Doctoral Project
Give Us a Break!

Doctoral Project
Paola De Martin

On the taste biography of designers featuring a lower class
background in metropolitan Zurich (1970-2010).

Give Us a Break! adopts an empirical approach to close an important gap in Swiss design history: the investigation of design practice based on class as a category of difference. The project links Swiss design historiography to the current state of international research.

Give Us a Break! brings together Swiss design history—the history of visual and material culture in Switzerland—with social and economic history. This study focuses on the social mobility of designers from educationally weaker backgrounds: product and industrial designers, interior designers, fashion and textile designers, photographers and commercial graphic designers, animation and game designers from the lower classes. How do such designers evolve from being consumers of popular culture into producers of high design culture? How do they develop from being the subjects of marketing research into sublime Gestalter, who know how to harness various media to marshal the interpretative power over good taste? Behind these social metamorphoses stands a lifelong working on oneself, which also includes designing status objects. A fundamental paradox pervades this dual productivity: the simultaneity of creativity and adaptation in the social as well as in the aesthetic realm.

Drawing on the methods of oral history, Give Us a Break! produces its own source materials through interviews conducted with a dozen designers. Written sources, biographical photographs, sketches, and objects are subject to qualitative analysis. The resulting sociological-historical portraits focus on the intersections between an interviewee’s life course, lifestyle, and their work. What do project interviewees, who can be severely affected by the upheavals of the market, know about the economic value and commercial exploitation of forms, colours, materials, motifs, and surfaces? About the economic cycles and crises of these means of design? Give Us a Break! brings into view this subaltern knowledge and renders it fruitful for understanding status changes amid the “spirit of the new capitalism” (Chiapello & Boltanski).

Project interviewees, whose professional careers coincide with the neoliberal period from the 1970s to the 2010s, belong to the creative industry of metropolitan Zurich. During this historical period, not only the underprivileged strata and classes of Zurich society, but also the creative industry, experienced profound upheavals. How did interviewees climb the social ladder, which changed its face before their eyes, in a specifically local manner?

Give Us a Break! addresses the lacking representation of designers from the lower classes, whose careers the latest sociological terminology refers to as “non-traditional trajectories.” Is the absence of tradition a cause or rather an effect in this respect? In these lives, as this study shows, breaks and ruptures are the rule without a history: a gap in the research that this study both closes and reflects on.