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Fernández: «History is the beginning of theory, its review and appraisal is essential to expand the contents of project narratives»

Silvia Fernández, renowned researcher and editor, speaks about how necessary it is for the scientific community to have open access to archives and collections in order to both build and deconstruct knowledge.

Visual Communication Designer, Silvia Fernández has an extensive career not only in academic circles but also in the field of editorial production. She has been a teacher in many institutions, among which the National University of La Plata and the University of the Americas in Puebla (Mexico) stand out; she was also Dean of the School of Design and Communication of the University of the East.

Devoted to the research of the history of design in Latin America –with a specific focus in Argentina– and the role of women in the field of national design, she has contributed with her articles to prestigious national and international publications, such as Tipográfica (Buenos Aires), Design Issues (Cambridge, MIT Press Journals), Ulmer modelle—modelle nach Ulm. HfG Ulm 1953-1968 (Berlin, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003), Le dictionnaire universel des créatices (Paris, Éditions des femmes-Antoinette Fuque, 2013) y Women’s Creativity since the Modern Movement 1918-2018 (Torino, Politecnico di Torino, 2018).

In 2004 she became the director of Nodal (Latin America Design Node), a publishing house that reviews design from a Latin American perspective, emphasizing the recovery and analysis of the field’s history. She co-coordinated the book Historia del diseño en América Latina y el Caribe (Sao Paulo, Editora Blücher, 2008) and, as part of the collection Women in Argentine Design, she completed the work started by María Laura Pedroni during the 80’s in the publication Diseño Visual y Conocimiento Científico (La Plata, Nodal, 2016) and by Victoria Ocampo in Señal Bauhaus (La Plata, Nodal, 2019). 
 In the context of the 100 years of Bauhaus, she is the curator of the section “Argentina” and of the exhibit “The whole world a Bauhaus?”, organized by the IFA in Karlsruhe, Germany. 

–I–D–A Foundation invited her to participate in the section “Expert Opinion” of May´s Old&Newsletter. Fernández shared her points of view regarding the intertwining of past, present, and future in the world of knowledge and the role played by institutions dedicated to the protection of patrimony.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–Through the years I have realized that design is a vast space that expands constantly due to both personal and macro level structural changes.
Design experienced an exceptional moment during the democratic period that stared in 1983. Designers began to recognize and be recognized by peers leading to the creation of professional associations, affinity groups, and university meetings on a national scale. Working as Director of Communication in the municipal government of La Plata (1987-1989), allowed me to incorporate the political dimension of design.
Teaching is also a practice that has defined my experience, lecturing, interacting with students, and transferring it to the rest of society. That, of course, is not the case with the work related to institutional bureaucracy and much less with doing politics within the university itself. Spending three years in Germany, since 2001, experiencing everyday teaching dynamics, interacting with colleagues, and dealing with the learning problems of my students in the KISD (Köln International School of Design) completely changed my vision about teaching. The experience and knowledge obtained through international exchanges continues.
In recent years I have devoted myself to researching the history of design. The editing and publishing process of Historia del Diseño en América Latina y el Caribe (San Pablo, Editora Blücher, 2008) was a radical, collective experience. Since 2008, my research about the role of women in design has connected me with many colleagues, their projects and particular perspectives; I constantly learn from them and contribute by publishing their extraordinary findings.

–What characteristics must a piece possess in order to be considered fine design?
–A fine design is defined by its effective way to solve the object-user interface, either with a product or with a semiotic artifact. It is the result of professional management that establishes the proper technological, aesthetic-formal, social, political, economic, and sustainability criteria for each project. The coherence among use-aesthetic-technology-environmental impact determine the project’s quality.

–¿Is there such a thing as an “Argentine design” identity? ¿is there a single essence of “Argentine design”?
–Design projected in Argentina exists, however, that does not prove the existence of the “Argentine design” entity. Design projected in specific geographies is conditioned by unique variables, not only by the available resources but also by the socio-environmental features of the context in which it is projected. Designing under stress is not the same than carrying out a project in a pressure-less environment. Program and systematic features of projects developed by societies in core countries differ greatly from the innovative ways that prevail in countries like Argentina.

–¿Is design valued by society in Argentina?
–In the past 30 years, design, as a term, has become a common-use noun and society as a whole tends to use it broadly. Does this imply that it has achieved a certain social status? Perhaps, but the multiple meanings assigned to the term “design” are so diverse that it is imperative to assess the consequences of this recent tsunami, mainly because it might have actually erased the essence of the concept which is, in fact, the concrete project itself.

–¿What is the significance of design archives and patrimonial collections?
–The significance of archives and patrimonial collections is directly proportional to the importance given to the history of design. Archives preserve primary sources which certainly are the most valued material in any research. Following Carlo Ginzburg’s thought, the work of the historian cannot be compared to other scientific enterprises because it belongs to the realm of meaning decoding and finding traces which is far closer to the work of hunters and detectives than to the one performed by scientists. Archives are the natural spaces for such searches, though they are not the only contexts where stories are uncovered: it is through the reading and analysis of documents that knowledge becomes objective. Testimonies are deconstructed based on the evidence provided by documents.

–¿Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
–As French historian Sabina Loriga claims, “History is bound to memory”, based on this notion we can assume that the future of design is bound to History. An experimental history. Argentina is currently in the beginning stages of the history of design building process; it still lacks a formative program and lines of research are disperse. Published work bear witness to a diversity of approaches: sociological, testimonial (self-referential or interviews), close to literature and journalism and, even, from design’s own perspective, which is the line of research that has revealed itself as the most suitable since it enables a project-based analysis perspective.
I am referring to a history of design that is done by designers using History’s methods and tools. Unfortunately, many programs still pretend to integrate design to Art History…, a path of no return. Countries with an advance development of design history research abandoned this idea a long time ago.
In the next few years a new practice of History must be consolidated, one with courses that regard history as a problem –a practice that has to be based on historical research–. Programs need to stop focusing in the transmission of content and rather create a specialization in History centered on a graduate research project perspective.
Professors and researchers have to establish a dialogue, interact, and create a forum to update and exchange information.
History is the beginning of theory, its review and appraisal is essential in order to expand the contents of project narratives.

–¿What are the conditions that enable institutions to preserve memory?
–Institutions that preserve the patrimony must have the professional means to order, classify, create archives, and preserve material. From the researcher’s perspective, these institutions become priceless allies because they provide access to material and enable their use. Source material restrictions limit the outcome of the research. Let’s not forget that in countries that have developed these practices, researchers actually choose their residence based on the available archives they will have access to.
Digitalization of material, as well as having the means to keep constantly digitalizing records, is also fundamental. At the same time, networks with similar institutions must be created in order to enable the flow of information that belongs to other collections. Only archives that are open and accessible to the scientific community can be considered to be truly alive.

–¿Why is it that in Argentina, contrary to what happens in the rest of the world, there are almost no museum-like spaces that give design a place?
–We have inherited a traditional contempt for objects from Ancient and Medieval culture, in particular regarding its attitude towards practical aspects of life. The multiplication of objects that defines the modern world has taken them out of that marginal position. Today, objects have acquired “citizenship rights”. 
 Utility objects have always been included in museums and other collections specialized in decorative art, carriages, toys, automobiles, airplanes, labor, etc., but they had not been focused on design from a project perspective.
Design is part of the material culture but it has only been since ’80 that pioneer institutions, such as the Vitra Design Museum (Weil am Rhein) or the expanded collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York) upgraded modern design and turned it into a museum category of its own. 
 The Aquiles Gay collection, in Cordoba, is the first precedent of the sort in Argentina; equipped with a unique and exceptional classification system created by engineer Gay himself alongside Lidia Samar and their team. The Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires gathered a considerable collection at the turn of this century. However, in Argentina, design collectors are very rare cases.
In my view, the existence of the “past” of Argentine design is just starting to be understood. Museums have already presented some exhibits about it. Nonetheless, specialists, such as archive technicians, researchers, and curators, are needed in these institutions to give meaning to the material and bring it to a present context. Whether it is in institutions that already exist or in museums that will be created in the future, history of design must be accessible to society because everyday life artifacts are co-extensions of human beings and knowing them is a requirement to create future projects.