The history of design: from prehistory to the birth of industrial design
The word “design” means design and represents the logical solution to a problem. It is a word that has always been part of man, since prehistoric times when man designed traps to capture animals. However, modern design, as we know it today, began during the first Universal Exhibition in London in 1851, organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert.
Henry Cole, an English designer and theorist of nascent industrial design, used the term “designer” for the first time during the first Universal Exhibition. The event marked the beginning of a new way of conceiving design, in which art and science were united to create functional and useful objects.
The exhibition aimed to directly compare national productions and to compare different industrial models. It was in this context that Cole recognized the need for a new figure able to give a correct configuration to objects, without having to disguise them, taking objects from the past.
During the exhibition, visitors had the opportunity to admire many innovative inventions, including Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber, Russell Crampton’s locomotive, Colt’s weapons, and Adolphe Sax’s wind instrument. These objects showed a completely new and functional design, which differed from previous productions.
Henry Cole wanted the exhibition to be flanked by a museum to design schools, through which to present the best technical achievements. In this way, the student but also the normal visitor could understand the present and past reality in order to create a better future.
Between 1849 and 1853, Henry Cole published the “Journal of Design and Manufactures”, a magazine that became a voice for his positions. In his article, Cole spoke of the concept of “art manufacturer” or fabricator artist, a definition that placed in an equal position aesthetic art and practical activity. In addition, Cole focused on the importance of utility and functionality, which today are the guiding aspects of the project.
Opposition to Henry Cole
Not everyone accepted Cole’s ideas. John Ruskin, Augustus Welby, and William Morris opposed it for social reasons, arguing that workers in factories were treated as semi-slaves. They also indicated that a machine-made product was extremely inferior to a handcrafted product. William Morris founded his own craft cooperative dedicated to high-quality creations, which had considerable influence and renewed the concept of design throughout Europe.
The history of design, therefore, has deep roots in prehistory, but it is only in the nineteenth century that it begins.