Design Conference Makes History

The Sunday Guardian

priya-article-sunday-observer-01Design thinkers from across the globe convened at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad for four days last week for the first ever Design History Society conference to take place outside of Europe.

Three conference rooms and an auditorium at the airy NID campus hosted over seventy speakers on subjects ranging from modernism and national design history, to the politics of museum display, textiles and architecture.

Scholars from places as far apart as New Zealand, Brazil and London travelled to Gujarat for the conference, putting Indian design on the map. Among the delegates was the Dean of Humanities at the Royal College of Art in London, Jane Pavitt, who found the cross-border dialogue brought a fresh perspective to her work back home.

“This is the first opportunity for design historians to come together in India and think about the commonalities and differences in our work,” she said, at a rare pause during the conference at a lunch laid on for delegates. “Because this conference is focussed on the global context of design history, it brings another critical perspective to the way many of us have worked for some years.”

A memorable moment of the event was a keynote speech by eminent art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta, who spoke of the ostentatious spectacle and material culture of the Durga Pujas of contemporary Kolkata, shedding light on how the popular event has brought to the fore new categories of artists and designers. The urban festival is a rich source of contemporary design in India, and raised innovative questions about broader cultural dynamics, such as how the dialogue between art and craft is changing.

“We are becoming increasingly aware of the international nature of our subject,” said Dipti Bhagat, Chair of the Design History Society and Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University. “Design is not only practiced in different geographies or global in its nature, but design history has become global in its methodology, in its concern for inter-disciplinarity. That globalisation, in terms of geographies and subjects, is important and is reflected in our conferences.”

“Coming to India was very important to the agenda to internationalise,” said Bhaghat, who is a member of the Gujarati diaspora. “We have had conferences outside of the UK but it was important we came outside of Europe and tried to reach a different audience. It is important that we provide a forum for design thinkers from India to come to a conference, which might not be possible in Europe.”

The conference underscored the developing academic discourse on the history of post-Independence design. “The absolute highlight for me,” Pavitt continued, “has been hearing how designers and historians can reflect with experience and criticality upon the developing history of design post-independence. That, for me, has painted an incredibly rich picture of the politicised and sometimes difficult, but central importance of design development in post-independence India.”

The Design History Society was established in 1977 to promote and support the study and understanding of design history. It was initially set up to bring together British design historians but, since then, has come to embrace ideas and practice across the world and has grown to become an influential forum to foster design thinking beyond the UK.

The history of NID is bound up in the main theme of the conference, post-colonialism, as it was set up in 1961, as part of a reappraisal and reconstruction of India’s identity, at a time when its traditions were being balanced with modern technology and ideas. When Charles and Ray Eames visited India in 1957, as part of the Government’s search for an Indian identity, they defined the spirit that would lead to the founding of NID. The significance of NID in India’s own design history made this a fitting forum to reflect on that history further in a contemporary age.

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