The Idea of Design and the Theory of Popular Culture

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:30
Oral Presentation
Ronald JACOBS, University of Albany, USA
Eleanor TOWNSLEY, Mount Holyoke College, USA
Theories about modern popular culture tend to be divided between two general approaches – one that emphasizes ideology and structural domination; and the other that emphasizes agency, active audiences, and resistances. But these two approaches ignore the mediating role that intellectuals and critics play in the creation of objects and the circulation of meanings about those objects. Furthermore, they ignore one of the most important influences that has shaped the creation and the meaning of popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: the idea of design. Examining the writings of three iconic architects of the mid-twentieth century – Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), and Walter Gropius, we show how creative intellectuals were actively trying to create meaningfulness in the production of everyday objects. They saw design as a key resource for addressing the challenges of modern society. The utopian impulse of their ideas was denounced by social critics and post-modern architects during the 1970s and 1980s, mainly in response to the failures of modernist public housing projects. But the idea of design – linked to the iconic power of the design intellectual – is pervasive in the everyday objects that populate the domestic sphere and pervade popular culture.