Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 7, 2014
Pat Kirkham and Susan Weber, eds. History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400‒2000 Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture.. New Haven and New York: Yale University Press in association with Bard Graduate Center, 2013. 712 pp.; 760 color ills. Cloth $80.00 (9780300196146)

Ambitious and far-reaching, History of Design offers an introductory global history of decorative arts, material culture, and design over the course of six centuries and is the fruit of nearly a decade’s worth of coordination on the part of editors Pat Kirkham and Susan Weber, with contributions from twenty-six listed authors. Envisioned as a textbook, its six chapters are clearly arranged in four chronological sections and six geo-cultural areas (currently omitting Australia/Oceania, which the editors note is planned for future editions). Color codes allow readers to pursue the story of individual cultures, skipping others, but the aim of producing an interwoven globe is everywhere effectively underscored. If a “global art history” has become a rule of thumb for survey courses in many history of art and architecture departments, the ease with which these authors demonstrate a convincing overlap at the level of material culture is enviable. On the whole, asides devoted to individual makers or practices (as often appear in such surveys) are avoided in favor of a fast-paced but easily read text. There are no footnotes, though there is a bibliography for further reading organized per section at the end of the volume. At least half of the book’s 712 pages are given over to high-quality color images, providing as much a visual as textual history.

It is impossible critically to review this book without declaring outright, as its editors do, its direct relationship to the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) that was founded by Weber with personal funds in 1993 and where she remains director and Iris Horowitz Professor. Her clearly stated aim has been to bring the decorative arts and design into the realm of serious graduate study on par with the history of art and architecture. While the study of decorative arts and design is found increasingly in a range of university departments, there can be little doubt that the necessary faculty expertise and basic pedagogical tools for this shift remain lacking in most institutions. Notably for this current project, the exception is often found in non-Western or American art departments where oil, canvas, marble, and bronze are consistently less privileged. The director’s foreword and editors’ acknowledgments and introduction both rightly and pragmatically declare the need for such a textbook if the decorative arts and design are going to be more broadly incorporated into academia (particularly into undergraduate curricula) while perhaps also inevitably veering toward sounding like promotions for the BGC, where many of the contributing authors are instructors. But as with the sudden appearance of BGC itself in 1993 with its pioneering program, public symposia, and exhibitions (and collaborations with leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frick Collection, and Victoria and Albert Museum), there can be little doubt that the contribution of History of Design is of overwhelming benefit to scholarship and another step in effecting the large-scale change Weber set out to make. Anyone who has attempted to create a syllabus on the decorative arts will appreciate how difficult it is to translate the enormous body of books and articles devoted to minute points on dating, attribution, and quality into a broader narrative with which students can engage productively or one that ties to questions currently asked in higher education.

Although titled History of Design, stylistic or formal concerns rarely motivate authors’ discussion of objects. This is perhaps a deliberate move made in order to avoid the traditional, connoisseurial, frequently market-driven approaches long associated with the material in question. Instead, authors focus on the role of objects in political, social, and religious life; most tie this admirably to what amounts to a kind of brief global history with summary accounts of political developments or religious orders supporting production. The method follows closely from material culture studies and ultimately anthropology, leading to obvious and necessary questions about what defines an art object versus the visual, material aspects of everyday life—as well as the differences between how Western and non-Western cultures are studied. What would it mean to take fine art objects and study them anthropologically? While providing essential contextual information, a disadvantage of the strong socio-political approach is that the more literal question of how objects in diverse media were actually made feels underdeveloped. In many cases (glass, lacquer, porcelain, or textiles most obviously) the production process is far beyond the grasp of the average reader. The simplest solution would be a technical appendix supplementing the scattered information already present in the body text. Less directly, this emphasis on social function comes across in the lack of illustrations of preparatory drawings, three-dimensional models, cartoons, or print sources despite the crucial role of this material in the production of decorative arts and the circulation of motifs. Alain Gruber’s series L’Art décoratif en Europe (3 vols., Paris: Citadelles and Mazenod, 1992–1994; the first two volumes translated and published in English as History of Decorative Arts, New York: Abbeville Press, 1994–1996) demonstrates how the ample inclusion of such material (sometimes a full half of all illustrations in Gruber) can help to clarify the ways in which objects were conceived, approved by patrons, and finally translated across geographic boundaries.

The balance struck in History of Design between telescoping in for detail on a given maker or object and out for an overall picture is executed with remarkable finesse, particularly given the density of factual information and the consistent attention to providing a readable text. In the space of a brief paragraph on Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier’s famous Kingston tureens (1734–40), Jeffrey Collins, for instance, evokes the names of the client, the printmaker-publisher who circulated the designs, the goldsmith, and silversmith—all while tying the tureens’ liquid curves back to the work of Adam van Vianen (a Dutch goldsmith discussed earlier), concepts of the Grand Tour, natural history, life casting, and the overlapping professional ambitions of artists, artisans, architects, and draftsmen.

There is a tremendous amount of ground to cover in History of Design that, combined with its long list of authors, no doubt led to the decision to begin immediately in China, circa 1400. For the sake of a narrative that students can quickly enter without being bogged down by questions of method and historiography, this is positive. Given the book’s role as a tool in a still-nascent field and its global view, a more extended introduction of the terms “design,” “decorative arts,” and “applied arts” may be a necessary supplement for teaching. Historicizing the process by which the fine arts were separated out from the rest of material culture would not only help readers better understand the objects discussed but also the question of what is and is not included—particularly as they encounter the necessary but at times confusing appearance of material that may seem more comfortable in the history of architecture, fashion, landscape, or even art (however we wish to differentiate or deny the category). This would also help highlight the particularity of questions demanded by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century objects by figures such as Le Corbusier or Philippe Starck falling under “design”—and the emergence of their flipside, a return to “craft”—that are in many senses qualitatively different in conception than those that had come before.

The most obvious contribution of History of Design is as a tool for survey courses introducing decorative arts and material culture with a global view that provides the necessary organization and condensation of information that only a large, well-orchestrated team could realize. For those who use this book as such a tool there is tremendous potential, however, not simply to impart information about a different body of visual material than is typically taught, but also to use that material in order to reflect back on the categories traditionally sustained by the history of art and architecture. In the end, beyond learning about the individual makers or products of a region in a specific period as given context, it is the broader shift in how visual material is categorized for study in undergraduate and graduate education that a textbook such as this might ideally effect.

David Pullins
PhD candidate, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

David Pullins
Associate Curator, Department of European Painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art