Looking Good? Aesthetics and Iconicity in Design History
If Kant associated aesthetics with the senses, and the scholarship of aesthetics has foregrounded taste and value, or beauty, then an aesthetic approach to design history can be understood as privileging the visual. The history of design is rich in examples of work which may be harnessed to a view of design practice as an aesthetic enterprise. This is particularly foregrounded in an approach that equates the history of design with a history of styles in which, for example, neoclassicism is followed by Gothic, or Gothick, and then a flurry of Victorian eclecticism including Gothic revival, Neo-Gothic, and the Arts and Crafts Movement and its variation, followed by the various modern ‘isms’.

However, it is also seen in the recent fashion for icon design in mass and popular consumer culture. By no means reserved for design, today the terms ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’ are applied remarkably liberally to describe a surprisingly wide range of things, from the music of Beethoven’s 5th symphony to the fragrance of Chanel No. 5. Both of these things—a symphony and a scent—may be described, to some extent, as designed, but iconicity is perceived not only in objects, images, sounds and scents which are manufactured. It is a status also accorded to natural phenomena, such as the pumpkin, which are rendered iconic not through designers’ intentions, but through their consumption (both literal and symbolic) and mediation.

Anyone wishing to understand the iconic by looking at the various phenomena to which the label is applied would have difficulty finding some common characteristics in their physical properties, although it is instructive to consider some shared formal properties of design icons and it is possible to understand more about iconicity, the quality of being iconic, by referring to the history of icons. This lecture briefly reviews the roots of iconicity in design and then proposes the identifying characteristics shared by religious icons and design icons alike as functions of reception: representativeness, recognition and reverence. It explores the words ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’ and the processes of iconization by which iconicity in design is conferred before examining some case studies of iconic design which are representative of wider issues in design discourse, taken from Lees-Maffei’s forthcoming edited book Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things (Bloomsbury Academic, April 2014).

Dr Grace Lees-Maffei is Reader in Design History in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire where she coordinates the TVAD Research Group in its work on relationships between text, narrative and image and Visiting Professor for the MA Design Cultures at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Grace’s research centres upon mediation as a focus in design history. Her work is available in Design at Home: Domestic Advice Literature in the UK and the US since 1945 (Routledge, 2013), Made in Italy: Rethinking a Century of Italian Design co-edited with Kjetil Fallan (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), Writing Design: Words and Objects (Berg, 2011) and The Design History Reader co-edited with Rebecca Houze (Berg, 2010) and in journals including Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Women’s History Review, Modern Italy and the Journal of Design History. Forthcoming titles include Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context: An Introduction co-authored with Nicolas P. Maffei (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) and Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization co-edited with Kjetil Fallan (Berghahn, 2016). Dr Lees-Maffei is Managing Editor of the Journal of Design History, a member of the Peer Review College of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Advisory Board member for The Poster.

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