In 2014 I completed a PhD on street furniture design in postwar Britain. Rather than focusing on the objects themselves, I examined the debate around these objects and what it said about the period. My interest in street furniture – from the past as well as the present – is not because such objects are beautiful (far from it in many cases) but because, despite being all around us, street furniture is routinely ignored. Few consider litterbins and lampposts to be ‘design’, and yet someone somewhere has made a series of design decisions on our behalf, and contributed a great deal to what the cultural theorist Ben Highmore calls the ‘designed environment’. Street furniture therefore is perfectly placed to reflect the tensions and conflicts that characterize the uses and appropriation of public space by different agents.
After the Second World War in Britain, the modernisation of objects like parking meters, lampposts and road signs provoked a heated debate, drawing strong feelings from housewives, politicians, designers, poets and planners. For some, modern street furniture was a means of civilizing Britain’s streets and raising standards of taste. While for others, the new designs were grotesque, and represented a defacement of the country and its landscape’s individual character. Many of these ordinary urban objects were condemned as ‘thick and insensitive’ and ‘rather teutonic’. Their ‘awkward swellings’ were criticised for making streets look like ‘prisoner-of-war compounds’, and for replacing the happy disorder of Britain’s streets with ‘extreme dullness’. And yet, in many ways, the debate was less concerned with what street furniture looked like, and more concerned with who got to decide. Relatively mundane objects like post boxes were able to incite such passion because the people who had to live with them, didn’t usually get a say in how they should look. Those who did decide were often not trained in design or visual matters, and the people who thought they knew better – the design profession – were frequently powerless. Together, this created the perfect conditions for a really rousing debate, which reflected the burgeoning multiplicity, complexity, and contradictions of this unique period.
These questions around what stuff looks like, and who gets to decide what it looks like, continue to shape my approach to design history and material culture. Like many design historians, I believe that within design history it is possible to address the social, political and cultural meanings of design, and I am fascinated by the systems and structures underpinning design culture and design policy, and how different agents try to control or influence the meaning of design for different purposes. Studying street furniture is just one way to examine these issues.