Alison J. Clarke will present at the Seminar in Modern Design History on Tuesday, April 5 at 6 pm. Her talk is entitled “Design Anthropology: Industrial Design and the Project of Post-War Development.”

This talk examines the emergence, in 1950s Cold War United States, of a mode of transdisciplinary design that sought to meld anthropological method and aesthetic styling with the overt objective of implementing “design as a political force” (as one Industrial Design magazine feature aptly described it). Ethnographic fieldnotes in hand, cameras swinging jauntily around their necks, corporate industrial designers were parachuted into incongruously low-tech environments across a range of recently decolonized ‘developing’ nations. Prototypical design anthropologists, they operated as a new breed of diplomats-cum-propogandists disseminating what was described as a ‘penetrating program’ of American regeneration policies by wielding a brand of design practice that melded social science to a corporatized vision of how local cultures might be stimulated into increased product consumerism; recolonized as part of the project of Western expansionism. Re-branded in the twenty-first century as design anthropology, this “force” (anthropological interpretation applied to the designing of human behavior) has arguably come to operate as the invisible hand behind multiple facets of global life from health care provision, through to governance and data harnessing. Clarke focuses on the mid-century origins of this phenomenon, acknowledging the legacy of early design anthropology as a part of post-war development policy whose legacy resides in aspects of design practice today.


Professor Alison J. Clarke joined the University of Applied Arts Vienna from the Royal College of Art, London to become chair of the department of Design History and Theory and founding director of the Papanek Foundation: she is convener of the biennial Papanek Symposium exploring the ethics and futures of contemporary design. As a design historian (RCA/V&A, London) and trained social anthropologist (University College London), her research explores the intersection of design, material culture and anthropology. Recipient of major international grants and fellowships (including the Smithsonian; Arts and Humanities Research Council; Austrian Science Fund; Graham Foundation), she acts as an expert advisor and jury member for numerous academic bodies including the Danish Independent Research Council and the German Research Foundation (DfG) program, Clusters of Excellence.

Clarke is a regular media broadcaster and international speaker in the field of design; her monograph Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America was optioned for an Emmy-nominated documentary. Her most recent publications include Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design (MIT Press), Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition, and the co-edited volume Émigré Cultures in Design and Architecture (Bloomsbury). She is co-founder of Home Cultures: The Journal of Architecture, Design and Domestic Space and has recently curated (with Vitra Design Museum, Germany) the international travelling exhibition Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design (2017-2020). Her latest book project, for MIT Press, explores the historical origins and legacies of the intertwining of social science and industrial design.


This event will be held via Zoom. A link will be circulated to registrants by 4 pm on the day of the event. This event will be live with automatic captions.