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Devalle: «Professional training with an approach to climate change is an imperative need, more so if we acknowledge that the production process has an environmental impact»

Sociologist and design academic Verónica Devalle debates the notion of “identity” within material culture, evaluates the relevance of having a historical perspective, and identifies the future challenges that the discipline will face.

Verónica Devalle graduated as a sociologist from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), but her path led her to the field of art and design. After earning an MA in Sociology of Culture and Cultural Analysis from the National University of San Martín (UNSAM) and a PhD in Art Theory and History from the UBA, she joined the faculty of the School of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism and was hired to direct the UBACyT projects that deal with art, design, and contemporary visual culture critique.

The author of the book La travesía de la forma. Emergencia y consolidación del Diseño Gráfico (1948-1984) (Buenos Aires, Paidós, 2009) and compiler of Visualidades sin fin. Imagen y diseño en la sociedad global (Buenos Aires, Prometeo, 2009) participates in this issue of Old&Newsletter within the Expert Opinion section, where she reflects upon the professional and formative challenges currently faced by design.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–I entered the world of design by chance and I’ve never left it since. I started when I was still a student performing as a class assistant in the Arfuch Communication course, within the UBA Graphic Design program. Not long after I applied for the now extinct scholarships for research initiation and became the first scholar devoted to design research at the UBA. That first push encourages me to keep planning latter group research projects (UBACyT) and to continue developing a research line centered on the creation, consolidation, and professionalization processes experienced by different design fields in Argentina.

–What features define pieces that possess a fine design?
–I consider that, when assessing the characteristics of “fine design”, the parameters established by the discipline itself must prevail: first and foremost, the existence of a design program. However, it is also necessary to review the concept of fine design by questioning its assumption of universal validity, a notion established during the 50’s. We must question if it is possible to define the concept outside specific space-time frameworks, outside socio-historical parameters, and outside society’s influence areas.

–Is there a unique “Argentine design” identity? Is there a single “Argentine design”?
–There will be as many design identities as Argentine identities exist. Identity essentialism is a wrong approach, as is to expect that practices, such as design, reflect an Argentine essence. Using that same logic, we could pose the following questions: What is the essence of Argentine architecture? Was it originated in the colonial period, in the May Revolution era, during the Rosas period, or along with the creation of the Republic? Is it French and Italian architecture, the one that amazes tourists who visit Buenos Aires? Or is it the incredible colonial architecture of Salta and Córdoba? There are no answers to these questions because that would imply that the essence of everything Argentinian could be labeled. If that were the case, most of the Argentinians, male and female, that did not comply with these characteristics would be excluded. That would be the case also for most of the design pieces produced in the country or its inhabitants.

–Is design socially valued in Argentina?
–I think, now, society is beginning to value it. In that respect, universities have played a fundamental role forging and consolidating the discipline’s identity. Academic research takes a long time, so this process has been gradual. For sure, we still have a long way to go, but we have tangible proof of this development in the creation of such institutions as the Tomás Maldonado Knowledge Center, a dependency of the National Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation; the Center for Project Research and Industrial Design Actions (CIPADI), at the National University of Mar del Plata; the Laboratory for Design Research (+ID Lab); and the Aesthetic Section of the American Art Institute (IAA), at the FADU-UBA, among many others.

–What is the significance of archives and design patrimonial collections?
–They are crucial for the discipline. Archives enable to trace the discipline’s genealogy and collections allow the development of a critical and analytical approach to design. Moreover, for those of us that take a historical approach to the subject, archives and patrimonial collections become our main source of work.

–Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
For all the reasons mentioned in the previous answer.

–What institutional conditions are required to accomplish it?
–Many requirements: to have adequate infrastructure, necessary resources, and professionals trained in cultural management. A fundamental requirement is that it should guarantee free access, free of charges that could restrict research and teaching practices and benefit only the few ones that have grants or vast resources to afford a membership. Free access is of the utmost importance if we take into account the conditions in which research is produced in our country. When it comes to design, I believe that universal and free access would ensure the continued appraisal of the field and its legacy.

–Why is it that in Argentina, in contrast with the rest of the world, there are almost no museum spaces devoted to design?
–Because Argentine society still needs to realize the relevance of design and the incredibly rich history it has in this country. Once we become aware of this, the creation of such spaces will follow as a natural consequence.

–What future challenges will be faced by the design community?
–There are many, but I think that the most urgent one is to work with the aim of turning design into a relevant issue within the governmental, provincial, and national spheres.
Another need that can't be delayed is the inclusion of climate change related topics in academic programs and professional training. That is urgent, very urgent, particularly if we acknowledge that the production process has an environmental impact.