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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Theory > Overview

This section of the site introduces you to two contrasting theoretical positions. Cultural theorists attempt to construct overarching rules that are able to explain the meanings and reasons behind cultural activity. These theories can also be used as a template for future action – rather like a manifesto. As historical conditions change, so do theoretical positions, and although dominant theories can become very influential, there is rarely complete agreement over their validity. The world of theory is rather like a battleground, with various academics marshalling evidence for their own point of view.

For the purposes of this module we are going to examine Modernism and Postmodernism, two schools of thought that dominated the twentieth century. As well as helping you to understand the relationship between these two important standpoints, at the end of this module you should also be able to make connections between these changing ideas and the changes in cultural practice they are intended to reflect. However, as these are enormously complex theoretical areas, it is important that you pursue further reading in the avenues that interest you and that are relevant to your studio practice.

The bibliography below provides a starting point for your reading with the annotations helping you to locate the various areas dealt with by the authors.

Judy Attfield, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, Berg, Oxford, 2000

Attfield takes the perspective of social anthropologist, and treats design activity as an element of ‘material culture’. Designed objects are placed firmly in the context of social relations with analysis of the way their meaning is derived from these interactions.

Malcolm Barnard, Fashion as Communication, Routledge, London, 1996

Although aimed primarily at fashion students, Barnard’s review of communication theory and its relationship to the designed object is accessible and relevant to all students of design.

Robert Bocock, Consumption, Routledge, London, 1993

Bocock provides an overview of the dominant theories of consumption, and provides an excellent starting point for further reading on the subject.

Mary Douglas, Thought Styles: Critical Essays On Good Taste, Sage Publications, London, 1996

Douglas is a Social Anthropologist who has made extensive studies of the meaning of consumption. Thought Styles is a series of essays that focus on how lifestyles reflect inner personalities and determine how we behave as consumers.

Paul du Gay, Doing Cultural Studies; The Story of the Sony Walkman, Sage Publications, London, 1997

Focusing on the Sony Walkman, Doing Cultural Studies demonstrates how an everyday artifact can be used as a vehicle for understanding cultural theory.

Paul Greenhalgh (ed), Modernism in Design, Reaktion Books, London, 1990

A compilation of essays reviewing the impact of Modernism internationally. The introduction is a particularly succinct account of the key features of the Modern Movement.

Peter Lloyd Jones, Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1991

An accessible and wide ranging survey of the theories associated with taste, particularly in relation to design. Good introductions to semiotics and communication theory, and the sociology of design.

Celia Lury, Consumer Culture, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996

Lury provides a contemporary slant on theories of consumption taking on many issues related to the marketing and branding of products. She illustrates the material with a good range of topical examples from recent advertising and media.

Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1993

One of many overviews of postmodern theory, tackling the ideas of the main theorists in the field, including Baudrillard, Lyotard, et al.

John Thackara (ed.), Design After Modernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 1988

A compilation of essays specifically related to different aspects of postmodern design, from the crafts through to architecture and new technology. A good indicator of the variety of viewpoints held on the subject.