POLITICS: From ‘Soft’ to ‘Hard’ Power? Changing Visions of Diplomacy by Design From 1945 Onwards

Design is of vital importance to a nation. It shows how citizens live, it displays technological advancements; it is how a country defines itself without words. The Diplomacy by Design conference held at the University of Brighton, supported by the Internationalising Design History research cluster, explored a range of cases that demonstrated this idea.

Considering design a tool of government diplomacy from the early Cold War to the present day, the range of delegates delved into the intricacies of all facets of design, from anachronistic Japanese ceramics to misrepresentations within London’s Commonwealth Institute. There were speakers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds; practicing designers, curators, University of Brighton’s own PhD candidates and professors, together creating a discourse on the transnational language that is design. There were many fascinating papers and it would be impossible to explore them all, though a select few will illustrate the connection between diplomacy and design.

Following the Second World War, large architectural projects had negative connotations because they were associated with totalitarian regimes that regularly exerted power through ambitious building. Professor at Ghent University, Fredie Flore, discussed the negotiation of Belgium’s post-war national identity through the interior design of the Belgian Royal Library, a difficult emblem of royalty for a society disenfranchised by power. The Belgian government chose to show design affinity with the UNESCO headquarters, and took inspiration from American institutes to combine tradition with forward thinking modernity. A controversial choice was to commission furniture from De Coene, a furniture firm that collaborated with the Nazis. However, this choice was intentional, to distance their company from the collaboration while encouraging Flemish design within the Royal Library.

Parisian design dominated in fashion throughout the early 20th century. V&A Senior Curator Sonnet Stanfill explored the diplomatic intricacies behind the rise of Italian fashion. Following WWII, Italy benefitted from subsidies from many larger nations, and as the US government invested in the country’s industry to create an ideological ally on European soil, an Italian entrepreneur persuaded American buyers to come to his own home for the first Italian fashion shows. These small displays of design were immensely influential, and increasingly positioned Italian fashion as a rival to Paris, and around 30% cheaper than the collections coming out of Paris. Diplomats and ambassadors became important figures to dress, and were honoured guests to these shows as political figures created an international qualification for the designers.

Internationally renowned designer Michael Thompson raised the point that through design we dare to build an alternate reality, and it is through this alternative reality that governments build their global identity. Particularly when utilised by governments, design becomes a tool to create an artificial national identity, or to convey a false reality to other countries. Nations develop a vocabulary about each other through design; practicality or opulence conveys a country’s rationality or frivolity, and this vocabulary extends to their political agendas. It is impossible to consider design without a bedrock of context. The story of design is deepened through a knowledge of why something was designed; the practical reasons, the ideological reasons, who funded it and who will benefit.

The symposium was completely absorbing and we look forward to future discussions or publications on diplomacy by design.

By Sarah-Mary Geissler

The Verse Staff

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