On Reframing Australian Design History

By Daniel Huppatz

One of DHARN’s initial aims is to consider alternative narratives and methods for Australian design history that might fruitfully build on existing foundations developed by scholars over the past 25 years. A 2012 symposium ‘Networks and Possibilities: Mapping Australian Design History’, at the Robyn Boyd Foundation in Melbourne, was our starting point. For this event, Denise Whitehouse and I invited scholars to discuss the methods, themes and narratives appropriate to Australian design history and how we might build upon work by scholars such as Robin Boyd, Bernard Smith, Tony Fry, Michael Bogle, Margaret Maynard and Terry Smith. Our first symposium session considered broad methodological issues. Peter McNeil analysed the possibilities for design history as an expanded field, I surveyed the relationships between design history, design research and the humanities, and Kate Darian-Smith examined the relationship between cultural studies and material culture. Following this, Suzette Worden’s development of a materials-based approach to design production and consumption and Kathleen Connellan’s study of racial and colonial relationships considered themes appropriate to an Australian context. In the final session, Denise Whitehouse mapped the possibilities of historiography in an Australian context, while Nanette Carter’s research into post-war DIY culture and Tony Lee’s research on Robyn Boyd provided more detailed examples of Australian design history.

Following this symposium, Denise and I continued discussing the possibilities of Australian design history, how to best collect and present research materials and what type resources were appropriate. In ‘Reframing Australian Design History’, a virtual special issue of the Journal of Design History published in January 2014, I outlined the existing state of the field and suggested potential future directions. As far as existing field goes, much of what might be called Australian design history comprises studies of iconic objects and significant professionals within a relatively narrow framework characterized by an anxious marginality. In terms of methods and frameworks for understanding design, Tony Fry’s initial provocations in his 1988 book Design History Australia, remain significant. However, a dispersed collection of scholarship published since then indicates the possibilities of an Australian design history grounded in social, economic, geographic and cultural specificity.

In terms of future directions, I argued in ‘Reframing Australian Design History’ for an Australian design history in ‘an expanded field’. This expansion could occur in various directions – an expanded research field that incorporates material from existing histories of technology, migrant, social and industrial histories, biographies, and related disciplines such as historical archaeology. A further expansion could be to consider design beyond the activities of professional designers and the production of discreet artefacts to include non-professionals and design as comprising the planning and implementation of systems and services. Finally, a reconsideration of the frameworks for understanding design in an Australian context might include adopting transnational, diasporic or global perspectives. The scholarship of DHARN will hopefully contribute to this expanded sense of Australian design history in various ways.

See: Reframing Australian Design History, a special issue of the Journal of Design History, edited by D. J. Huppatz, published online January 2, 2014.