Revolutionary Fibres: Materials and Industrial Design in Maoist China
- Arts Building 439
- Wednesday 13 November 2019 (16:00-17:30)
- Dr Jennifer Altehenger (University of Oxford)
- Modern and Contemporary History Centre research seminar series 2019-20
- All welcome! Drinks afterwards in the Bratby Bar.
The People's Republic of China is one of the world's main producers of engineered woods and wood furniture today. Plywood, particleboard, and fibreboard (which can be made of different fibres including timber and bamboo) are widely used for furniture manufacture in China and abroad, and they are familiar materials to many Chinese citizens, even if they do not know it. Older generations often associate these materials with the increased availability of consumer goods brought about by the economic reforms of the "post-Mao" period after 1978. And yet, as this paper illustrates, these materials and many of the different objects made from them have a distinctly Maoist history and heritage. Throughout the first decades of CCP rule, engineers, chemists, timber experts and material scientists working in factories and research institutes, but in also in local communes, conducted experiments to find the best recipe for producing 'modern materials' and especially engineered woods, and for working with the woods most readily available such as bamboo. Designers in arts academies, factory workshops, and handicraft cooperatives, meanwhile, sought to create advanced furniture for the masses. The ideal socialist furniture would combine cost-efficient and durable materials with space-saving, functional, and equally cost-efficient designs. And all of this was to be easily mass-produced in advanced factories. In the end, much of this ideal furniture and many of these materials were only produced as prototypes, restricted to urban consumers, or sold for export. Still, their stories can help reconsider the history of the Mao period and explore the role materials and design were supposed to play and actually played in bringing a socialist modern into everyday life. This talk, part of a larger project on the everyday history of industrial design since 1949, will discuss these larger themes by looking at two examples in particular: research into and production of fibreboard and particleboard in Beijing and Tianjin, and the work of one experimental bamboo goods factory in Fuzhou.
Jennifer Altehenger is Associate Professor of Chinese History/Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History at the University of Oxford and Merton College. She is the author of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China (Harvard, 2018) and has published articles and chapters on the history of propaganda, lexicography, and on China's links to other socialist countries. Funded by the AHRC and the British Academy, her current work examines the history of materials and everyday industrial design in the PRC.