioning within the authorial context or, often, by relating the work to abstract ideas, concepts and philosophies external to the “mundane” technical and material concerns of design practice. Uncovering lessons primarily from the focused study of design material artifacts, in and of themselves, is a less common model of contemporary design or art historical investigation.
However, recent investment in learning through an engagement with historical artifacts as “things” or objects has gained currency in a diverse roster of teaching and research institutions. On one hand, object-based learning is becoming widely practiced in different academic contexts. This has helped to elevate the material artifacts of history (or their replicas) as rich repositories of knowledge and information. The active use of objects in the process of learning has been motivated by acknowledgement of the capacity of objects to transmit a wide array of information, from “an object’s date and location of origin, method of manufacture, artistic style” to its “original purpose and function.” Objects are said to be “imbued with meaning and can be read much like a text.”
On the other hand, “things” have also achieved an elevated status for some historians across art and science who have come to recognize a capacity for reframing historical research around the specifics of “things that talk.” As offered in the introduction to a collection of essays edited by Lorraine Daston, things “do not merely repeat, they are not instruments for the recording and playing back of the human voice.” For Daston and her collaborators, the study of things is pursued to open up new ways of accessing history, revealing new insights into art and scientific history through the deep study of material artifacts. This compulsion to frame historical exploration through a deep engagement with things is “to make things eloquent without resorting to ventriloquism or projection” and “explores the mean- ing of things in-situ, gaze fixed firmly on this or that thing in particular rather than on the ontology of things in general.”