Towards a theory of performative design : writing about design and designers since 1990

Williams, Gareth Richard (2016) Towards a theory of performative design : writing about design and designers since 1990. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


Three monographs and two chapters in edited volumes are submitted for this PhD by Publication. All cover aspects of contemporary design practice since about 1990 in the areas of furniture and related product design, ranging from industrial mass-production to craft and so-called ‘design art’. The introduction explores the context in which these works were written and published and establishes the author as a non-designer design expert, with knowledge about design practice but without design skill. This special position was established by my role as a curator of contemporary design in a national museum collection, and later as an academic. I examine how my perspective affected the ways in which I could write about design; as a privileged ‘gatekeeper’ to the domain of contemporary design practice, as a design historian, as a curator with a duty to interpret my subject for a broad non-specialist public, and as a specialist tutor of student designers. Therefore the main thrust of the PhD is established, which questions how to write about contemporary design practice. The methodologies for each published work are examined. Although they share common ground in a broad consideration of designers’ practices since about 1990 and the reception of their works by various markets, each was written from its own perspective. These vary from an emphasis on the design industry and its machinations, to a consideration of how the contemporary art market’s values have affected the production and distribution of one-off and limited edition design works, to a study focusing on the designers themselves and how their works are sometimes co-opted as agents of cultural diplomacy. Further reflection and theorizing about these works draws upon Actor Network Theory to establish structural relations between the subjects of the works – the contemporary designers – and myself as a non-partisan, but nevertheless complicit, commentator. With Nigel Whiteley and Kenneth Ames I seek to repudiate the constraints of ‘design history’, preferring a more plural and encompassing category of ‘design studies’ where diverse theoretical and structural influences can be brought to bear on writing about design. To this end, I propose a new theory of Performative Design, drawing on the linguistic ‘speech acts’ of J.L. Austin and John Searle, and the identity politics of Judith Butler, as a mechanism or lens through which we can interpret certain contemporary design practices.

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