In the annals of design histories, one new book is perhaps the most exhaustive effort yet undertaken. The World History of Design (Bloomsbury), divided into three volumes, begins with the pre-hominids and ends—at least, the second volume, available April 23, does—with World War II. Its author, Victor Margolin, the professor emeritus of design history at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has intersected the design disciplines to map a unique history from a number of international events and disparate personae.
The book is unique for its inclusivity, which reaches far beyond Western design research’s usual orbit. Margolin, who has been an editor of MIT's journal Design Issues since 1985, begins his study with the first users of tools. “What we call design today,” he told me by way of explanation, “is continuous with the basic human need to organize the material environment for survival purposes.”
With that thesis in mind, Margolin defined two kinds of design: design with a small "d"—by his definition, what people have always created to satisfy needs and organize their environment—and Design with a big "D"—his word for the official term associated with mass production and mass communication that may be its closest association today.
Design, in Margolin’s analysis, is an activity that has always been central to the creation of culture. But, he says, “Somewhere along the line it became marginalized as an artistic or aesthetic practice only, which obscured our awareness of all the designing that was going on that did not fit that category.” One of his objectives in publishing the books was to demonstrate that design and its history is inextricably linked to past economic, political, and cultural structures. To counteract the field’s perceived artsy marginality, Margolin wrote with a broad audience in mind—though, with a list price of $575 for the first two volumes, the World History of Design may not yet be for everyone.
Central to the project was the intent to reveal design hiding in plain sight. Margolin, who teaches survey courses, uncovered during his research several early examples of design he wouldn’t normally teach—Braille, early limb prosthetics, and the miniature furniture and learning aids pioneered by Maria Montessori. Most exciting to him, he says, was learning about the centrality of military-weapons design to the history of warfare. During World War II, for example, the British developed early theories of human-machine interaction as part of their operations research: “The problems of designing weaponry on a mass scale as occurred in the United States engendered many new ways of organizing research and production,” he said.
Busting the Western-centric canon of design was not Margolin’s overt intent, but it certainly is a consequence of his historical overview. He includes Africa and parts of Asia; studies how companies like Ford Motors became international, and how the British Commonwealth balanced imports and exports. “I was able to add a lot of material that is of cultural interest and full of visual richness even though it does not meet the dominant culturally determined aesthetic standards,” he said.
Margolin views his History as an armature that will support more writing and research to come. “Having one comprehensive world history can provide a framework for lots of other people to do research,” he said. “The research just keeps getting deeper and new questions continue to arise. That goes for design history, as well as other histories.”