Focus Scientific Research

Professionalisation and its Discontents: Design, 1930-1980

Project lead: Leah Armstrong
Theory and History of Design
Duration: 01.12.2019 - 30.11.2022
Austrian Science Fund (FWF): V 740 Richter-Programm (inkl. Richter-PEEK)
‘Professionalisation and its Discontents: Design, 1930-1980’ examines the precarious position of design, a ‘new profession’ formed in the middle of the twentieth century, in the wider context of professionalisation, 1930-1980. Moving beyond institutional accounts of professionalisation, the project will conduct case study analysis to open up a distinctive new history of the designer as a ‘creative professional’, mediating, negotiating and re-inventing the limits, values and boundaries of professional identity in the second half of the twentieth century. Showing professionalisation to be in a constant state of ‘design’, the research will offer fresh insights from gender and transnational perspectives to reflect more broadly on the value of professional identity in a post-professional, post-industrial society.
Finding insufficiencies in the structuralist approach to professionalisation, traditionally led by organisational archives and focused on the activities of ‘pioneering’ men, this project will combine new empirical research and sociological theory to develop a flexible understanding of how the profession was ‘designed’ as a social practice through a process of interaction, negotiation and emulation between genders and national identities. The research study will comprise a detailed investigation across design archives in Britain, America, Austria and Australia, to illuminate the co-construction of new working lifestyles, models and behaviours that would coalesce in the identity of the Consultant Designer and form the basis for what would subsequently be known as the ‘creative professional’. Representations of the designer in popular culture, through fashion and lifestyle media, photography, television and film, will be explored alongside personal and professional correspondence between Consultant Designers practicing internationally.
The representation and identity of the Consultant Designer, a role invented specifically to enhance the status of the profession internationally, will form a lens through which to capture the identity of the designer as a professional intermediary, negotiating the distance between production and consumption, labour and leisure to generate a compelling new image and identity for ‘creative work’. Newly identified and previously unseen material in the archive of Viennese Design Consultant Carl Auböck (Austria) will be cross-examined in relation to contemporaneous designers Gaby Schreiber (Britain), Belle Kogan (US), Fred Ward (Australia) and others. Drilling deeper into the professional identity of the designer as a ‘new professional’, it will use a comparative approach to reveal the interactions, emulations and negotiations between these previously discrete histories.
Several original outputs will make a contribution to international scholarship in the fields of design history and the sociology of work and the research will be published as the applicant’s first monograph. This, in combination with collaborative workshops and seminar activities, will play a crucial role in developing her career in the application for Habilitation in the department of Design History and Theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Photo: Gaby Schreiber, Consultant Designer, 1919-1991, Photographer: Gee & Wilson, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives. Original image
reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-S-16-1