Drawing its title from Arts & Crafts designer and romantic socialist William Morris’s post-revolutionary fantasy, News From Nowhere: An Epoch of Rest, this new seminar encouraged students to explore design itself as utopia. From visions of the utopian body (including the politics of fashion, the practice of nudism, and the design and use of prosthetics) to the quest to perfect the designed environment (ranging from the late nineteenth-century Gesamtkunstwerk interior to today’s “tiny house”), and from the paradigm of the garden as earthly paradise to feminist utopias including Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 Herland and the 1990s post-punk Riot Grrrl movement, our study reflected the contradiction inherent in the word’s two Greek roots: both eutopia (“good place”) and utopia (“no place”).

Each week’s theme revealed the challenges of differentiating “utopian” and “eutopian” projects: in other words, those that were purely visionary (like the German Expressionists’ plans for fantastical glass architecture in the Alps) from those that were (like the urban plan outlined in Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden City of Tomorrow) intended as blueprints for real sites of social and cultural change. Was utopia a state of being or a practice—as with the Shakers, who emphasized not just the inherent or artistic aspects of the objects they crafted, but their function in a communal context? And could craft practice itself become its own temporary “good place,” a cloistered, meditative space of physical and mental absorption in which to retreat from the pressures of modern life? Since our discussions highlighted the relation among vision, process, and product, students were encouraged to include hands-on, creative components in their projects. One student researched early twentieth-century suffragette banners and stitched her own appliquéd banner.

Another rich ambivalence that emerged during the course was the unintentional slippage from utopia into dystopia. We engaged in many heated discussions over the distinction, asking how utopias could remain flexible enough so as not to constrain or imprison the user or dweller. At the outset, for instance, the contemporary “tiny house” seemed attractive in its simplicity, ecological sustainability, and communal orientation; however, our research soon revealed how one person’s tiny house might become another’s tiny prison. Our final session was a “Dystopian Movie Night,” which we kicked off by discussing Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” and wrapped up by analyzing the visual and material aspects of clips from dystopian films including Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Blade Runner(1982), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

- Professor Freyja Hartzell

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Bruno Taut. Illustration for an utopian city in the Alps for his book, Alpine Architecture, 1919.
Second-year MA student Sarah Stanley with her appliquéd banner based on early twentieth-century suffragette banners
During “Dystopian Movie Night” students analyzed clips from films including Silent Running (1972).