New Multi-Campus Research Group Asks: What is California Design?

California design and architecture have left deep imprints on our lives—from iconic landmarks to the intimate architecture of the home, from the unique public university system to the ubiquitous iPod with its stamp proclaiming it to be “designed by Apple in California.” Despite these contributions, participants in a new UC-wide collaboration point out that California architecture and design history has not developed a distinct profile. Its historians are dispersed across the state and further fragmented by home disciplines such as art history, architecture, design, visual culture, history, environmental design, and cultural studies. For this reason, Christina Cogdell, James Housefield, Simon Sadler, and a group of faculty from diverse disciplines and campuses across California have established a new Multi-Campus Research Group (MRG) in California Architecture and Design under the auspices of the University of California Humanities Network.

The collaboration began to take shape as a critical mass of faculty interested in the design history and criticism of California developed in the Department of Design at UC Davis. “We suddenly had a growing group of people interested in thinking critically about California, catalyzed by a supportive department that was interested in the ways that history, theory and criticism intersect with making and doing,” said Housefield. In the coming year, Housefield, Sadler, and Principal Investigator Christina Cogdell will be joined by a cohort of scholars from across the UC system, including Berkeley, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz as well as California College of the Arts to address the question: is there a design history of California?

Over the next year, the group will hold a meeting at UC Davis and develop further collaborative projects. A number of parallel initiatives directed by MRG participants emerged as the group began to form.  In February 2012, two of the MRG participants will host a session on “California Design After 1965” at the College Art Association meeting in Los Angeles; in March, a special design-themed issue of the new UC Press journal BOOM: A Journal of California will be published; in May, two other MRG members will host a conference at UC Santa Barbara titled “Icon and Anonymity: What is Californian Architectural History?” As a part of the “Pacific Standard Time” initiative, a handful of exhibits in southern California museums and galleries are currently reconsidering the history of art, architecture and design in California.

California design is ripe for new study, said Housefield, and the MRG is poised to lead the call for critical thinking about California’s design heritage and future. Sadler agreed: “California itself is a design. One way or another, every piece of it has been designed, planned, and even fought over. Even in its naturalness, there’s nothing natural about California.” The group highlights the strength of architecture and design studies to address some of the major issues facing the state.

The most significant purpose of the research group is to bring people together to talk about shared interests and research in ways that would not otherwise be possible. The MRG will be the first tentative step in developing some of the networks that can help the University of California system lead the way into the future. As Sadler notes, our ongoing state of crisis forces us to rethink the purpose and design of the UC system with all of its potential to affect the future of the state. Group participants hope to catalyze thinking about California and look toward a future with the University of California leading the way.

The research group aims to tap into a powerful culture of critical thinking and optimism running through California. Despite all of the differences among the diverse regions of the state, as Sadler summarizes, “Californians are always trying to make a better future, and it takes a lot of design to sustain it.”