Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in his Study, 1514

Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in his Study, 1514

This year I’m a fellow at the new Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought at The New School. On Friday November 7, as part of our bi-weekly seminar series, I’ll be sharing some preliminary thoughts for a future research project. The workshop is open to the public, and all attendees are expected to have read the presenter’s working paper in advance.

My project, “Intellectual Furnishings,” looks at furniture as an espitemic and affective device. That sounds so serious! As I write in the working paper I posted last night to Medium, “I recognize furnishings” — in this draft, I look at the book shelf, the writing desk, Melvil Dewey’s Library Bureau furnishings, the media wall, and the server rack — “as much more than utilitarian equipment; instead, they scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media in particular ways, and embody knowledge in particular ways.”

They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. I aim to study how the design of organizational furnishings, both physical and conceptual – like bookshelves and classification systems, for example – gives form to epistemology, politics, and affect.

My exploration will most likely range from the scrinium and capsa that held papyrus scrolls in ancient archives and the archival boxes that contain material in contemporary collections; to the metal chains that tethered books to lecterns in medieval institutions; to the tables at which texts have been written and edited; to the slip cases Melville Dewey’s Library Bureau sold to libraries to keep track of their circulating books; to the “media walls” created to accommodate the explosion of post-war household media devices; to the billions of CD “towers” sold in the 1990s; to the (un)design of the racks that hold our computer servers. I welcome all GIDEST workshop participants’ suggestions for other potentially evocative case studies.

I aim to put into conversation the work of scholars, practitioners and designers from fields that rarely talk to one another, at least not all at the same time – fields including archival and library science, intellectual history, organizational studies, business history, management, design history and design practice, furniture manufacturing and retail, architectural history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and the list goes on. My methods will include archival research and other forms of historical research; discourse analysis of various forms of design representation – design sketches, architectural drawings, etc. – and marketing materials for library, office, and domestic furnishings and supplies; ethnographic fieldwork in design firms, libraries, and offices; and interviews with contemporary designers, furniture retailers, knowledge workers, and artists whose work grapples with issues related to the spatialization and aestheticization of knowledge.

Ultimately, I hope to make a small historiographic contribution to media and design studies: I’d like to propose a means of rethinking the entwined histories of both fields, and tracing enduring and shifting epistemologies through the longue durée, by examining peripheral material artifacts – the infrastructures that we so typically work on without looking at them. I’ll situate our contemporary digital repositories and libraries and workplaces within their historical contexts, highlighting the continuities and breaks in the physical and intellectual support systems that have undergirded our knowledge institutions and workplaces over time. At the same time, I hope to remind us of the heavy architecture – all the physical and intellectual scaffolding – behind the seemingly placeless, immaterial “Cloud” that hangs over us today. My focus on design also calls attention to the aesthetics of information, and reminds us that the knowledge we derive from the media housed on our bookshelves and the data stored in our servers is informed by our bodily interactions with those structures. Ideally, this study would inspire knowledge institutions to partner more frequently with designers to create physical and virtual spaces that represent a closer, more purposeful integration of the architectural, the intellectual, and the affective.

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