Rayon stockings and Finnish mugs

February 23, 1996

Things Edited and published by students on the Victoria and Albert Museum/Royal College of Art history of design course Twice yearly, Pounds 6.00 ISSN 1356 921x

Things has now reached its third issue. The first volume was a sellout and it is looking forward to the future with justifiable confidence. The marks of its student origins are clearly upon it and not only in the fascinating reports of study visits abroad made by graduates and staff of the course. It is clear that at the moment most of the articles are written by graduate design historians making their first tentative entry into the world of academic publishing. Any space that allows and thereby encourages new writing from young design historians can only benefit the discipline.

In the introduction to volume three the editors assert confidently that: "Our curiosity rules nothing - nothing - out as an object of study: we want to look at everything". This may account for the rich variety of things that are looked at in all three volumes. They range from 18th-century ice pails and tea tubs through the indoor aquaria of Victorian England to the products of Braun and mass-produced ceramics of Finland. Nor are objects of the more traditional kind the sole focus of study. There are two interesting essays on the suburban front lawn and women's rayon stockings in the interwar period. None of these essays deals with their subject matter in a connoisseurial way but nor do they ignore the need to ask who made such objects and for whom.

There are gaps, however. This is not quite the scholarly cornucopia promised in the journal's editorials. For instance, there is no graphic design included other than indirectly through the visual material supporting the individual essays. Even here there is a tendency to use such images as illustrations, unproblematic texts whose self-evident content needs no deconstructing.

The unsurprising, mainstream design history that emerges from the journal may in part be a consequence of a periodical playing safe, establishing itself before moving on. It could also reflect the origin of so many of the essays in coursework assignments. This may account for a recurring feeling that these are essays whose scope and ambitions are a little too limited or essays which are the strained summaries of longer projects.

The balance and intellectual sharpness of the journal will certainly develop if the editors are more successful in their ambition to attract more than reviews from established outside contributors. However, this may prove difficult for a journal which is not formally refereed.

In recent years the discipline of design history has been in danger of losing its identity. As it draws promiscuously on the associated disciplines of economics, economic history, sociology, anthropology and psychoanalysis it is in danger of being divided up between them. Perhaps the journal represents the need to withdraw to the safe ground of things wherein the discipline can be safely anchored. But so often the very materiality of things are taken for granted. They remain objects to be explained and not the products of discursive regularities to which this journal, these essays, contribute.

The journal should take the advice of Steve Baker, in the most stimulating contribution to the journal, to think things differently. Baker writes against the grain of the whole journal and it is significant that the editors fail to recognise or acknowledge this. This is a pity for the debates that can be generated by his contribution suggest a valuable, if controversial way forward.

John Hewitt is principal lecturer in design history, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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