Index of DI

About the Index of Design Inquiry

The original Index of American Design was one of those grandly ambitious pre-WWII projects born of New Deal liberalism and national self-assurance. Not only did the federal government believe the United States possessed design worth indexing, the WPA’s Federal Art Project defined design broadly enough to include objects both “decorative and practical”—from andirons to altar railings, butter molds to bedspreads, candlesticks to cattle brands, whirligigs to weathervanes. By the time it was terminated, the project had indexed more than 18,000 objects, made between 1700 and 1900. Each object was represented in the index by a two-dimensional illustration and accompanied by short title and the dimensions. The illustrations were generally watercolor and pencil on paper, rendered using a so-called Egyptologist’s technique that prioritized verisimilitude rather than artistic expression.

DesignInquiry’s reboot furthers the conversation one hundred years. We see the current field of design as a series of potentialities that are not contained by geographic or disciplinary boundaries at a moment ripe for self-reflection. Our Index of Design Inquiry, in addition to representations of illustrative objects, will contain processes, ideas, workshops, experiments, examples, improvisations, recipes—anything that furthers the exploration of design as a practice and a basis for inquisitive progress.

The project is a core component of DesignInquiry’s forthcoming Futurespective exhibition (a culmination of fifteen years of practice) at MECA’s ICA this fall.


  • Allyn, Nancy Elizabeth. “Defining American Design: A History of the Index of American Design,” M.A. thesis, University of Maryland, 1982.
  • Kramer, Hilton. “Designing America,” New York Times, 3 December 1972.
  • Jewell, Edward Alden. “Saving our Usable Past,” New York Times, 19 March 1939.
  • Trask, Jeffrey. Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era (UPenn, 2011).