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things 1
winter 1994

In Place of a Manifesto

'Jérôme and Sylvie did not quite believe that you could go into battle for a chesterfield settee. But that was all the same the banner under which they would have enlisted most readily.'

Georges Perec's novella Things, published in 1965, bears the subtitle, 'A Story of the 1960s'. Through the lives of its central characters, Jérôme and Sylvie, it traces how affluent young Parisians sought to define their place in the world through the range of consumer and cultural goods newly available in post-war France. 

History is always, and properly, informed ultimately by the need to understand the present. And so the young discipline of design history was profoundly influenced by another decade of high consumption, the 1980s. The importance that decade accorded the world of material things was reflected in a shift away from the production-oriented discourse of modernism and towards a broader engagement with the ways in which objects can open up an understanding of the past. 

The writings in these pages reflect a great many individual approaches and viewpoints. But they are united, broadly, by an understanding that design history must be, first and last, history. Our work is motivated by a desire to understand the past through its objects, and is subject to the same requirements of rigour as any other kind of historical enquiry. We believe that, as historians, it is our duty to submit our sources to the widest range of questioning in the fullest spirit of human sympathy; and we do so with an awareness of our limitations, for our methods can never lead us to all we wish grasp. We are against the calcifying tendencies of the academy, and for a way of writing history that makes it relationship with its sources, as well as its starting points and its argumentation, explicitly clear. The past cannot supply direct lessons for models for the present; we believe, instead, that it is part of the work of the historian to make it available as a frame of reference that can inform the choices and alternatives that confront us all, as both designers and users. 

Mindful of its connections with two great British institutions that owe their existence to the desire to improve design - the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art - things declares its engagement with the debates concerning good design. But design must not - as it has so often - be made to stand in for larger social ills: design alone cannot solve the problems of the world, But neither can we, as historians, content ourselves with too narrow a focus on the design process. We believe that it is only by looking at t he world of things as a whole - not only beautiful ones; and not only their making, but also their buying and their selling, their wanting and their using - that the road can be opened up for a meaningful debate on the nature of good design. 

Georges Perec's novella is far from being a condemnation of consumer capitalism. There is, nevertheless, a moment when Jérôme and Sylvie's search for happiness begins to falter. Their success has been their failure; the material, social and cultural goods around which they have built their lives no longer satisfy them. 'Some evenings, they finally grasped that their fine friendships, their almost hermetic language, their private jokes this shared work, shared language, the common gestures they had made up, were based on nothing: theirs was a shrunken universe, a world running out of steam, opening onto nothing... Puns, boozing, walks in the woods, dinner parties, endless discussions about films, plans, gossip had long stood in for adventure, history and truth.' 

This journal is not against puns, boozing, or dinner parties; it is certainly not against gossip. But, self-evidently, it is for history; and truth, and adventure. 

Welcome to things

things 1, winter 1994-1995

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