Sifting the Trash
A History of Design Criticism
How product design criticism has rescued some products from the trash and consigned others to the landfill.
Product design criticism operates at the very brink of the landfill site, salvaging some products with praise but consigning others to its depths through condemnation or indifference. When a designed product's usefulness is past, the public happily discards it to make room for the next new thing. Criticism rarely deals with how a product might be used, or not used, over time; it is more likely to play the enabler, encouraging our addiction to consumption. With Sifting the Trash, Alice Twemlow offers an especially timely reexamination of the history of product design criticism through the metaphors and actualities of the product as imminent junk and the consumer as junkie.
Twemlow explores five key moments over the past sixty years of product design criticism. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, for example, critics including Reyner Banham, Deborah Allen, and Richard Hamilton wrote about the ways people actually used design, and invented a new kind of criticism. At the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, environmental activists protested the design establishment's lack of political engagement. In the 1980s, left-leaning cultural critics introduced ideology to British design criticism. In the 1990s, dueling London exhibits offered alternative views of contemporary design. And in the early 2000s, professional critics were challenged by energetic design bloggers. Through the years, Twemlow shows, critics either sifted the trash and assigned value or attempted to detect, diagnose, and treat the sickness of a consumer society.
Designing happens via critique, but for too long design criticism has been a distinct, weak discourse. Sifting the Trash articulates what robust historically situated design criticism can and must now be.
Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor of Design, University of New South Wales Art and Design, Sydney, Australia
With vivid prose and fresh, compelling illustrations, Sifting the Trash presents a perceptive history of late twentieth-century British and American design criticism. Alice Twemlow uses a case study approach to trace shifts in critical emphasis from moralizing about design, to warning the public about its insidious influence, to promoting an open DIY approach.
Jeffrey L. Meikle, Stiles Professor in American Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Alice Twemlow's stratigraphy of design criticism from its emergence in the 1950s to the present brilliantly exposes and explores the nascent discipline's struggle to balance the demands for product promotion with those for social critique. If Sifting the Trash is a history of the emergence of the design critic qua professional figure, it is no less a nuanced assessment of the role's fragility in an era in which consumers have been recast as curators and critics of a vastly expanded world of products.
Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Faculty Director, metaLAB, Harvard University
remarkable and absorbing
Journal of Design History