An Era of Design

dr Agata Szydłowska

The post-war decades brought about a flourishing of initiatives organized by designers for designers. Associations and other organizations bringing together designers started springing up like mushrooms in each country, albeit in slightly different contexts and with different needs in mind. West Germany worked on cultivating the image of a modern, technologically advanced nation, and design was one of the tools to showcase the successful reinvention of postwar West Germany. On the other hand, the British were seeking to adopt a coherent image and establish a new tradition of national design that would be recognizable on the world stage. Above all, however, these initiatives were driven by common goals. It was about setting professional standards and elevating the prestige of designers as key members of society. Design activists dreamed of introducing design into the prestigious group of so- called trusted professions, alongside architects, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and doctors, which are associated with established professional standards.

It wasn't just about prestige. Self-organising within industry associations, which upheld standards by carefully selecting members for whom the organization vouched, was one element of a broader modernization project. It was driven by a specific vision of what design is, or rather, what good design is. This rational practice, based on an objective, scientific, and technological foundation, aimed to lead societies towards progress by distancing itself from superficial styling, following trends and market whims, as well as individual and crafts-based production.

This was, like all of modernity, an international project. In 1957, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) was formed as an umbrella institution, a nongovernmental global advocate for design as a profession. Its goals included the development of national and international exchange and networks of teaching practices in higher education. The Association of Industrial Designers, formed in Poland on the international wave of professionalization, joined ICSID just two years after its founding in 1963. Andrzej Pawłowski, AID's co-founder, became its member of the board, later vice president and president. In this way, this grassroots association, a rarity in centralized People's Republic of Poland, gained international recognition, even on the other side of the iron curtain. Interestingly, inspiration flowed in both directions, and for left-leaning designers from the West, Pawłowski's alternative, non-market-focused design concepts proved to be extremely refreshing.

Similar goals drove the creation of post-war design competitions and reviews, often organized by the associations themselves. The main aim was to raise standards and set norms for what constitutes good design and what does not.

This was most strongly pronounced in the United States, where since 1950, the Museum of Modern Art in New York awarded the “Good Design” label to products that met strict criteria of functionality and aesthetics in accordance with the modernism promoted by MoMA. A similar motto, “Gute Form”, was introduced in Germany by Max Bill, who published a book under the same title in 1952. Since 1969, the German federal government has presented an award bearing the same name. In this context, the “Good Design” competition, established much later in 1993, seems to continue this same line of thought. It aims to select and present products recognized as good, with quality strictly defined and linked to adhering to modern principles of functionality, aesthetics, the compatibility between form and technology, economic rationality, and social usefulness.

As you can see, the formation of the Association of Industrial Designers in 1963 and the “Good Design” competition thirty years later, in a completely different economic and social reality, are part of a broad, international modernization project. Its goal was to promote high standards for both products and professional practice, while elevating the prestige of the designer profession, whose members were to become more than just stylists but key specialists contributing to the foundations of modern society.
dr Agata Szydłowska
Researcher, author, curator