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Mobility history from a design historian's perspective: the [T.sup.2]M conference, 2007.

The 2007 [T.sup.2]M conference, held in Helmond, in the Netherlands, on 25-28 October, had as its main theme 'Heritage and Design'. Both terms direct attention at the artefact, and the conference aimed to bring design historians, museum curators and mobility historians together to push the boundaries of interdisciplinarity in those areas.

The coincidence of the conference with Dutch Design Week, held in neighbouring Eindhoven, provided an opportunity for the [T.sup.2]M conference not only to address design history through the papers that were presented but also to host a workshop on the subject of 'The Female Touch in Mobility and Design and its History', held in the Bavaria House in Helmond, and to engage directly with designed artefacts as well by judging an exhibition on car interiors, held in Helmond and participated in by a number of the Netherlands' leading art and design schools. This took the conference into new territory, adding to it an exciting new dimension.

The structure of the conference was specifically created to bring the new possibilities of interdisciplinarity to the fore and, to that end, the first day was dedicated to 'heritage' and the second to 'design'. Moreover the two keynote speakers--David Gartman and Victoria de Grazia--were invited because of their interest in artefacts and visual culture, and, in particular, the contexts of consumption and use. The hope was that they would stimulate discussion in that area which would feed, more generally, into the conference itself.

That hope was undoubtedly fulfilled and the conference served to address a number of themes which, while emanating from mobility history, reached out to other areas and, indeed, challenged numerous assumptions made within them. My task was to assess the conference from a design historian's perspective. The first thing to say is that I felt quite at home at the conference. Many of the discussions and debates were ones with which I was familiar and which lie at the heart of my academic discipline. Although design historians have an extremely wide brief where the artefacts with which they deal are concerned--one which, of course, embraces objects of mobility but is not limited to them--the artefacts that lay at the heart of the conference stimulated wide-ranging discussions which could be applied to other objects and systems. Indeed, by limiting the range there was arguably more in-depth discussion and debate than there would have otherwise been. The tension between breadth and depth is always a critical one for the historian of design--both have their advantages and their limitations.

The general perspective adopted by a design historian needs some elucidation. Visual, material and spatial culture is both the starting and the end point of design history enquiry, although the design of immaterial systems can also be encompassed. Most important, design historians, like the transport and mobility historians who presented papers at Helmond, have learned from social and economic historians to engage with the social, cultural, economic, technological and political contexts within which their 'subjects' operate. Typically a design historian would start out by asking the questions: Why do things look as they do? How are meanings constructed, injected into and communicated by images, objects, spaces and systems? How are those meanings read and interpreted?

Design historians assume a high level of agency in the construction of visual, material and spatial culture. That agency could be the work of a professional designer, architect or engineer, or it could equally be that of 'amateurs'--singly or collectively playing roles in determining their environment and the artefacts which populate it. Importantly, though, those 'agents' do not act in isolation. They are, rather, framed within, and influenced by, the contexts just described. Design historians also understand there to be a strong relationship between the ways in which artefacts are represented and the ways in which they influence social relations. Their responses to the questions posed above are couched in terms which recognise those relationships.

All these 'assumptions' were compatible with the key discussions emerging from the conference. There was one area, however, where some divergence became apparent. One of the key differences between 'design' as discussed by an engineer (a key 'agent' addressed by mobility historians) and by a designer who has had an aesthetic training (the terrain more commonly of the design historian) is that the latter is engaged with the whole production/consumption/production cycle--from conceptualisation through to realisation through to marketing through to use and onwards. That difference of definition of the concept of 'design' was visible through the course of this conference, which, given its focus, had an engineering slant. Indeed, design historians potentially offer mobility historians a new approach here, one which could open up their production-oriented discussions to new themes arising from the areas of consumption and use.

Many of the conference papers were strongly design history-focused, the keynotes especially so. Victoria de Grazia focused on the visual means through which different psychological models of advertising were developed through the twentieth century. She showed how designed images could be used to drive different kinds of marketing and sales strategies and she 'unpacked' them to reveal the ways in which that operated. By focusing on the hegemony of North American advertising after 1945, and moving on to models which were subsequently generated within Europe and China, she showed how strongly design and visual culture are embedded within contemporary economic and political structures.

David Gartman similarly focused on design, in this case that of twentieth- century automobiles. Indeed, he claimed that material culture--designed artefacts--serves to demonstrate important contradictions, in particular that between culture and the economy. He ably demonstrated the important link between style and symbolic meaning and the way in which design can be used to represent the idea of modernity. Above all David highlighted one of the key moments in the narrative of twentieth-century design, the one, that is, in which Alfred Sloan shifted the emphasis in modern consumer culture from 'need' to 'want' and introduced the concept of styling, which immediately put the spotlight on the art-trained designer as the creator of the 'added value', fashionability and luxury, themes which lie at the heart of what we now call 'designer culture'. Gartman's talk, like de Grazia's before it, also served to highlight the importance of the contexts of consumption and use to any study of material and visual culture, demonstrating their seamless link with the worlds of technology and production.

Many of conference papers made significant contributions to design history debate. Saturday's papers, in particular, were design-focused and made significant contributions to the design history face of mobility history. In the section 'Trams versus buses', for example, Ian Gray's paper, which focused on the history of public transport in Sydney, focused on the way in which public transport helps to define, or design, our cities. (1) I was struck, for instance, by his description of the way in which the tram had played a key role in the suburbanisation of that Australian city. The role that designed artefacts themselves play in determining the nature of environments is sometimes overlooked, and this paper ably reminded us of the fact. Later in the conference the same idea was reiterated by Greg Votolato in his discussion about public transport in London. He spoke of the way in which, in the 1930s, the work of London Transport had helped to transform London into a modern metropolis. Indeed, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of transport systems in constructing our cities and our public environments more generally.

In his paper, which focused on mobility in Paris, Arnand Passalacqua emphasised the way in which we celebrate the births and deaths of transport systems, thereby anthropomorphising them, as well as our tendency to 'freeze' an object's evolution by giving it a name. These were two interesting points which resonate for design historians as their brief to themselves is to understand their relationship with material culture and to find ways of describing and analysing the interaction. The paper in question added a new dimension to mobility history which extended its potential to embrace material culture.

Goncalo R. Gongalves's paper focusing on mobility in Lisbon provided a very good example of the way in which urban design is the result not just of grand plans, such as those of Haussmann in Paris, or of urban planners, but rather of our social interactions and behaviour as well. The case study he presented demonstrated ways in which the responses of police and citizens to the advent of the automobile in Lisbon played a part in the subsequent evolution of that city. A similar idea arose in the discussion following Greg Votolato's paper as it emerged that one of the reasons London is moving away from the double-decker bus is the problem of surveilling the violence that can occur on the top deck. The main design-oriented message of Greg's paper, however, was the importance of the specificity of locality and the fact that the 'bendy bus' may function well in Barcelona in a way that cannot be reproduced in London. The same broad theme was addressed in a number of other papers as well.

One of the most interesting and overtly design-focused sessions, 'Designing Time and Space', focused on the design of the railway station and addressed some very key questions for historians of architecture and design. The discussion focused on the always problematic art-historical question of the meaning of style. The session demonstrated the difficulty that exists in addressing that particular issue when only one building typology is being referenced. Such a question, as art and design historians know all too well, can really be addressed only by looking more widely and by comparing railway stations with other relevant contemporary building types, among them the halls of world's fairs, museums and department stores. In that particular instance the exclusive focus on a transport-related building was not sufficient to adequately address the question that was being posed, and the breadth which is intrinsic to design history enquiry would have provided a useful methodological tool. Style, as art historians know, is a symbolic language, and, in semiotic terms, can act as a 'shifting signifier'. Its application can, therefore, be arbitrary and its meanings unrelated to the functionality of the buildings or objects to which it is applied.

'Designing Identity' was another extremely interesting session which did range widely, embracing horses, mules and zebras as well as ocean liners and cars. The theme that emerged most strongly was the relationship between design and local, national and international identities. Speakers addressed the question of how design, defined as a style, can be seen as a rich language which plays an important role in the construction of identities, whether defined geographically or culturally.

In conclusion there is no doubt that design history has much to learn from the high levels of multi--and interdisciplinarity that are being pursued within the more specialist and in-depth field of mobility history. Equally, however, that latter discipline, in turn, could benefit from the breadth and the comparative approach adopted by design historians. There are, in summary, lessons to be learnt by both disciplines from each other. The interaction between them proved to be extremely illuminating. I look forward to seeing closer integration between the disciplines and more dialogue between their practitioners.

Penny Sparke

Kingston University, London


(1) See for the programme of the conference and the abstracts of the papers:

Address for correspondence

Kingston University, River House, 53-7 High Street, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 1LQ. E-mail p.
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Author:Sparke, Penny
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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