• Quantities and qualities: Arts and manufactures 1830-1930: A study of the philosophy and ideology of design reform

Brett, David, 1984, Thesis, Quantities and qualities: Arts and manufactures 1830-1930: A study of the philosophy and ideology of design reform PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

The best way to introduce this thesis is to begin with a short account of its genesis.

"Why have the English no national costume?" I was asked that question in a Balkan village, in a region where every village has a distinctive pattern and its own distinct song and dance. It cjcurred to me then that the English were the only people in Europe without even the notion of a national dress, and that the uniformalising of costume (and other arts) was a phenomenon that deserved to be studied. At the time I gave no adequate answer to the question; but this study here attempts to prepare the ground for such an answer, as part of its general plan. The twin concepts of hegemony and cultural autonomy are employed here with that as one of the questions in mind.

A second source arises in teaching, where one is concerned with the interaction of ideas and practices, rather than in their separation. I was concerned to develop an approach to the history of art and design that was neither a history of styles or movements, nor a history of applied technology. For this it seemed necessary to have an inclusive general theory of the material culture, and to treat what is normally called design in terms of material production as a whole, and as part of intellectual production through the embodiment of ideas and beliefs. Thanis to say, design history ( and thereby the history of all material production) could and should be considered as embodied philosophy and expressed ideology.

The inclusive general theory that seemed ( and still seems) necessary remains elusive, but in what follows I have drawn usefully upon the writings of George Kubler and Bernard Smith in order to attempt what Smith describes as 'a balanced and adequate account of art and the industrial society.' Smith, following some ideas of Kubler, proposes a tri-partite description of production, through art, craft and industrial 'systems'. Each of these systems of production are logically differentiated by means of the differing role and status of prototypes and models within the production process; industry, for example, being treated as a system for identical replication of a changing sequence of prototypes. They are historically and sociologically distinguished by the social formations and institutions that have developed in and around them. When, in|the succeeding pages, reference is made to art, craft or industrial systems, it is this Smith model that is being employed, as modified by myself in the course of teaching. No attempt, however, is made in the body of the text to develop this idea, and it is treated simply as heuristic. A more detailed discussion is presented in Appendix One, where it is suggested that an important strength of the model is, that it is not reductive; any object of study in its field will always be found to be subject to two 'axes of determination'.

Expressed in the simplest terms, the relations between art, craft and industry in the period under discussion (1830-1930) are those of three in a bed - one is always falling out. The question of design reform very largely turned upon the question -which of the three? Thus we witness attempts to twin arts with manufactures, arts with crafts, and crafts with industry: each of these three possible combinations of two represents a particular ideological moment, requiring particular conditions and embodying some philosophical scheme of ideas or metaphor . Such is the theme of this study.

Such an approach was not and is not intended as a supersession of style-history or of technological study of design. A profound and informed conn^is^urship - even a connoisseurship of the trivial - is a necessary precondition of any art and design history, since it initially establishes the domain of interest: pressed further into the field of morphology and shape-grammars, the study of style and the evolution of styles is one of the essentail axes of that general history of things, proposed by Kubler. The cassis the same with the history of the applications of technology; it is necessary. But neither is sufficient, since', the first is essentially descriptive and cannot explain without* adducing concepts foreign to itself, or immanentist doctrines such as 'will-to-form'; while the second rapidly becomes a form of restrictive determinism.

Through this study I would hope to show that design history can be formed in such a way that it delivers meanings: it must therefore begin with meanings. Thus an attention to theory - to what men believed themselves to be doing, to the words they used to describe what they thought they were doing, the historiography of those ideas and their critical reception must form a central theme in an explaining and interpretive design history. Such an approach is doubly justified when we consider the reality of 'design reform1. The movements for design reform, of whatever kind, had ( and have) only an oblique effect on the mass of things made. The dominant popular-commercial taste of the EuroAmerican world ( now greatly expanded) remains very much what it was in the 1850's over a vast range of products. Though many exceptions may be found - most clearly in architecture or in new classes of objects,-there is no firm connexion between mass commodity production and those movements. But it is not sufficient to consider design reform under such a heading as 'taste formation'. The aim/here is to demonstrate its ideological function and to examine its philosophical foundations : and this is appropriate to its historical reality.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies
School or Centre: School of Design
Additional Information:

This thesis was originally produced as a three volume set, and there are numerous pagination errors through this combined version.

This thesis has been digitised as part of a project to preserve and share the RCA Library's historic thesis collection. If you own copyright to any material in this work and would like it to be removed from the repository then please contact repository@rca.ac.uk.

Date Deposited: 21 Aug 2023 14:34
Last Modified: 21 Aug 2023 14:34
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5500
Edit Item (login required) Edit Item (login required)