La Habana 2000

La emergencia de
las historias regionales

2nd International Conference on Design History and Design Studies.
Review of the conference held in Havana, Cuba. 7- 9 June 2000

Viviana Narotzky
Royal College of Art

Havana's Palace of Conventions is a wonderful 1970s building, whose spacious and striking interiors should have already graced the discerning pages of Wallpaper. Last June it was packed with the kind of people most likely to appreciate its concrete bas-relief decorations and spectacular cowhide wall panels: the '6th Design Meeting' and the '2nd International Conference on Design History and Design Studies' brought an international crowd of designers, design historians and design students to the Palace's halls.

The theme for this 2nd Design History conference, The Emergence of Regional Histories, connected with the first edition of the event, last year's '1st International Meeting of Design Historians and Scholars', held in Barcelona. Organized in April 1999 as part of the city's biennial Design in Spring festival, it proposed to explore History from the Periphery and brought together design historians, theorists and curators from Mediterranean and Latin-American countries. Although unambitious and presented more as an informal gathering than a fully-fledged international conference, the Barcelona meeting proved to be a powerful catalyst. It provided a forum for an international community of scholars and researchers, many of whom felt they had been working in isolation and with little institutional support. Throughout Latin America and most of Southern Europe, the History of Design does not really exist as an academic discipline. It is only taught as part of the design curriculum, has no supporting professional bodies or associations, few publication outlets and, until last year, no international conferences.

This year's topic seemed to call for some definitions, or at the very least for some debate around the notion and characteristics of these 'regional histories'. Rather than the idea of regional identities or regionalisms, it sought to address the need for a history of design that could approach events and activities considerably different from those experienced closer to the core of industrialization and economic development. Those days in Havana revealed common problems, both of methodology and infrastructure, often having to do with the frustrating lack of primary sources and archival material. But they also confirmed the existence of shared aims and exciting opportunities. The feeling of being left behind or 'outside' the main thrust of the discipline and its established canon, the self-consciousness of periphery vs. centre, developing vs. developed, soon faded into the background. After all, 'What matters is not to be on the Map of Design, but to design the Map of Design' as Gui Bonsiepe, author of 'The Design of the Periphery', stated in his keynote lecture.

Havana has seen an even greater Latin-American presence than Barcelona did last year, and also lost some of the informality that had characterized the Catalan event. There were over 50 delegates presenting papers, from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, the UK, Mexico, South Africa and Spain. The keynote lectures were shared sessions with the 6th Cuban Meeting on Design, a biennial, international event. Dr Oscar Salinas (Mexico) talked about the challenges faced by the design profession in Latin-America; Prof. Gui Bonsiepe (Germany) about the design process as knowledge management; and Dr. Anna Calvera (Spain) outlined the opportunities for the development of design history in the periphery.

Both in Barcelona and in Havana there was much enthusiasm for participating in, and hosting, future conferences. Anna Calvera, who organised last year's first Meeting and collaborated with Cuban historian Lucila Fernandez on the Havana event, thinks there was much pent-up energy around the subject, that has suddenly been unleashed. Indeed, Havana has been something of a turning-point, confirming the value of this yearly meeting of design historians and supporting its continuity as a regular event. Dr. Tevfik Balcioglu, who will be organising next year's conference, to be held in Istanbul, hopes that the location will help open the debate even further, to include participants from Asia and the Middle-East. All this seems to bear out the creation of a new platform where scholars of design outside the Anglo-Saxon tradition and environment can work towards the consolidation of the discipline in their regions. In this respect, the example of the UK, widely acknowledged as the country with the most solid tradition and most developed scholarship in the History of Design, is seen as a point of reference. Nevertheless, there is a strong awareness of the specificity of local contexts, not only economic, industrial or social, but often institutional and academic as well, and therefore the need to explore alternative models.

Let's hope the information truly flows both ways, as it should in an ideal global world. Next year's DHS conference at the Royal College of Art, which will seek to encourage contributions from design historians working in Mediterranean and Latin-American countries, could provide a good opportunity. With British History of Design increasingly embracing material culture studies and the ethnography of consumption, scholars here have as much to gain from the experience of the periphery as they have academic experience to offer.

This article first appeared in the Design History Society's Newsletter, October 2000.