Victor Margolin & The Age of Design

Hilary Stunda | 09.21.15

An interview with Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Margolin is a founding editor and now co-editor of the academic design journal Design Issues. He recently published the two-volume set “World History of Design,” a  definitive historical account of global design from prehistory to the end of the Second World War and is currently completing the third volume in the series. He has published widely on diverse design topics and lectured at conferences, universities, and art schools in many parts of the world. Publications that he has written, edited, or co-edited include “Propaganda: TheArt of Persuasion, WW II,” “The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1936,” “Design Discourse,” “Discovering Design,” “The Idea of Design,” “The Designed World; Images, Objects, Environments,” “The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies,” and “Culture is Everywhere: The Museum of Corn-temporary Art.”

DSC_9867What do you feel is the most significant “moment” in the history of design?
Perhaps the invention of the steam engine, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution.

If there was a “turning point” for design – going from utilitarian to aesthetic (and now back to utilitarian!) when would that have been?
I don’t see that there was such a turning point. Design has always been utilitarian and aesthetic unless you want to count postmodernism, which reduced the utilitarian though not completely.

What do you consider the most simple and historically important design (besides the wheel!)?
No single one. Lots of examples, i.e. the can opener.

In terms of the “design-thinking” process, are we hard-wired to think this way or do we have to be taught?
I think humans are made to design since they have to survive, but people have to be taught how and what to design.

What has been the most surprising discovery in your research?
I learned a great deal about design in many parts of the world outside Europe and the United States. Especially Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. I filled in a lot of gaps in design history up to the end of World War II. Now I am filling in some gaps for the postwar world, but we do know more about that period.

How do you think people view “design” compared to the reality of the full scope and potential of design?
Few people understand design’s full scope. In reality, design is the way we organize life in all its fullness. There are many names for different design functions and a lot of those names obscure the fact that the activities are design. This makes it hard to make connections between them and find common ground among a lot of different activities, i.e. the design of systems. People don’t realize that much of what they do frames the conditions and possibilities for human activity. That’s design.

What does the future of design hold?
Design has a great future and little by little people are discovering that design is possible and desirable outside the market sphere.

City-planning design teams?
By all means. Yes, we need design teams in disaster areas and also in many other areas where human life is chaotic. There are more and more of these. Large numbers of people are moving around – not only refugees, but people moving to cities, which are swelling at a sometimes alarming rate. The differences between wealth and poverty are extreme. You could say that the world is way out of balance and design is needed to balance it.

Photo credit: Tony Smith