MSt in the History of Design

Course details

The MSt in the History of Design is a taught Master's Degree offered part-time over two years.

A tea cup, be it hand-painted porcelain, studio pottery or mass-produced ceramic, offers a glimpse of the rituals of everyday life and historical experience. A designed object or space reflects the individual, the society for which it was created, as well as its creator. It expresses aesthetic preoccupations and articulates historical and political conditions. Decoration challenges the hierarchies and contested inter-relationships between the disciplines and careers of artists, designers, crafts workers, gardeners, and architects. Such concerns reside at the heart of the study of the history of design.

This history of design course is taught on nine monthly Saturdays and one residential weekend per annum. The syllabus focuses particularly on the period from 1851 to 1951 in Britain, Europe and America with global comparisons. Combining close visual and material analysis with historical methodologies, the course explores decorative and applied art, the design of interiors and public spaces, and for performance and industry.


Core themes of the History of Design course will include the rivalries between historicism and modernity; internationalist and nationalist tendencies; handicraft and industrial processes, as well as the analysis of critical debates about the makers and audiences of decoration in advice literature and aesthetic writing. 

The programme aims to provide students with a framework of interpretative skills useful to understanding design. It provides grounding in the analysis of the techniques and materials deployed in creating objects or sites. It enables students to develop a grasp of historical context, encompassing the impact of the hierarchies within, and audiences for, the critical reception of 'decoration'. It encourages the analysis of the historiography of political and aesthetic debates articulated by designers, critics and historians about design, its forms and purposes.

Teaching and learning takes a variety of forms in this programme. In keeping with the Oxford ethos, individual tutorials and supervisions are important throughout the course, particularly whilst researching the dissertation. Earlier stages of the programme also focus on seminar group discussion, lectures and independent study. First-hand visual analysis is an essential component of the discipline of the history of design. As such each course element of the programme includes site visits, both to Oxford University's unique museum and library collections, and to those nearby in London and the regions. Formal assessment is by means of analytical essay and dissertation writing, complemented by informal assessment methods including a portfolio of research skills tasks and an oral presentation about each candidate's dissertation topic.

The monthly format of the programme should enable applicants who are employed or have caring duties to undertake postgraduate study, given they have a determined commitment to study and to undertake independent research.

The University of Oxford offers a uniquely rich programme of lectures and research seminars relevant to the study of Design History. Research specialisms particularly well represented in the Department for Continuing Education are:

  • Art Nouveau and Modern French Decoration
  • Modernist Design and Architecture
  • The Arts and Crafts Movement
  • Garden History
  • The Art of the Book
  • Ecclesiastical Architecture and Design

As a discipline Design History is well represented in conferences organised and academic journals and books published by The Design History Society; the Association of Art Historians; AHRC Centre for the Historic Interior at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Modern Interior Centre at Kingston University; The Twentieth Century Society; The Garden History Society; The Textile History Society; The Wallpaper Society, The Societe des Dix-Neuviemistes.

See preliminary reading suggestions

Graduate destinations

Future research and career paths might be a DPhil programme; creative industries; museum curatorship; the art market; teaching; arts publishing.

Programme details

Course structure

The MSt is a part-time course over two years with one residential weekend per annum. Each year comprises nine Saturdays (monthly; three in each of the three terms in the academic year) students will also have fortnightly individual tutorials and undertake research in reference libraries in Oxford between these monthly meetings. The course is flexibly designed for the needs of students wishing to balance their studies with other commitments, including those who are in full-time employment, but will require 15 to 20 hours of study per week.

Course content and timetable

The course is based at Rewley House, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA. Some classes may take place at other venues in Oxford. Class details, reading lists and information about any field trips will be supplied when you have taken up your place.

Core Courses

  • Materials and Techniques of Design
  • Historical Methods
  • Research Project in the History of Modern Design
  • Dissertation

Options Courses

  • Decoration in Modern France
  • The Arts and Crafts Tradition in Modern Britain
  • Design in the Machine Age
  • Design, Body, Environment
  • Visual Cultures of the World Wars
  • Academic Writing and Contemporary Practice


YEAR 1 (2021-22)

TERM 1 (Michaelmas Term 2021)
Materials and Techniques of Design (Mandatory Module)

  • Induction Weekend: Friday 1 October 2021 & Saturday 2 October 2021
  • Saturday 9 October 2021
  • Saturday 30 October 2021
  • Saturday 4 December 2021

TERM 2 (Hilary Term 2022)
Historical Methods (Mandatory Module)

  • Saturday 8 January 2022
  • Saturday 5 February 2022
  • Saturday 5 March 2022

TERM 3 (Trinity Term 2022)
Research Project in the History of Modern Design

  • Saturday 16 April 2022
  • Saturday 21 May 2022
  • Saturday 4 June 2022

YEAR 2 (2022-23)

Provisional timetable for Year 2 (the exact dates will be confirmed closer to the time).

TERM 1 (Michaelmas Term 2022)
Advanced Paper (Option Course)

  • Taught during three Saturdays between October and November 2022 

TERM 2 (Hilary Term 2023)
Advanced Paper (Option Course)

  • Taught during three Saturdays between January and March 2023

TERM 3 (Trinity Term 2023)
Dissertation Forum Weekend

  • A Saturday and a Sunday in June 2023. 


Students must attend at least 80% of all Saturday class sessions and 4 x 1-hour dissertation tutorials. Students are also expected to have monthly individual tutorials with the Course Director or a Course Tutor each term.

Primary and secondary source materials will be used. Students will also undertake site visits relevant to the course. The syllabus is not only designed to achieve the stated aims and outcomes, but also to develop research and study skills. Teaching will be provided by OUDCE and University staff with guest speakers where appropriate.

Course aims

The MSt was devised with the aim of providing effective postgraduate-level education in history of design on a flexible basis, in which case it should be possible to participate fully in the programme while remaining in full-time employment.

The programme aims to provide students with skills:

  • To develop further their critical understanding of the principles and practice of the history of design
  • To enhance their subject knowledge, analytical and communication skills needed for professional involvement in the history of design
  • To demonstrate a grasp of primary evidence to build on their critical understanding of the types of evidence used in the historical study of designed objects and sites and how they are selected and interpreted
  • To build on the appropriate skills and concepts for analysing material objects and textual sources
  • To enable the student to undertake their own research to be presented in essays, oral presentations and as a dissertation
  • To demonstrate an understanding of primary evidence and secondary sources through the application of appropriate analytical skills and concepts within a research context resulting in a dissertation.

Assessment methods


Three assignments for the Mandatory Core Modules:

  • Techniques and Materials (Object Case Study: 2,500 words)
  • Historical Methods (Methodology and Critical Sources Review: 3,000 words)
  • Research Project (Extended Essay: 5,000 words)

Completion of skills development tasks through the Virtual Learning Environment in concert with Mandatory Core Modules.


Two x 5,000 word Advanced Paper assignments (n.b. 2 x 2,500 word projects for Academic Writing and Contemporary Practice option).

Dissertation, maximum of 15,000 words.

Course Director

Dr Claire O’Mahony
Associate Professor in History of Art
Department for Continuing Education


Please visit the MSt in the History of Design page on the University of Oxford Graduate Admissions website for details of course fees and costs.


Kellogg Clarendon Award

Kellogg College is delighted to offer a partnership award for a Clarendon Scholarship. You must apply to the University by the January deadline relevant to your proposed course in order to be considered for a scholarship. This scholarship is available only to part-time students. You do not need to apply to Kellogg College.

Apply for this course

Please see the Graduate Admissions website for application details.

Late applications may be considered if places remain - please contact the course administrator on Early application is advised.

This history of design course is aimed at candidates who wish to develop a critical understanding of the history of design. Here are some examples of potential applicant profiles:

  • Graduates of any age seeking to develop their previous experience of critical analysis and writing about objects and sites through the study the history of design. The weekend delivery format of this programme has been designed to facilitate the study of those candidates whose employment or caring duties require flexible forms of study, whilst maintaining their momentum and progressing to a postgraduate qualification.
  • Studio practitioners in the fields of interior design, architecture, urban planning, etc. wishing to inform their own work within the creative industries with specialist knowledge of design history and current methodological debates. 
  • Museum, heritage industry and art market professionals seeking to continue their professional development by enriching their specialist knowledge within the framework of postgraduate study. 
  • Teaching professionals in art and design; history; cultural studies (from the HE, FE and secondary school sectors) seeking to deepen their grounding in the critical and contextual components of their teaching and research, continuing their professional development.

We will be looking for adult students who have an interest in studying the history of design to enhance their own enjoyment and understanding of the subject by investigating more deeply a particular area of interest. We will also look for evidence of enthusiasm, a high level of commitment and the ability to discuss and to analyse aspects of the subject critically. Evidence of recent written work is also required. 

Above all, we are looking for the capacity for intellectual growth and development. Admission will be based on information provided in the application form and at interview. The final decision on admission to the course rests with OUDCE.

How to apply

For entry requirements, selection criteria and how to apply please visit Graduate Admissions website.

If you have any questions about the progress of your application, please contact the OUDCE Award Programme Administrator, tel: 01865 286945 / 280154; email:
or the Graduate Admissions Office, tel: 01865 270059; email: