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The Great Man Theory of Design History

I’ve always wondered why one style becomes “the thing” in different eras–whether it’s the 1890s or the 1960s. So it was a welcome surprise that, one page into Owen Jones’ design classic The Grammar of Ornament, I discovered he tries to answer this very thing:

Man’s earliest ambition is to create… As we advance higher, from the decoration of the rude tent or wigwam to the sublime works of a Phidias or Praxiteles, the same feeling is everywhere apparent: the highest ambition is still to create, to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.

From time to time a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation, and carry with it a host of others of less power following in the same track, yet never so closely as to destroy the individual ambition to create; hence the cause of styles, and of the modification of styles.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 32-33

“From time to time a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation.” Hence, he says, the cause of style–and the modifications of past styles.

This basically sounds like the “Great Man Theory of History,” but applied to design history.

If you’re not familiar with this idea, it comes from Thomas Carlyle, and it’s basically: history happens because “a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation, and carry with it a host of others of less power following in the same track.” It ascribes momentous changes in history not to systems and trends, but to people who are forces of nature, and who were far from inevitable. Think Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, etc.

For design, I think Owen Jones would ascribe changes to major people. He’d probably say that he and Henry Cole and others like them were the “strong minds,” producing the Arts & Craft movement that followed, and that without them that movement would never have happened–or at least, not happened the way it did. He probably would have said the Glasgow movement followed the “strong minds” of The Four–Charles Makintosh, James MacNair, Margaret and Frances MacDonald. Without those four, those trends in design wouldn’t have occurred.

I’m not sure I buy this idea entirely. The Wikipedia page on the “Great Man Theory of History” has several criticisms of the theory, which usually amount to: the individual is always shaped by the social environment, so it’s the larger trends and forces that make the rise of some individual perhaps inevitable: they light the match on a pile of burning wood that’s already there. That said, Dan Carlin–somewhere in his large ouvre of Hardcore History podcasts–has said that he thinks the answer lies somewhere in between: if Winston Churchill hadn’t been in a position of authority in World War 2, would the outcome have changed? If Hitler had been someone with more mental stability, could that the war have changed? Entirely possible on both accounts. But of course, trends and forces are involved, too: producing the currents that gave rise to Nazism and nationalism.

So it’s probably a mix in history of design, as well. The Arts & Crafts movement may have been an inevitable trend to the alienation and de-personalization caused by the Industrial Revolution. But it’s possible that Henry Cole and Owen Jones and John Ruskin and William Morris’ specific opinions and preferences were not inevitable. Same goes for other major designers and the trends they worked in. (I’d also add–there are Great Women too!)

It’s definitely interesting, though. What does it take to create a style that goes “viral,” to use our language today? A style that catches on? And is that style an expression of the spirit of the age–the zeitgeist? Or does a specific style come about because of a forceful mind, “impress[ing] itself on a generation”? Or is it something in between?

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