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Issue #22
December 2019 - October 2020
From Good Design to Design for the Good
Maya Dvash / December 12 2019

The decennial anniversary of Design Museum Holon offers an opportunity to observe the changes that have taken place in the design world and in the role of designers over the last decade. The current exhibition, “State of Extremes,” which pays tribute to the museum's inaugural exhibition, enables us to observe these changes in a museum setting. The museum’s first exhibition sought to reflect “the contemporary state of things”[1] at the time of its opening. By contrast, “State of Extremes” is concerned with the mechanisms underlying increasingly extreme global states, and with the role of design as a mediator of, protester against, and sometimes even a collaborator with these processes.

In recent years, significant changes have taken place in the ways in which educators, designers, critics, viewers, thinkers, and writers describe, define, curate and present design processes and products. Each of these practices contributes to shaping the field, and each deserves in-depth examination in its own right. Yet as the Chief Curator of a design museum, who is daily confronted with questions concerning the collection, documentation, preservation and display of design works, I would like to focus on exploring these changes in a museum context.

The first museum department dedicated to design and architecture was established in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by its founder and director, Alfred Barr. Barr was a visionary who introduced a radical change into American visual culture, expanding the definition of modern art to include, in addition to painting and sculpture, design, architecture, crafts, film, photography and theater – all of which were given a place at the museum. One of the most important exhibitions organized by MoMA’s design department was “Machine Art” (1934). Barr and the exhibition curator, the architect Philip Johnson, were intent on defending the beauty of the everyday, and on enabling viewers to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of industrial objects. The visitors were presented with three floors filled with industrially produced, functional objects such as springs, cables, brooms, kitchen cupboards, pots and pans. These objects were all displayed on pedestals, elevated to the status of sculptures. They were not chosen for their functional value, but rather for their formal beauty, material qualities, and fine finish. The press release for the exhibition noted that for the first time, the museum was ascribing the same degree of importance to the design of the displays as it did to the exhibition itself. [2] Johnson wrapped the walls and ceiling of the 19th-century building with fabric that concealed the decorative elements and created a streamlined space, setting a new standard for the presentation of design objects.

Installation view of the exhibition machine art, 1934, photographic Archive, Moma, New York
Installation view of the exhibition "Machine Art", 1934, Moma, New York. PS. View Source>>

This was not, however, the first time that everyday objects were exhibited in a museum setting with an emphasis on their display and on the overall atmosphere. “Machine Art" was preceded by a series of exhibitions that sought to promote the status of everyday objects, and which, to a large degree, established the conventions of display and the discourse that still dominate the field today. A historical survey of selected design exhibitions, and an examination of the principles underlying contemporary exhibitions, will allow us to identify the changes that have taken place in the field – as reflected by curatorial ideas, exhibition themes, conventions of display, and the meanings attributed to the act of viewership. The following discussion will underscore the importance of the current exhibition in relation to the contemporary discourse on design, while relating it to the international historiography of the field at large.

Just as the exhibition “State of Extremes” enables us to observe the mechanisms that catalyze extreme states, so this article will attempt to identify the mechanisms underlying museum activities, and to explore the contribution of museums to the field of design – as well as their institutional power to commemorate things or relegate them to the realm of oblivion.

Good Design

In 1852, the Great Exhibition – a spectacular world fair curated by Henry Cole, who was to become the first General Superintendent of the Victoria & Albert Museum – opened in London. The exhibition featured outstanding furniture, ceramics and textiles, glassware and works in metal. Alongside the central exhibition, one of the museum galleries, which later came to be known as the “Chamber of Horrors,” featured “unworthy” objects that did not meet the standards of design as defined and promoted by Cole.[3] These included everyday decorative objects such as cloths and wallpaper featuring detailed naturalistic images, which were considered to be in bad taste despite their commercial popularity at the time. [4] Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to observe these objects with the guidance of a catalogue, which explained their unworthiness, as in the following comment: “There has arisen a new species of ornament of the most objectionable kind, which it is desirable at once to deprecate on account of its complete departure from just taste and true principles. This may be called the ‘natural’ or merely imitative style, and it is seen in its worst development in some of the articles of form.”[5] The decision to include in a museum display objects that the curator deemed unworthy was intended to educate both producers and consumers about the advantages of “good design,” in order to encourage British industrialists and the public at large to produce, consume and export superbly designed everyday objects, and thus contribute to both economic and social development. A similar message was later communicated by Cole at the inauguration ceremony of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in the course of which he announced that the museum would be a “schoolroom for everyone” and that his guiding principle was “to instruct the public on all matters relating to good design.”[6]

Furnishing printed cotton fabric which was exhebited as an “unworthy” object in 1852 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, in 1983, as part of the Boilerhouse project, [7] Stephen Bayley organized “Taste: An Exhibition about Values in Design.” Like the Chamber of Horrors, Bailey sought to examine the criteria for good or bad design, yet he did not make do with verbal explanations, choosing instead to represent the difference between the objects in the form of a display. The objects which he defined as representing “good taste” were presented on pedestals, while those he considered to be in “bad taste” were presented on trash bins.[8]

As these examples reveal, the constant preoccupation of exhibition curators with good and bad, right and wrong, high and low, and with questions concerning taste,[9] emblematizes deeper questions concerning the design world’s canon. Canonization represents a process of selecting, judging and qualifying that glorifies certain works and excludes others. The archive, as Jacques Derrida argues in Archive Fever, is not an objective space in which knowledge is preserved as a trustworthy historical continuum, but rather a site of institutional construction.[10] It is governed, circumscribed and limited, producing certain types of discourses and determining who will be the invited and uninvited guests in the realm of collective memory. The archive thus bears responsibility not only towards the past or the present, but above all towards the future. [11] Building on Derrida, one can argue that the museum recreates the past by means of the displayed objects and documentation that it has decided to acquire, interpret and present. This practice influences our understanding of both the past and the present. The act of collecting and displaying, which implicitly involves all those things that were not collected and displayed, establishes a repository of objects for future generations. Much like Derrida’s archive, museums are not objective sites, but rather ones that legitimize certain strains of art or certain cultures, presenting them as superior while camouflaging the political interests underlying this classification system and presenting it as natural and obvious.


Design for the Good

The concern with subjects that exist at a removal from definitions of “good design,” and the shift towards social and political themes, has become increasingly pronounced in recent years, serving as the basis for a significant number of international design fairs and design exhibitions. These exhibitions have featured the works of a new generation of designers, whose talents are harnessed not only to create “good” objects, but more importantly to offer a critique or catalyze significant processes imbued with social value. Parallel to these changes, the experience of visiting the museum, and the role ascribed to exhibition viewers, have also been transformed.

A significant number of events in recent decades exemplify the shift towards a concern with political and social themes, including, for instance, “Design for the 90%,” which was founded in 2007 by the Cooper Hewitt in New York. One of the pioneering events in this context is Design Indaba, an annual design festival that has been taking place since 1994 in Cape Town, South Africa, in an attempt to strengthen Africa and give expression to the knowledge and creativity of local entrepreneurs and designers, in compensation for a long period characterized by little investment in human capital and the exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. In 2009, this festival featured a project by the designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the most prominent representatives of critical and speculative design, titled “Foragers: Designs for an Overpopulated Planet.” According to current estimates, by 2050 the world population is projected to reach 10 billion people. Dunne and Raby’s project explored a possible future in which foraging will be necessary. They also designed a system that would enable human beings to outsource the digestive process, enabling them to consume food from existing reservoirs – such as tough roots and cellulose, which many mammals and birds feed on, and which our ancient ancestors could digest. This is an example of a speculative project centered on offering solutions for an overpopulated world whose resources have been depleted.

Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: No. 1, Foragers from dunne & raby on Vimeo.

The exhibition “Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival," which was featured as part of the 2019 Milan Triennale (curator: Paula Antonelli), was concerned with the fragile relations between human beings and nature. Antonelli presented the concept of restorative design, stating that it “celebrates design’s ability to offer powerful insight into the key issues of our age . . . [and] promotes the importance of creative practices in surveying our species’ bonds with the complex systems in the world, and designing reparations when necessary, through objects, concepts, and new systems.” [12] The exhibition “State of Extremes," which inaugurates Design Museum Holon’s second decade, is similarly concerned with social and political issues from a critical, speculative point of view.

Critical design, as Dunne and Raby explain in their book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, highlights the importance of searching and discovering over that of problem-solving and good design. This approach enables designers to reflect on, comment on, and critique cultural, economic and political situations, while offering new alternatives. Design works defined as “critical” enable us to understand that the manner in which we currently view things is just one way of viewing them, and not necessarily the best one. Critical design is aimed at introducing viewers to a world of new ideas, rather than new objects. In a museum context, it challenges the visitors’ expectations of the museum visit, as well as their view of the museum as an authoritative source of knowledge. In the absence of classically designed material objects, the question that arises is: What is the role of spatial design in such exhibitions? And how has the meaning ascribed to the visitors’ experience changed?

In 1968, a museum in Lille, France, presented the exhibition “The Interior Design of Denmark,” which displayed everyday objects such as glassware and crystal, ceramics and furniture. Two additional exhibitions featured simultaneously at the museum, which were concerned with ancient Egyptian art and with 18th-century painting, exhibited the artworks in a conventional manner, hanging on white walls alongside simple labels. The documentation included in the book The Love of the Art: European Art Museums and Their Public reveals that each of the exhibition spaces was characterized by a distinct atmosphere. Whereas the spaces of the traditional exhibitions were quiet and the visitors moved through them in an orderly manner, at the design exhibition, “amongst the afternoon crowds, one is rather deafened by the loud conversations, the objects being moved and scraping on the tiles, and the children running about while their parents sharply call them to order . . . . The visitors are touching everything, trying out the armchairs, lifting up the cushions on the sofas, bending down to look under the tables. They are tapping against wood or metal with their fingers to see what things are made of and feeling the weight of the cutlery.” [13] The book’s authors ascribed this behavior first and foremost to the design of the exhibition space, which resembled the atmosphere of “a department store,” and provoked criticism on the part of the museum’s more conservative visitors.

Whereas the behavior described at the exhibition “The Interior Design of Denmark" was viewed at the time with some resentment, today one can note a change in the attitude of scholars, writers, curators and institutions towards active spectatorship. In the past, touching, examining and interacting with elements in the exhibition was perceived as an act of sacrilege; today, by contrast, such behaviors are viewed as a critique or a form of protest, which raises questions both about the displays themselves and about the institution displaying them.

In her article “Smuggling: An Embodied Criticality,” Irit Rogoff distinguishes between “criticism” – a critical analysis that attempts to culturally embody power relations –and criticality, which does not distinguish between researchers and the subjects of their research, and attends to the viewers as a central component of critical practice. [14] Rogoff suggests a practice in which meaning is not established in advance, but rather created through a performative event taking place in the present moment. This emphasis on possibility and potential enables us to treat the works on display as relative, rather than absolute truths – as practices that do not determine meaning in advance, but rather create it through a performative event unfolding in the present. Much like Dunne and Raby’s claim concerning critical design, which offers a range of alternatives to reality, this practice offers visitors a space that contains multiple points of view and experiences, which together create a collective experience. This practice positions the subject, or museum visitors, in a central role, and does away with the apparent separation between them and the knowledge they acquire. Criticality, according to Rogoff, “is precisely in the operations of recognizing the limitations of one's thought for one does not learn something new until one unlearns something old, otherwise one is simply adding information rather than rethinking a structure.” [15]

Design exhibitions are a mirror image of trends and processes unfolding in the design field at a given moment in time, and could be likened to a display window offering a glimpse of this field to the uninitiated. The shift from a curatorial approach focused on aesthetic goodness to one concerned on the goodness of values reflects the shift of designers from a concern with objects to a concern with action. Another expression of a curatorial shift that reflects a change in the design field is that from displays in sterile spaces, which regiment the movements of solitary viewers, to experiential displays that involve and awaken the senses, and which transform the viewers into an active collective. This shift reflects the importance ascribed, at the present time, to work processes over final products, while also underscoring the power of collaboration and of multiple opinions and voices.

These concerns have all been addressed in “State of Extremes," which invites viewers to wander, participate and experience the works on display. The classical white walls have been replaced by reflective aluminum walls that create a dynamic experience of walking through the space. The works on display operate, for the most part, in the field of speculative and critical design, and shatter the limits of the medium. Their presentation on tables invites the viewers to assemble around them for discussions, conversations, and an exchange of ideas.

Visitors at the exhibition State of Extremes. Photo: Eran Levi
Visitors at the exhibition State of Extremes. Photo: Eran Levi

Yet as we attend to this exhibition’s modes of display, and to the many changes that have taken place in the design world over the past ten years, we stand at the turn of a new decade. Considering the innovations ahead, what form will the connection between the design world and the museum take in the coming decade?


[1] Barbara Bloemink “Foreword,” in The State of Things: Design and the 21st Century (Design Museum Holon, 2010), 6.

[2] Unknown, “Philip Johnson discussing the 1934 exhibition Machine Art.” Accessed October 20, 2019. https://www.moma.org/ research-and-learning/ archives/archiveshighlights- 10-1991.

[3] “Building the Museum.” Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www. vam.ac.uk/articles/ building-the-museum.

[4] Suga Yasuko, "Designing the Morality of Consumption: ‘Chamber of Horrors’ at the Museum of Ornamental Art, 1852–53," Design Issues 20, no. 4 (2004), 46. http:// www.jstor.org/ stable/1512001

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] “Building the Museum,” Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www. vam.ac.uk/articles/ building-the-museum. 

[7] An initiative of the foundation established by Terence Conran to elevate the level of the discourse on design and encourage initiatives by students, designers and producers. The foundation later served as the basis for the Design Museum in London. See Stephen Bayley, “The Boilerhouse Project,” International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 2, no. 2 (1983): 153–158.

[8] Jana Scholze, “Ghosts and Dancers: Immaterials and the Museum,” in Liz Farelly and Joanna Weddell, eds., Design Objects and the Museum (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016),

[9] Additional examples of design exhibitions and initiatives promoting “good design” can be found from the 1930s to the 1950s. Alongside its major exhibitions, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched a program for the promotion of “good design” that included competitions, traveling exhibitions, and collaborations with various companies, and whose explicit aim was to teach consumers how to exercise better judgment when acquiring objects. Additionally, the exhibition series featured in 1950–1955, and titled “Good Design,” presented collaborations between well-known designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, and between high-ranking manufacturers, with the explicit aim of “battling bad design.”

[10] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[11] Jana Scholze, “Ghosts and Dancers: Immaterials and the Museum,” 68.

[12] See http://www. brokennature.org/

[13] The book presents a study conducted by the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, which examined the profile of visitors to European museums in 1968. See Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel with Dominique Schnapper, The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 50.

[14] Boaz Levin, “The Advent of Criticality,” Erev Rav, in Hebrew. Accessed October 21, 2019. https:// www.erev-rav.com/ archives/6242.

[15] Irit Rogoff, “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality.” Accessed October 21, 2019. EIPCP, http://eipcp.net/ transversal/0806/ rogoff1/en/print.html.

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