Miscellaneous thoughts on design history from outside Finland – Pekka Korvenmaa at 60

A briefly sketched overview

Design history as an independent academic discipline has been with us for more than forty years and is now represented by an ever-increasing number of different voices and approaches, a growth in the number and geographical spread of national and international societies of design and design history, dedicated journals, documentaries, television programmes, promotional and professional organizations, museums, galleries and local, regional, national and international exhibitions from cabinet to large-scale. In the wake of pioneering doctorates and first freestanding specialist undergraduate degrees developed in Britain from the mid-1970s onwards, design history has also acknowledged the significance of the consumer and embraced opportunities offered by a range of other disciplines ranging from social anthropology, ethnography and material culture studies through to economic, political and business history. It has also moved away decisively from a ‘heroes and heroines of design’ approach that co-existed with a commitment to educating businesses, consumers and designers through what was for several decades posited as ‘good design’.[1]

Over the past decade major publishing houses such as Bloomsbury (incorporating the many design-facing titles by Berg) have commissioned an ever-expanding range of design reference books, textbooks, monographs and journals. As well as decimating acres of forestation and populating library shelves with kilometres of reference texts, many of these will doubtless play their part subsequently as individual units in the publishers’ wars for digital dominance in design history, design and other related disciplines. Such an outlook also raises a number of concerns about the ways in which disciplinary Readers, Encyclopaedias and Handbooks may condition the ways in which those experiencing the discipline for the first time approach the subject. At their most inventive such volumes offer fresh perspectives for those more attuned to the wider possibilities afforded by multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches. Alas, these are comparatively few in number with Readers in particular tending to follow conservative and well-trodden ground. Perhaps worthy of more positive note in this second decade of the 21st century is that the digital humanities – in which digital tools and software increasingly enhance and enrich approaches to art and design history, history and other humanities disciplines – have become an increasingly significant part of the contemporary research, methodological and dissemination landscape.

However, the approach of recent publishers (and, by inference, authors) of design history ‘Readers’ remains firmly rooted in approaches characteristic in the analogue age, quasi-religious relics of past patterns of learning and teaching, even if technically available online. In general they have failed to produce effective and imaginative digital learning packages attuned to the needs and expectations of 21st century students. There are few genuine contemporary technically enhanced equivalents to those launched in Britain to underpin studies in the history of architecture and design in the mid-1970s at the Open University[2]. Its learning packages were supported by ‘Readers’ such as Form Follows Function: A Source Book for the History of Architecture and Design 1890–1939 (1975) and related course books, accompanied by coordinated and directed use of contemporary media units of study – television and radio broadcasts incorporating documentary film, audio-visual interviews with architects and designers, as well as filmed ‘on-site’ visits to buildings and urban environments and living architects, designers and writers. In this author’s view their digital equivalents today have yet to be fully engaged with in a structured way.

Other trends that have been emerging in the 1990s and 2000s include increasing considerations of globalisation and the cartography of design, historically and contemporary. The dominance of Anglophone and first industrial world cartographies of design activity has been increasingly challenged by the post Eastern bloc resurgence of national identities, economies and patterns of consumption in the later 1980s together with the restructuring of Europe in the early Millennial years which in 2014 now comprises 28 countries. Furthermore, since 1999 there have been several organisations that have grown in scope and global involvement. Perhaps most significant amongst these has been the International Conference for Design History and Design Studies (ICDHS) that provided a platform that originated in the Design History Seen from Abroad: History and Histories of Design conference held at the University of Barcelona in 1999. It sought to co-ordinate an alternative map of design history from the perspective of the globally significant perspectives of the Spanish-speaking world. This embraced many countries in South America as well as tens of millions of native speakers in the United States. It has stimulated a further 9 conferences around the world with that of 2016 planned for Taipei.  The notion that there were many voices speaking to histories of design often overlooked by major publishers with international readerships was made clear in the Mind the Map: Design History beyond Borders ICDHS held in Istanbul in 2002 where researchers represented activities and approaches in a wide variety of other countries and languages. By the time of the 9th conference in 2014 at the University of Aveiro in Portugal on the theme of Tradition, Transition, Trajectories: Major or Minor Influences? more than 40 nations were represented.

Other approaches that have gathered pace over the past twenty years relate to the ways in which a significantly greater number of design history researchers have become involved in the organisation of national and international conferences and symposia and the production of keynote papers, articles and reports that address the economic, social and political significance of design, whether in relation to such considerations as national prosperity, ageing and well-being, or sustainability and community issues. It is also noteworthy, especially in Britain but no doubt elsewhere (as in the United States), how often many officially commissioned reports reveal a relative ignorance of previous documents, debates and policy papers, even if published within the previous decade. Historians have a role to play in exposing such circular thinking.[3]

Locating Korvenmaa: a perception from abroad

Born 60 years ago Pekka Korvenmaa’s experience of architecture, design and design history has evolved during the period of change briefly delineated above. His 20s coincided with the first generation of debates about the relative importance of design history as an adjunct to, or part of, design education or even as a complementary yet freestanding emergent discipline with a potentially wider agenda. A very high percentage of primary resources relating to design practice, policy, industry, education, promotion and consumption in Finland are inevitably in the Finnish language. Furthermore, the latter is spoken only by about 5 million native speakers and does not have a significant currency worldwide; nor is it one that is likely to attract many researchers beyond Scandinavia into a place where it is possible to enter a specialist niche of understanding. Such considerations present an even more severe problem for many other countries around the world including those that constituted the former Yugoslavian republic where design history is not widely practiced, supported or disseminated. It is all the more important that there are design and design history researchers, thinkers and writers from constrained linguistic bases who are able to communicate to wider audiences – in Finland, Korvenmaa is clearly one of the more significant voices, although the country has embraced design projection abroad for sound economic reasons over many decades. The importance of his overall contribution of Finnish design may be seen in his Finnish Design – a Concise History published in 8 editions between 2009 and 2014, which was favourably reviewed in the Journal of Design History in 2011 where Korvenmaa’s ability to transcend those shortcomings usually associated with design heroes was considered by the reviewer to

– – successfully contextualize the heroic age of modern design.  Though design heroes such as Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala and Kaj Franck are widely known, the national history and design culture out of which they emerged and in which they worked are not.[4]

Other useful books by Korvenmaa that take readers beyond the notion that ‘design heroes’ is not necessarily a dirty epithet or one not politely mentioned in design history circles include his Innovation Versus Tradition: The Architect Lars Sonck: Works and Projects, 1900–1910 (1991)[5], his co-authored Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism (1998)[6], or his Ilmari Tapiovaara (1997)[7], published in 4 languages and 10 editions. The latter perhaps provided some of the impetus for the 2014 Tapiovaara centenary exhibition at the Design Museum Helsinki[8] and accompanying book Ilmari Tapiovaara – Life and Design[9] to which Korvenmaa contributed an essay.

Pekka Korvenmaa has been visibly engaged with the dissemination of research, invited keynotes, consultancy, and presentations of design history, theory and practice in Europe, Japan, South America since the 1980s and is a familiar figure on the international stage. He has also been involved with a number of international design history organizations including the ICDHS for which he serves as a Board Member. Korvenmaa was co-chair (representing the University of Art and Design Helsinki, now a part of the Aalto University Helsinki) with Krista Kodres (representing the Estonian Academy of Art, Tallinn) for the fifth ICDHS conference in 2006 entitled Connecting: a conference on the multivocality of design history & design studies. By incorporating the Nordic Forum of Design History’s (Nordiskt Forum för Formgivningshistoria) biannual symposium into the conference program this ensured an event of significance that helped to draw wider audiences to innovative design and design historical research in a highly important geographic region for design production, practice and consumption. Korvenmaa contributed a keynote address on ‘We got history – anybody interested? Finland, innovation policies and the role of the past’.[10] His commitment to the exploration and promotion of such concerns could be discerned in his 1998 publication of ‘The condition and future challenges of Finnish design: a survey launched by SITRA’[11]. His belief that design research was one of the keys to understanding Finland’s strong design position,[12] was a standpoint further explored in articles such as ‘Rhetoric and Action: Design Policies in Finland at the Beginning of the third Millennium’[13]. His promotion of research into innovation policies has surfaced in many other international locations and has been a significant and developing theme of his work as seen, for example, in his contribution to two of a series of Erasmus seminars in 2007 at the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. These were entitled ‘Craft, Design and the Construction of the Welfare State’ and ‘Finland, Design and National Policies of Innovation’. Nonetheless, as a design historian he has also examined key issues in earlier periods[14] as part of his ongoing research into Finnish design.

The Aalto University in Helsinki – the result of the merger of the former University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design Helsinki in which Professor Korvenmaa has held significant and influential roles – is providing him with the opportunity to launch himself from a new research springboard via the award of a sabbatical that also coincides with his attaining the age at 60, the new 50 for historians of design in Finland.

 

Jonathan M. Woodham

Professor of Design History and Director for Research and Development in the Arts and Humanities at the University of Brighton in the UK.

 


[1] Although the widespread tilting at such large-scale windmills has perhaps prevented a second or third generation forensic investigation of the realities, purposes and impact of such approaches.

[2] The Open University was a major initiative launched by the British Labour government in 1969 to open up higher education to the majority. Its first year inaugural cohort of 1971 enrolled 250 000 students. Of particular significance here was one of the courses entitled Architecture and Design, 18901939, sustained by ‘Readers’ and their visual counterparts. See, for example, Benton, Tim; Benton, Charlotte et al. (1975). Form and Function: A Source Book for the History of Architecture and Design 1890-1939. London: Crosby Lockwood Staples; Benton, Charlotte & Benton, Tim (1975). Images. Milton Keynes: Open University Press; Benton, Tim; Benton, Charlotte et al. (1975). Architecture and Design, 18901939: An International Anthology of Original Articles. New York, Whitney Library of Design. These were complemented by numerous other illustrated course books and specially commissioned radio and television broadcast, often aired in the early mornings or late evenings.

[3] See, for example, Woodham, Jonathan M. 2010. Formulating National Design Policies in the United States: Recycling the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Design Issues 26:2, 27ff.  This can be accessed at http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/DESI_a_00003

[4] Ashby, Charlotte 2011. Review of Finnish Design: A Concise History (2009) Helsinki: University of Art and Design Helsinki. Journal of Design History 24:2, 195.

[5] Published by Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys in 1991.

[6] Published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998.

[7] Korvenmaa, Pekka 1997. Ilmari Tapiovaara. Barcelona: Santa & Cole; ETS de Arquitectura de Barcelona.

[8] Pekka Korvenmaa being the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for the Museum of Applied Arts, Helsinki.

[9] llmari Tapiovaara – Life and Design. Edited by Aila Svenskberg. Helsinki: Design Museum 2014.

[10] The abstracts for this conference may be found at http://www.ub.edu/gracmon/icdhs/docs/connecting-abstracts.pdf. For a review of this conference by Artemis Yagou see http://www.ub.edu/gracmon/icdhs/docs/helsinki-dhs111-oct2006.pdf

[11] Korvenmaa, Pekka 1998. The condition and future challenges of Finnish design: a survey launched by SITRA. Form Function, Finland, Issue 70, 48. SITRA (Suomen itsenäisyyden juhlarahasto) is the Finnish Innovation Fund founded in 1967 and became an independent public organisation operating directly under the supervision of the Finnish Parliament.

[12] See such splashes featuring Pekka Korvenmaa as Finnish Design Research Strengthens Business, Industry, and Society in Mind Design: design research webzine #53, November 2012, volume 5.

[13] Korvenmaa, Pekka 2001. Rhetoric and Action: Design Policies in Finland at the Beginning of the third Millenia. Scandinavian Journal of Design History Vol. 11, 7–15.

[14] As in Korvenmaa, Pekka 2013. From Policies to Politics: Finnish Design on the Ideological Battlefield in the 1960s and 1970s. In Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories, edited by Kjetil Fallan. London: Berg.

 

 

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