An Introduction to Design and Culture
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An Introduction to Design and Culture

1900 to the Present

Penny Sparke

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eBook - ePub

An Introduction to Design and Culture

1900 to the Present

Penny Sparke

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About This Book

An Introduction to Design and Culture provides a comprehensive guide to the changing relationships between design and culture from 1900 to the present day with an emphasis on five main themes:

  • Design and consumption
  • Design and technology
  • The design profession
  • Design theory
  • Design and identities.

This fourth edition extends the traditional definition of design as covering product design, furniture design, interior design, fashion design and graphic design to embrace its more recent manifestations, which include service design, user-interface design, co-design, and sustainable design, among others. It also discusses the relationship between design and the new media and the effect of globalisation on design.

Taking a broadly chronological approach, Professor Sparke employs historical methods to show how these themes developed through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century and played a role within modernism, postmodernism and beyond. Over a hundred illustrations are used throughout to demonstrate the breadth of design and examples – among them design in Modern China, the work of Apple Computers Ltd., and design thinking – are used to elaborate key ideas. The new edition remains essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate students of design studies, cultural studies and visual arts.

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Part 1

Consuming modernity

Chapter 1

Although, in the modern sense of the word, the term ‘design’ did not have any common currency until the middle years of the twentieth century, the idea of imbuing objects, images, spaces and environments with aesthetic and functional characteristics has a long history. For centuries, hand-made furnishings, ceramics, glass, metalwork, dress, printed artefacts and objects of transportation have impacted on the lives of members of the upper classes, acting as providers of comfort; markers of propriety; the glue of social, family and gender relations; and the visible signs of fashionableness, taste and social status. From the eighteenth century onwards, mass-produced goods played similar roles, although for many more people.


As a modern concept, design developed as a direct result of the expansion of the market for consumer goods and the democratisation of taste that occurred from the eighteenth century onwards in Great Britain. As material culture influenced the lives of ever larger numbers of people, design became the primary means through which goods attracted a mass market and helped give meaning to people’s everyday lives. In both Europe and the USA, industrialisation began to create new levels of social mobility and an increased access to goods. As increasing numbers of consumers embraced new goods, new classes emerged and the link between design and taste was reinforced. Gradually, also, as industrially produced goods became more accessible, mass-produced designed goods and images took over from the decorative arts the tasks of demarcating social difference and acting as the key messengers of fashionableness and modernity.
There has been much debate about the moment in which modernity first came to be formed by and expressed through material culture. While a few studies have documented conspicuous consumption as a sixteenth-century phenomenon, others have located it in the eighteenth century.1 In the latter context, the ownership of new goods in Britain varied considerably in urban and rural areas.2 In general terms, however, mass demand preceded and helped bring about the changes in manufacturing techniques associated with the era of the Industrial Revolution when certain goods – textiles, ceramics and metal goods in particular – began to play key social and cultural roles for new consumers.
In the nineteenth century the British middle classes expanded in number and their capacity to consume grew significantly.3 With that came shifting tastes which encouraged people to transfer their spending from one set of goods to another. The supply of goods also changed: In the 1860s, for example, more gas cookers became available as a result of a fall in the price of gas. By 1914 new household objects, such as the US Bissell carpet sweeper, came on to the British market. Following its success in the US marketplace the domestic vacuum cleaner made its appearance in Britain at the turn of the century, while, by the first decade of the new century, the bicycle (Figure 1.1) and the automobile had become common appendages of the urban scene. Before visual elaboration became the main appeal of the new goods, technological novelty had played a key role in most consumer choices. Given that many consumers saw new technologies as a threat, however visual strategies were often employed to conceal them and to relieve anxieties.


While Britain was the first country to experience mass consumption, soon afterwards it emerged in the USA and in a number of European countries. The former witnessed a much more dramatic and rapid growth of consumer activity, and a more forward-looking approach towards the development of new, technological products destined for both the public and the private spheres. The growth in gentility that occurred in the USA went hand in hand with the emergence of a sophisticated model of domesticity, the growth of cities and the acquisition of taste.4 The impact of modernity on American society was expressed through consumers’ choices of their material environments.5 The fact that the parlour was subtly transformed into the living room through the new products that entered it, for example, had a modernising effect on its female inhabitants who became increasingly associated with that newly defined space.6


Although the idea of modernity existed before architects and designers had created a visual, material and spatial representation of it, the first signs of a man-made shift in the look of the city itself – London, Paris, Vienna or New York, among others – emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. The impact of, first, gas and, subsequently, of electric lighting transformed the city into a dramatically new kind of night-time environment, while the advent of new retailing outlets, department stores in particular, transformed the act of shopping (Figure 1.2). New objects of transportation, trains and cars among them also contributed to the new experience of everyday urban life.


The new plate-glass store windows in the department stores created a level of spectacle for the city dweller or visitor.7 Seen from the street, the illuminated contents of those public theatres offered a new and dramatic form of popular entertainment that was created by a new visualiser, the show window display artist. His task (they were usually men) was to create a dramatic visual focus. The nineteenth-century store display artists were the forerunners of the inter-war creative artists, known as industrial designers, who went on to transform the appearance of goods themselves. As a result, the overtly commercial role of window displays offered a foretaste of what later came to be called design for industry.
The fascination with the department store emanated from a desire to capture the experience of modernity and to uncover the roots of contemporary consumer and commodity culture.8 The department store was middle-class women’s first encounter with the public sphere and commercial culture. Those established in the second half of the nineteenth century consolidated the modern emphasis on the experience of seeing and, as a consequence, the marginalisation of the other senses. In sharp contrast to the act of buying goods from a market stall, which involved touch and smell as well as sight, the dominance of the eye characterised the modern way of shopping and of interacting with the modern visual and material world.9


Within the public sphere numerous visual, material and environmental markers of modernity – from new objects of transportation, to dress, to posters – were in evidence in the late nineteenth century.10 So novel were the engineered forms of many of the new objects of transportation – bicycles, railway trains, transatlantic liners and early aeroplanes among them – that they took on an iconic significance. Indeed, so powerful was their visual and symbolic impact that, a little later, modernist architects and designers were to take their aesthetic lead from them. The rational kitchen of the 1920s, for example, took its inspiration from Pullman trains where space had been at a premium.11 In the years leading up to 1914, designers began to borrow from one new form to create another. The smooth, aerodynamic forms of early automobiles, for example, were inspired by the bulbous shape of the prows of boats and the fuselages of aeroplanes.12 The new aesthetic thus created owed its existence to engineers but, re-interpreted by designers, it was transformed into a visual marker of modernity.


While the material culture of the public sphere openly embraced modernity, the private sphere was slower to respond. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the domestic interior, especially in those areas of the home where everyday life and its accompanying rituals were enacted (Figure 1.3). In turn-of-the-century USA, for example, the interior furnishing fashion of the day favoured the French eighteenth-century style, understood by a newly rich sector of society as the messenger of good taste.13 Even in that most conservative of contexts, however, modernisation was represented by the presence of the new domestic technologies, such as gas and electric lighting and heating.14 While not every aspect of material culture moved equally quickly towards modernity at the turn of the century, important transformations were taking place that were changing the experience of everyday life for increasing numbers of people.


Dress, or fashion as it had become for the majority of people by the nineteenth century, played an important role in both the private and the public spheres (Figure 1.4). Fashion and modernity developed hand in hand with each other in the urban context, especially in the formation of identities. Men were not, as has frequently been claimed, excluded from the fashion cycle or the world of consumption.15 The widespread idea that men’s dress was standardised at that time was, in fact, formed at a later date under the influence of the modernist belief that men were governed by rationality rather than desire. The logic of the capitalist economy meant that commodities had to evoke desire while simultaneous aligning themselves to the rationality of the production system.16 From the outset design was characterised by that dual alliance. As a process it was rooted within industrial production, but as a set of outputs its primary function was to stimulate desire in the marketplace. Importantly, it was the task of the designer to reconcile that apparent...

Table of contents

Citation styles for An Introduction to Design and Culture
APA 6 Citation
Sparke, P. (2019). An Introduction to Design and Culture (4th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Sparke, Penny. (2019) 2019. An Introduction to Design and Culture. 4th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Sparke, P. (2019) An Introduction to Design and Culture. 4th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sparke, Penny. An Introduction to Design and Culture. 4th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.