«Som en gjesteforsker i Norge» or Being a Visiting PhD Fellow in Norway

This fall I had the great honour to be a Visiting PhD Fellow at the University of Oslo for two month. Thanks to Professor Kjetil Fallan – one of the leading design historians – the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art, and Ideas offered me the opportunity to come to the capital city of Norway.

Kjetil Fallan is a Norwegian professor of design history, e.g. editorial board member of the Journal of Design History and the Design and Culture as well as an author of many publications about design history. His books, papers, and presentations are very inspiring for me and I used a lot of his publications in my PhD thesis. For example his last publications from this year are Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization and Designing Modern Norway: A History of Design Discourse, which I used in chapter on globalised design. I met Fallan at the workshop “Environmental Histories of Design” in the summer 2015 at the Rachel-Carson-Center in Munich. This intensive workshop about sustainability in design history was really inspiring for me (see my blogpost about the workshop). I think the same will be for the annual conference of the Design History Society, which will be held 2017 in Oslo. The title is “Making and Unmaking the Environment” and is organised by Kjetil and his team.

Against the background that I had studied twice abroad with a lot of good experiences, it was obvious for me to visit another university outside of Germany during the PhD project. And it was also consistent to combine this with writing my chapter about the West German Industrial Designers in a globalised world. Because of Fallan’s high quality research, as well as Norwegians‘ high fluency in English, I decided to apply for a research fellowship in Oslo. And happily, the department at the UiO were willing to invite me and offered me working space for two month.

Getting financial support for my Norway stay was also possible. Thanks to the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, which supports my PhD project since 2014, it was not too complicated to get extra money for my visit. If this way would not be successful, there were also a possibility for Germans to apply at the Willy-Brandt-Foundation in Oslo, because they are also supporting academic exchanges for researchers. It would also be possible to apply for a short visit scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service.

Beside the whole organisation of my visit in Oslo, there was one detail I was really astonished about in a positive manner. All correspondence, contracts, and inquiries were in a digital form. Furthermore my impression was that everything went on quite fast. For example “digital” and “fast” are not adjectives I would use for the German bureaucracy, especially at universities. That is a good thing to show, that in Germany e.g. a lot of time and energy is invested in discussions on a digital life – and in Norway many things are made more pragmatic in this point. Or to reflect one self and use the word from an interview with foreigners in Germany: “Paper in Germany is valued like God”.

The art history section, where Professor Kjetil Fallan and his colleagues are working, is part of the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas – or the short form in Norwegian “IFIKK”. The department itself is situated at the Campus Blindern, in the Georg Morgenstiernes hus. This 1960s red brick building was renovated a few years ago, so the interior space is quite new and very delightful. At the first day I was kindly welcomed by everybody and I got a working space with two other nice PhD students from art history in the room. Also I received an access card and a room key, to be able to work outside the main working hours or at the weekend. Get a room, card and keys as an external founded PhD student at the LMU in Munich, I have not heard that this has happened. Thus, these small details can demonstrate what kind of appreciation and attention in Norway is given towards scientists, PhD students and guests.

Georg Morgenstiernes hus

All the art historians in the department where very kind and open towards me, especially Kjetil and his PhD students Ingrid, Ida, and Gabriele integrated me so thoughtfully. Also new and remarkable for me was in which way the university is caring for the employees. Every Monday a huge basket with a variant of fruits were delivered. A fully-automatic coffee machine was also free for use. Also home office, part time or parental leave are not extraordinary, in Norway they are already ordinary. Getting a kindergarden place in Norway is not a lottery game, like it is in Munich. So everything gave the impression, that one looks with care after its employees. In comparison to a German higher education institution and the German sciences system, the difference catches the eyes.

In this great atmosphere, it was possible for me to write my chapter about West German industrial designers and their discourses about globalisation. Besides that, I was also able to write a short paper about the special German-German design relations in the Cold War. In comparison to German PhD seminars, the Norwegian procedure is more a text discussion. Thus, this means more writing an article and only giving a brief presentation, followed by a comprehensive discussion. I had the feeling, this procedure has some advantages. Because first, the author has a text, on which s/he can work and e.g. re-write parts to make it better. And second the audience can prepare itself and do not have to listen to over-length presentations. I was very pleased with the seminar and all the questions, comments, and tips I got on my text. Thus, perhaps I can keep working on the text, when I am back in Germany. With some luck, I will find a place to publish these results.

For living, there is a possibility to apply for researcher housing at the student welfare organisation for students in Oslo (SiO). In my case it was a furnished, small room in the Sogn student village, next to the Blindern Campus. It was ok to stay there for two months, but in the end, I cannot recommend it. Because the SiO has housing “quality”, “services” and invoices, which are not in a balanced proportion. Unfortunately the housing market in Oslo is as bad as in Munich. So you need quite a large portion of luck to find something that is fitting, affordable, and not behind the bushes. Beside the fact that the costs of living in Norway are as high as their reputation. In comparison to Munich – which is the most expensive city in Germany – I would guess that you have to spend about 30% more for food and the daily life. So with the German salary for PhD students – which is also low in Germany itself – you really have to live economically and fugally.

The regional office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation is more focused on Sweden. Norway or Oslo are unfortunately not their main focus. But beside this, the Goethe-Institute in Oslo is organising a couple of interesting events in Norway’s capital city. Especially the podium discussions e.g. about the phenomena of populism, held in the Litteraturhuset, was really worth attending. I also can recommend the Opera House, the National Museum and the Vigeland Museum together with the Vigeland Park in Oslo. Trips to Bergen, Kristiansand, and Lillehammer are also good to make by train and a tip in every travel book. Also Stockholm is not so far away, a high-speed train brings you there in less than five hours.

Thus, thanks to Kjetil, Ida, Ingrid, Gabriele, Gustav, Anne Lise, Aron, Ellif, Espen, Heidi, Lars, Lena, Nikita, Panagiotis, Pia, and all other IFIKK-members for great two month in Oslo!

And I wish all of you a great Christmas time and a happy new year!


Visions of Sustainability in Design History

Gary Anderson and his original design of the recycling logo, by Gary Anderson, CC BY-SA 3.0

The term „sustainability“ has become increasingly importance in many social debates. Current design history research looks at the aspect of „sustainability“ as well. In mid-June this year, a workshop entitled „Environmental Histories of Design“  was organized by the Norwegian Professor Kjetil Fallan (University of Oslo) along with Finn Arne Jørgensen (Umeå University) at the Rachel Carson Centre at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. A Norwegian research group has been working on aspects of sustainability in design history since 2014. The team, led by Kjetil Fallan, runs its own research blog: www.backtothesustainablefuture.net.

The aim of the workshop in Munich was to discuss previously disregarded historical ties of design and sustainability. The contributions can be grouped into two different approaches. Arguments were either object or discourse-oriented, while both approaches have their advantages. More relevant is what questions are being asked. I methodically pursued a discourse analysis approach, thus it was very exciting for me to see how international colleges work with discourse analyses on design topics. I will briefly introduce three examples and bring in some thought of mine.

The debates in West Germany about design and obsolescence were explored by the Wuppertal Professor Heike Weber. The aspect of a planned life cycle of objects is currently discussed controversially. From a design historical perspective, we know relatively little about this topic. Weber argued, rightly so, that the life cycles of consumer items in the 20th century must not have necessarily reduced. This simplistic story must be questioned critically. The importance of the designer can certainly provide information about the historical development in the field of obsolescence.

The Norwegian Ida Kamilla Lie (University of Oslo) presented first results of her PhD project (based on her master’s thesis), in which she dealt with Victor Papanek’s importance for Scandinavian design discourses. Papanek was active, from 1966 to 1970, in the Scandinavian Design Students Organization (SDO). Particularly important was the question of the social responsibility of designers to society. Lie pointed out,that Papanek played a key role for the former generation of buddying designers. At the same time, this example is a profound analysis of how design discourses were already globalised in the 1960s and 1970s and then rapidly and widely adopted.


But what did the relationship of environmentalism and design mean in relation to the Federal Republic of Germany? I will try to discuss this shortly on the basis of published articles about environment and industrial design. The following graph shows the time distribution of published debate contributions, such as books, newspaper or magazine articles, which deal with „Umwelt“. This visualization of my literature database illustrates that the concept of environment was addressed from the 1960s to the 1990s onwards. Striking is the rapid increase from 1970 to 1972. A likely explanation could be the publication of Victor Papanek „Design for the Real World – Human Ecology and Social Change“ from 1971, as well as the publications of the Institut für Umweltplanung at Ulm (the successor of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm). Papaneks book introduced the term “international environment” to the design discourse and experienced a varied reception.

Another interesting feature of this statistical distribution are the major differences between the years 1973-1974 and 1975-1976. The strong increase from 1973 to 1974 could be interpreted by the effects of the first oil crisis. This was a relevant development, which also affected the work of industrial designers. However, this shows that the environment was discussed by Papanek’s initiative in the Federal Republic until 1972. In the year 1973 significantly fewer players were published on aspects of the environment. This discussion is related again to the context of the oil price crisis of 1974.

The difference from 1975 to 1976 seems plausible if one considers that at the international ICSID Congress in Moscow 1975, the newly established Working Group „Environment and Design“ presented its results. The results of the ICSID working group were followed by a lot of West German Design, but not discussed further during the year 1976. Gabriele Oropallo (University of Oslo) deals with this aspect in his doctoral thesis. He presented parts of his research results at the above-mentioned workshop at the Rachel Carson Centre. Oropallos research will problematise and analyse the ICSID group, headed by GDR designer Martin Kelm. Remarkably, the contemporary understanding of the term environmental “Umwelt” is not congruent with the current meaning. Nevertheless this shift in meaning is also a big challenge for all researchers‘ in the history of design.