In 1910 a Norwegian chemist gazed through a microscope to study a white surface. There was something different with this white, the chemist observed. The never-before-seen titanium pigment was made from the chemist’s own patented innovation, the inorganic chemical substance titanium dioxide. The chemist was probably unaware of the far-reaching global implications the titanium pigment would come to have on his environment in the forthcoming century; the chemical substance would radically change objects and environments in architecture and design by making surfaces whiter, smoother, brighter, and more opaque.
White through the microscope. Photograph found in Peder Farup’s notebooks from September 1910. Farup’s Archive, The Norwegian Mining Museum. Photo: Marte Johnslien.
In her influential book Vibrant Matter (2010), Jane Bennet points out that Western societies seem to lack the ability to read material surroundings. In our progressively digital realities, material surfaces will become more unnoticeable, less sensorial, and increasingly insignificant. This talk tells the story of how the surface in architecture and design came to be thought of as immaterial. The talk traces the history of the Norwegian chemist Dr. Peder Farup (1875 – 1934) and his two innovations titanium white and titanium dioxide in order to show how modernism’s aesthetic and ideological ideals of permanence, progress, and homogenization were materially and visually inscribed into and onto objects and environments—making the surface inconspicuous and difficult for us to read.
Prompted by the urgency to discuss surfaces in relation to design and sustainability, and in order to change ethical attitudes towards use and reuse of materials, this talk proposes that design discourse can forge bonds with environmental history, aesthetic philosophy, and artistic research to unearth unseen material practices. Illuminated by archival research, aesthetic theory, and art and crafts practices, the surface can become visible, present, and readable.
Ingrid Halland (b. 1988) is a historian, researcher and critic interested is 20th century architecture and design, surfaces, ecology, and aesthetics. She is associate professor in architecture history at the University of Bergen, associate professor II at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design—where she teaches at the PhD Programme—and editor-in-chief of ROM forlag. Previous research has focused on plastic (Log), postmodern object epistemologies (Journal of Design History), and Nordic arts in the Anthropocene (the book Ung Uro: Unsettling Climates in Nordic Arts, Architecture and Design published in 2021). In her current research, Halland traces the history of the material titanium dioxide together with artist and researcher Marte Johnslien.