Design Pedagogy Beyond Utopia: Modernism, Social Change and Everyday Life

Marking the centennial of the Bauhaus, the year 2019 witnessed a surge of exhibitions and scholarship on the history of the school, still considered the paragon of modern design pedagogy. Increasingly, however, accounts of the school disrupt the progressive aura that it has gained through a focus on formal innovation and utopian discourse, rather than meaningful social change. Scholars have shown how the Bauhaus espoused regressive gender policies (Otto), produced unaffordable and unreproducible objects (Schuldenfrei), and participated in wider practices of appropriation and exploitation of non-Western cultures (Otto, Chin). Furthermore, the dominance of the Bauhaus in narratives of design modernism has created an implicit “divide between those who ‘have’ design… and those who do not”, as Elizabeth Chin has argued.  

This panel invited papers that investigated lesser known histories of both local and international design schools between the 1920s and 1960s whose pedagogical methodologies and influences were geared towards tangible social changes and reform at the everyday level, such as the health, sanitation, education and labour reform movements; the women’s rights movement; environmental issues; racial issues; transportation and communication networks, etc.

Session Convenors:  

Alexandra Chiriac 

Hyewon Yoon 


Jason Mientkiewicz, The Johns Hopkins University 

Abstraction for the Struggle Against Unemployment 

In December 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution, the Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle Against Unemployment celebrated the second anniversary of its founding with parades, the renovation of its headquarters, and the decoration of Vitebsk’s factories and public spaces. The occasion’s visual character survives only in its pamphlet design and a scant few photographs depicting procession banners and architectural decoration done in a style of geometrical abstraction derived largely from the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich. Under the tutelage of Malevich and his colleague El Lissitzky, a workshop of advanced students from the People’s Art School in Vitebsk (who would go on to call themselves UNOVIS) collectively designed these works, which were realized both by the students themselves as well as workshops of local craftspeople, most notably seamstresses who sewed banners for the events. The resultant works for the Committee’s anniversary are conventionally understood by scholars as UNOVIS’ attempt to export the abstract forms of avant-garde painting beyond the rarified, “autonomous” Suprematist canvas and into the actual environment of lived life. This paper aims to refine our account of this episode in the history of Russian modernism by drawing on the unexamined history of collectively organized craft workshops (artely) in the lands of the Russian Empire upon which these artist-students modeled their studio practice and with which they collaborated to realize the Committee’s anniversary festivities. In so doing, this research argues for the inextricability of reformed pedagogical practices and the on-the-ground organization of artistic labor from UNOVIS’ socio-aesthetic project. 

Sandra Neugärtner, Leuphana University Lüneburg 

The Other Bauhaus: Lena Meyer-Bergner’s Commitment to Social Change through the Material Transformation of Everyday Life  

My contribution shows that in addition to the bourgeois Bauhaus, which in many respects has come under criticism – and rightly so – for having promoted the production of unaffordable and non-reproducible objects as well as the exploitation of non-Western cultures, there is another, alternative line of the Bauhaus that has been little researched and even less received. Specifically, this Bauhaus concerns the years under the direction of Hannes Meyer (1928-1930). Meyer made “popular need instead of luxury need!” (Volksbedarf statt Luxusbedarf!) the credo of the pedagogy. Earlier Bauhaus weavings created under Gropius were immediately dismissed as decorative, inappropriate for the new functionalism Meyer espoused. Lena Bergner (Meyer- Bergner from 1931) studied in the textile workshop when it was completely transformed in teaching and production. Her case exemplifies how Meyer’s new approach was implemented in pedagogy and in the design and production of textiles for everyday use. The impact is most evident in her own teaching program for a textile workshop for the indigenous Otomí people, which she developed in Mexico in the early 1940s and which pursued an anti-imperialist mission: the economic liberation of the oppressed ethnic group through a counter-design to the capitalist, exploitative structures of textile production in the country. Using the example of Meyer-Bergner’s education and her various projects to teach and organize textile production, first in Königsberg, then in the USSR, and finally in Mexico, at a time of international transfer of knowledge techniques, pedagogy, and the material transformation of everyday life, the paper completes a counter-narrative to the bourgeois Bauhaus under Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  

Seungyeon Gabrielle Jung, University of California, Irvine 

In Defense of the Poor Design 

“The Better Kitchen” (1959) is a model designed for poor rural families in postwar South Korea. Home extension agents visited homes to teach how to build this IKEA-esque kitchen composed of a raised fireplace, a workstation with adjustable attachments, a water jar, and a food cover. Funded by the US government agencies such as USOM and USIS, this design project aimed to “enlighten” the population and equip them with an ergonomic and hygienic space for food preparation. Home extension agents also taught housewives how to raise children, make functional clothes, and cook healthy food in the “modern style.” This paper examines “the Better Kitchen” as an educational tool designed by the South Korean state at the request of its client, the US government. It looks at how a “poor design” that lacks specific measurements and shrewd attention to detail such as “the Better Kitchen” did not meet the standard of good design of the West. I conclude this paper by thinking about “Good Design,” which was employed by the US as a propagandistic weapon during the Cold War to promote the American way of life in contrast to “the Better Kitchen.” I argue that “the Better Kitchen” had the potential to become a site of not only the “enlightenment” but also the democratization of design thanks to its lack—even though the original design itself was a product of the authoritarian regime and the Cold War geopolitics. 

Sara Catenacci, IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca 

Learning from Naples. Riccardo Dalisi’s disseminated design community 

During the 1960s, Neapolitan architect and designer Riccardo Dalisi was theorising a didactic method that would have allowed for a collaborative design process or, as he labelled it, an “interpersonal” design methodology. Close to progressive pedagogical movements, Dalisi was implementing his method while teaching at the Faculty of Architecture in Naples: “mass” courses attended by hundreds of students due to recent reforms in the Italian higher education system. In 1971, perhaps after quarrelling with Giancarlo De Carlo, a Team X member also concerned with the formulation of a “participatory” architecture, Dalisi moved his classes to Rione Traiano, one of the poorest and most violent underclass neighbourhoods of Naples. Here he started a long-lasting collaboration with its young, often unschooled, residents, which eventually evolved from a sort of “street” university into a network of small workshops. This network, set up by his students and collaborators, gradually spread across other indigent boroughs.  

This paper aims, on the one hand, at retracing the development of Dalisi’s design community and, on the other, to clarify the designer’s endeavour beyond its inclusion in narratives revolving around the so-called Italian “radical” or counter-design (Mendini). The complexity, and effectiveness, of Dalisi’s socially engaged dialectic approach – whether it was revising the pedagogical tenets of Southern Italy non-violent activism or eliciting the agency of suburban folklore and local craftmanship – cannot be grasped without situating it in the “porous” modernity (Chambers) of the city of Naples. Dalisi’s peculiar educational and research design community, as unruly as it was adaptable, was born from and for the inner needs and diverse tempos of the Mediterranean city. It lightly cohabited with mass culture, the relics of modern social housing units, premodern techniques, and archaic legacies, at the same time connecting and overtaking them.  

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