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Reshaping the World: Design from Modernism to Postmodernism


Admission requirements

History students should have successfully completed their propaedeutic exam and both second-year BA-seminars, one of which in Algemene Geschiedenis.


Since the Industrial Revolution led to an unprecedented proliferation of stuff in Europe and North America, commentators have regarded this development with ambivalence. While many have welcomed the expansion of material culture with open arms, others have charged that objects of questionable aesthetic value and functionality have flooded society. In these exchanges, the design of objects emerged as a prominent and highly politicized topic. Good design, it has been argued repeatedly, ought not only enhance the commercial appeal of products but promote wider cultural, social, political and economic agendas. In other words, the design of material objects became an ideological concern, generating protracted debates as well as a broad range of aesthetic regimes and styles. For much of the twentieth century, design programmes shared one premise: the arrival of the “modern age” with its supposedly unique characteristics demanded the creation of coherent material environments to promote “modern” living. From the Sixties on, these expressly “modernist” design programmes were criticized as joyless, authoritarian and unrealistic. This was the onset of “postmodern” design with its playful and ironic use of materials and shapes.
This course examines leading European and North American approaches to design since the late nineteenth century by critically studying primary sources in the form of design programmes, material objects as well as responses to them. Some sessions will focus on iconic styles including art nouveau, functionalism, art deco, and postmodernism while others address central themes including Socialist design, planned obsolescence, and retro.

The course will be assessed by participation, a presentation on an object of the student’s choice, as well as a problem-orieted, source-based paper. While in-class discussions are in English, the paper can be submitted in English or Dutch.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including:
    a. identifying relevant literature and select and order them according to a defined principle;
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information;
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate;
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 2) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including:
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the literature is based;

  • 4) select and use primary sources for their own research;

  • 5) analyse sources, place and interpret them in a historical context;

  • 6) participate in class discussions.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 7) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically in the specialisation General History: of the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions;

  • 8) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically in the specialisation General History: of the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories;

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The student

  • 9) has knowledge of the programmes of important design movements and their objects;

  • 10) is able to analyze material objects in keeping with current approaches to design history;

  • 11) has knowledge of the historiography of design;

  • 12) is able to locate the history of design in social, economic, and political contexts.


The timetable is available on the BA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course load

Total course load: 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • seminars: 13 x 2 hours = 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 65 hours

  • Assignment: Preparation for presentation with hand-out: 30 hours

  • Writing a paper (including literature and source study, and a two-page paper outline): 159 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7200 words, based on problem-oriented research using primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-5, 7-12

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-5, 10-12

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 6

  • Assignment 1: Paper outline of up around two pages
    measured learning objectives:1, 3-5


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation: 20 %

  • Particiation: 20%


  • The paper outline (up to two pages plus preliminary bibliography) needs to be handed in on 20 March 2018.

  • The final paper (about 7,200 words) needs to be handed in on 14 May 2018.


Failed papers can be re-writen. They need to be handed in by 29 June 2018.

Exam Review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • posting course readings

  • posting illustrations of material objects to be studied

Reading list

Preliminary readings:

  • David Raizman, History of Modern Design, 2nd ed. (2010)

  • John Heskett, Design: A Very Short Introduction (2002)

  • Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire. Design and Society since 1750 (1986)

  • David Raizman, History of Modern Design: Graphics and Products since the Industrial Revolution (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2010) (2nd edition) paperback edition


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Contact information will be added later