2014 Annual Design History Society Conference

Design for War and Peace

2014 has been a year of commemoration for the wars and unrest of the twentieth century: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War; the anniversaries of 1944, final year of the Second World War and the opening battles of the Vietnam War in 1954; the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. Therefore the 2014 annual Design History Society conference reflected upon the relationship of design and craft both to conflict and to hopes for peace and justice. Objects and sites designed for war and peace offer a vibrant nexus of case studies and debates through which to examine the place of conflict in our collective memory.

Between Thursday 4 and Saturday 6 September 2014, 120 scholars travelled from 19 countries around the globe to meet at Rewley House to share and to discuss their new research about Design for War and Peace. Professors and doctoral candidates; practitioners, museum and heritage professionals and independent scholars presented 65 academic papers, framed by 3 invited keynote lectures generously funded by the Design History Society and the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund. Four strands of parallel sessions focused principally on conflicts from the First World War to the present day and reflected the interdisciplinarity of design history’s explorations of a wide range of objects, places and intellectual traditions across a diverse geography of theatres of conflict. The cross-fertilization of war and peace studies, which have often been segregated, was a highlight and distinctive methodological premise of the conference.

Panels were composed of three speakers with each speaker presenting a 20-minute paper in succession. 

The three keynote lectures were filmed and may be viewed through the links below. Most of the academics who presented their new research generously gave permission to podcast their 20-minute papers which are also available as a series through Oxford Podcasts. These recordings are a digital conference proceeding was made possible through generosity of the University of Oxford’s John Fell Fund for the administrative work of a 2013-5 MSt in the History of Design student Vega Bantock and the technical support the Department for Continuing Education IT team.

Academic Convenor: 

Dr Claire I R O'Mahony, Course Director for the MSt in the History of Design

Film 1

Introduction to the 2014 DHS Conference: Design for War and Peacefollowed by Trapped in Shells: Mindset and Materiality in First World War Trench Art and Beyond 
First Keynote Lecture of the 2014 DHS Conference: Design for War and Peace


Dr Claire O’Mahony, the academic convenor of the 2014 Design History Conference at the University of Oxford, introduces its focus upon the role of design in our collective memory of war and peace. The relationships between design, war, peace and protest have long and volatile histories which have sometimes fallen outside the frameworks of design history. War relies fundamentally upon the making of evocatively termed 'materiel' (be it weapons, uniforms, transport) as well as the design of communication through which to inform and to persuade. The physical production and ideological constructs of design have deeply involved and implicated designers, manufacturers, and the 'Home front', as much as combatants, in the execution of modern war. Dissent from military conflict, as well as the task of reconstruction and remembrance in peacetime, also have very important places in design practice and ethics. In 2014, a year resonant with so many anniversaries of conflict, 1914/1944/1954/1994, the commemorative act that she hopes that this conference proposes is a kaleidoscope of lively exchanges about the roles design and historical research can play in forging a spirit of respectful reflection and international dialogue.

Professor Saunders then presents his keynote lecture examining the phenomenon of trench art.


Dr Claire O’Mahony, University of Oxford
Professor Jonathan Michie, University of Oxford
Dr Dipti Bhagat, Chair of the Design History Society
Professor Nick Saunders, University of Bristol 

Film 2

Designed to Kill: The Social Life of Weapons in Twentieth-Century Britain 
Second Keynote Lecture of the 2014 DHS Conference: Design for War and Peace


Weapons have a social life. They move in time and space. They have a trajectory. They create temporary and permanent cavities. They are designed to literally explode inside living bodies. This paper focuses on the dark science of wound ballistics. It is an historical investigation into designing weapons aimed at causing the most debilitating wounds in other people or, in the aloof tones of ballistic scientists, ‘terminal ballistics’ is the ‘design of missile behaviour in tissue’. Using full- and semi-metal jacketed bullets as case studies, I explore legal and customary restraints on weapons design from the late nineteenth century onwards.


Dr Claire O’Mahony, University of Oxford
Professor Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck College, University of London

Film 3

How Disabled Design Changed the History of Modernism
Third Keynote Lecture of the 2014 DHS Conference: Design for War and Peace


This lecture explores disabled design as an alternative to canonical aesthetic and political histories of modernism. For example, the effects and after-effects of war (especially the Great War) as a conceptual pivot have profoundly shaped how generations of scholars have interpreted histories of modernism. But many of the themes – anomie, efficiency, exoticism – that historians presumptively identify with modernism did not begin (nor end) with war but with attempts to regulate and rehabituate the disabled body within the social and aesthetic regimes of early modern culture. So how might thinking about disability as an aesthetic category, as well as a social and political category, contribute innovative evaluative and interpretive criteria for generating new histories of modern design? Examining a wide variety of objects drawn from art history, architectural history, museum studies, and histories of technology, this lecture argues that disabled design encompasses not only a material approach to design; it is also a genealogical approach to design that actively disables conventional understandings of modernist aesthetics.


Dr Claire O’Mahony, University of Oxford
Professor David Serlin, University of California at San Diego