''Design in a Nutshell'': a quick overview of the history of design


British Museum, London | Photo by Mika Ruusunen

"Design in a Nutshell" is a mini web-series by the Open University, who make a lot of cool short educational videos on a variety of topics (I suggest you take a look on their YouTube channel). The series is centred around six major art movements that have marked the history of design, summarised in a visually engaging way in six short videos.

While I believe the animations were beautifully done, I must admit that I was a little disappointed by the content - or rather, the inadequacy of it. I didn't think the narrator did justice to the significance and extensive impact that these movements had on arts as well as on society as a whole. Even when their intention was clearly to only give a short introduction on the topics, which would hopefully lead to further personal research, I felt like they didn't manage to pinpoint quite the right or most essential points, some of the comments felt hazy and some of the facts were just imprecise. Nevertheless, for somebody who has zero to little knowledge of art history, these little videos can probably be a quick, fun way to learn a little more about it without having to tackle huge Encyclopaedia wall texts (and I cannot deny, it wasn't a bad quick revision for myself).

1 • Goth Revival
The first of the movements they explore is the Gothic revival of 18th and 19th century England. This grew popular out of a desire to revive medieval Gothic style and its close connection to the divine, and as a reaction against the domineering Neoclassicism and the progressive "mechanisation" that followed the Industrial Revolution. Tall spires, lancet windows and intricate decorative patterns were a way to try and recreate the majestic, grandiose and awe-inspiring power of God, as the buildings reached into the sky.

2 • Arts and Crafts
The arts and crafts movements, while driven by a sentiment completely different than the Gothic one, was also essentially a way for artists and craftsmen to come to grips with the implications of the Industrial Revolution and with its negative impact on craftsmanship and skill. In an age of increasing mechanisation and mass-production techniques, people started to feel alienated from the value of an object made individually with skill and care by a professional, as opposed to a machine. Companies such as Morris & Co. were born with a mission to deliver high-quality hand-crafted products. If on one hand, the video suggests that this idea of originality and wanting to know where and how our products are made is still alive today, on the other I would like to question it, as the popularity of DIY bloggers on Pinterest isn't exactly the same as a genuine concern for where the things we bring into our homes are made, by who and under what conditions - and this goes for everything, from our food to that new IKEA table to our clothes.

3 • Bauhaus
Bauhaus was an art school in Germany which mostly operated during the years between the two World Wars. The fundamental idea was to bring together arts and crafts, which is why they taught all kinds of art disciplines which had traditionally been separate (fine art and design, architecture, typography, industrial design), all the while embracing the new technological advancements. While the school itself was rather short lived, its influence on modern art and design is universally recognised as huge, and some believe it was the catalyst of a revolution of minimalism, geometric purity and simplicity, rid of unnecessary ornaments. Bauhaus marked a time in the world of art and design of innovation, vitality, ideas and exploration, where art could be used as a way to find sense and order in a rapidly evolving world.

4 • Modernism
Modernism was a movement of the 20th century that embraced not only most of Europe, but also most of the arts, and it was mainly brought about by a collective sense of bitter disillusionment with history after the horrors of World War I. It wasn't only artistic: it was cultural, social, political and philosophical. There seemed to be a general dissatisfaction with the current ways of society in all of its aspects, from the arts and literature to religion to the political system, and a need to find new ways to look at this new, industrialised world. Designers from all sectors sought to make use of the most innovative technologies, artists were brimming with ideas, and they all wanted to celebrate mankind's intelligence and creativity.

5 • American Industrial Design
When the Great Depression hit the Western world at the end of the 1920s and almost completely erased consumer demand, manufacturers had to come up with new ways to make people buy their products. One of these ways was to start making things look sleek and attractive: even mundane, everyday household objects were being turned into mini works of art, displays of fine craftsmanship, progressive designs. New materials such as vinyl, chrome, aluminium and plywood were used, futuristic shapes (sometimes admittedly impractical) adopted, everything had to scream "style"! This was arguably the beginning of mass-consumption society and the breakthrough of marketing, as the narrative created around a product slowly became more important than the product itself: brands sold desirable lifestyles, created taste and ambitions for an entire society. To me, this one perhaps resonated the most as it strongly relates to the fashion industry as a whole.

6 • Postmodernism
As the name suggests, Postmodernism was an almost direct reaction to Modernism (see above). It wasn't just a design movement, but a mindset, a way of thought, which touched on political and philosophical themes. Postmodernists followed a modernist approach, but identified the failures within that movement and actively reacted against them. They believed in relativism and radical pluralism: there was no universal truth to be found, but rather many different ways of knowing and many different perspectives to interpret the world. They wanted to push society to question things, they sought anarchy of thought and they constantly challenged their audience.


Here is the first part of the video in case you got curious! You can watch the rest of it on the OU (Open University) channel:

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