Tenure Review Public Presentation: Bess Williamson

The Action Office and the Iron Man Arm: Two Episodes in Digital Design Culture
Wednesday, October 04, 9:30 p.m.
Sharp Building, 37 S. Wabash Ave., room 327
United States
Still from Office Videos, Collective Project
Still from Office Videos, The Collective Project: Robert Downey Jr. Delivers a Real Bionic Arm, 2015. via Youtube

This talk examines two artifacts of the digital age of design: Herman Miller's Action Office system (1964) for early "open office" plans, and recent 3-D printed prosthetic limbs produced, often in superhero styles, through the volunteer network Enabling the Future. These episodes, I argue, show the prevalence of non-typical bodies as a framing device for imagining the future of design. Rather than eugenic futures without pain or disability, they both imagine the body's problems as a starting point for invention, and the computer as a reprieve from those problems. The failures of both projects also speak to overlooked material realities of digital design.

Bess Williamson is a design historian focusing on intersections between social movements and design in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her book Designing an Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design in the United States, will be published in early 2018 by NYU Press.