Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2021
Justus Nieland Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 424 pp.; 20 color ills.; 124 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9781517902056)

By the mid-twentieth century, designers were no longer autonomous creators of autonomous objects. Through experimentation with film and multimedia and by transcending disciplinary boundaries, they became “manager[s] of epochal change” (11) in the technoscientific and social environments of the postwar world. Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era presents a history of midcentury media practice, pedagogy, and administration, looked at through the lens of the multimedia experiments of designer couple Charles and Ray Eames and their designing, filming, and knowledge-producing contemporaries. In their work, happiness was a mode of production that built toward a democratic life. Instead of promising consumers a “good life” filled with designed objects, they introduced citizens to methods of working with objects and images. Rather than seeing midcentury design as a product of naive happiness and unsustainability, Justus Nieland, professor of film studies in the Department of English at Michigan State University, considers it a “modernist achievement of technique, media, and their transdisciplinary conceptual glue—communication—whose scenes of administration and management we have yet to appreciate fully” (36). In six chapters and one coda, he navigates these scenes to understand how the demands of the postwar world created conditions in which designers were able to develop their interdisciplinary practice, and to detect how this practice transformed modernism’s sensory politics.

Nieland “scales” the scales of postwar life and administration at which midcentury designers were active—ascending from the human scale and the spaces of the home, to the global scale and the terrain of international communication. To grasp the relationships between the work of designers in expanded media environments and how information and culture came to be managed through these environments, he combines historical research and media theory, cultural inquiry and political philosophy. He probes diverse thinkers—from Hannah Arendt to Reyner Banham, from Marshall McLuhan to Raymond Williams, and from Lauren Berlant to Raymond Bellour—as he gives a rigorously researched account of the modernist, designer-driven media practice that developed in the context of postwar America and the contributions it made to the fashioning of democratic life. The account not only addresses the past; it speaks to the neoliberal present. The postwar media environments Nieland interrogates shaped how institutions, government, and industry jointly managed a culture based on communication and information: through the domestication of media. Nieland suggests that, to understand the significance of that domestication, we have to begin by looking at a chair—a “revolutionary medium” (38)—and its media environment, which foreshadowed our contemporary condition of technological transformation and abundance of information.

“Happy Furniture: On the Media Environments of the Eames Chair” starts with this chair—both a modular, manufacturable furniture item and an interface connecting humans and technology—and looks at how the Eameses depicted the conditions for a happy life in their furniture films (communication experiments, television films, and instructional shorts created for Herman Miller furniture company). These films should be understood “as a kind of pedagogy of midcentury lifestyle” (39), as they propose a mode of technophilic and humane production. The chair, “a node in technical networks” (89), was a physical object and an image, and the Eameses connected their stories about its materiality to the “environmental aspirations of postwar aesthetic production” (89). This indicates a shift from the production of objects to the creation of situations with the designer as part of a network of people and institutions that concentrated on how information is managed. “The Scale Is the World: Designer Pedagogy and Expanded Cinema” expands the situation of media pedagogy. The Eameses and fellow designers (Buckminster Fuller, George Nelson) developed lectures and informed curricula using the cinematic apparatus flexibly, in the spirit of postwar Bildung and in search of a redefinition of citizenship. This “scalar fluidity” (138) forced moving-image technologies beyond their traditional contexts; the experience of the world was reshaped, domains of awareness and perception rescaled.

The following two chapters depict the midcentury as a period of mingling, with intellectuals, governments, and corporations employing media to “manage” postwar citizens. Here, designers’ ideas about democratic life became entangled with the intentions of a larger postwar technocracy. “Management Cinema: Film, Communication, and Postwar World Making in Aspen” looks at the moving-image techniques employed at “the cultural ground zero of a corporate-sponsored humanism” (149), the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) in the 1950s, where film became “a technology of postwar management” (147) that put the designer in charge. The inquiry draws out a specific “administration of culture” (195) that began receiving scrutiny amid the countercultural movement of the 1960s, as described in “Memories of Overdevelopment: The Vision Conferences and the Fate of Environmental Design.” Here, Nieland looks at the 1965 and 1967 Vision conferences, organized by graphic designer Will Burtin, and uncovers twisted midcentury narratives about development and the environment. These narratives were central to the multimedia experiments of the conferences, which imagined technology-driven, managed growth toward a nonexploitative world. Yet failures to create conditions for fair growth manifested globally and were inevitably reflected in the conference debates, so Vision 1967 spoke to a “pervasive unhappiness with . . . technical interventions in communication and human evolution” (245).

This unhappiness developed out of a broader social and environmental awareness. Designers were increasingly called out on their ecological responsibilities, and in the domain of film, shifts occurred with the Third Cinema movement and the emergence of the alternative voices of postcolonial filmmakers. Nieland does not immediately pursue this unhappiness and the related limitations of the managerial approach to world-making. They are only briefly mentioned, and questions readers may have about the extent to which midcentury design responded to growing critiques are left to linger. The last two chapters of the book focus on what Nieland calls “designer film theory” and designers’ approach to film as a technique of happiness. The chapters differ in approach from the rest of the book as they are structured in the form of dialogues between designer film theory and classical film theory—an attempt to make sense of designers’ “therapeutic investments” (34) in, and conceptual engagement with, film. Accordingly, and despite lingering questions about unhappiness, the sections provide a wealth of insight as they detail the largely neglected realm of designer film theory. They also present ways of contextualizing film at midcentury and introduce a political modernism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Designer Film Theory: Techniques of Happiness” maneuvers in a moment when film studies had just been established as its own discipline and designers expanded film across disciplines. Different from classical film theory, designer film theory was heterogeneous and tapped into consumption, pedagogy, and knowledge production. Happiness required novel ways of living and learning through a “technophilic humanism” (248) that could deal with a sensory apparatus shaped by new approaches to communication, information, and technology. Nieland highlights designers László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes, whose intellectual work on creativity and the senses intersects with the creative cinematography of filmmaker and theorist Maya Deren. “Designer Film Theory II: Media Pedagogy and Modernist Information Aesthetics” brings together Rudolf Arnheim’s classical film theory and the pedagogy of designer Tomás Maldonado, which developed during the latter’s tenure at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm, Germany. Embedded in Arnheim’s critique of information theory was a rejection of the utopian visions of midcentury technocracy, which spoke to Maldonado’s concerns about flawed managerial thinking as well as to a political modernism informed by the aesthetic politics and media pedagogy of the HfG. Maldonado’s critique of the capitalist ideologies of the HfG, his call for “critical ecological consciousness” (318), and his aspirations for a film theory that strengthens designers’ sense of responsibility also addressed unhappiness.

With these two chapters, the book extends its cultural history of midcentury media environments with an intellectual history of film theory and pedagogy. The chapters are crafted with remarkable rigor, but their theoretical density begs for a conclusion that returns to the Eameses and their chair—as does the book’s subtitle. The coda, “The Norton Chair, Circa 1970: Trilling or Eames?,” responds in part. It returns to Charles Eames in particular, but describes a different kind of chair in a dialogic finale set at a moment of unhappiness, illustrated with a long-expected account of the contested IDCA 1970, which, for the relevance of its escalating events, deserved more prominence. In the “chair”—that is, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard University, which Charles Eames accepted in 1970—Nieland sees opportunity for intellectual dialogue with the preceding Norton chair, literary critic Lionel Trilling. Both Trilling and Eames responded to the affective conditions of their time, but Trilling revealed a skepticism about liberal management while Eames, in his signature media-filled lectures, did not. Eames defended the need for organization in the “technical century” (348) but, pointing at problems of discordant values and of the centralization of power, explained that it required a fully democratic distribution of technical and institutional resources.

Throughout this probe into designers’ media experiments and their involvement in the organization of culture, Nieland employs his own organizational techniques, engaging midcentury discourses and reckonings with technology and information, with the postwar debate and the neoliberal present. Accordingly, the book exposes its own boundary-crossing composite, manifesting methodological innovation. As an intellectual history, Happiness by Design presents an exhaustive account of midcentury modernism and will no doubt be an important reference for anyone working on postwar design or film. As a cultural history, it leaves one factor unaddressed: the media experiences of postwar citizens and their ambitions to live democratic lives.

Anneke Coppoolse
Assistant Professor, Visual Communication Design, College of Fine Arts, Hongik University