Bio: Dr. Bess Williamson (she/hers)

photo of Bess Williamson standing in front of a rainbow

I am a historian of design and material culture with a particular interest in social and political concerns in design, including environmental, labor, justice, and rights issues as they shape and are shaped by spaces and things. My book Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design traces the history of design responses to disability rights from 1945 to recent times. This project shows how the concept of “access” emerged as a value in design in this period, with consequences for the everyday lives of disabled people as well as for discourses around civil rights and design’s role in society. I am co-editor of Making Disability Modern: Design Histories, a collection of case studies of objects, buildings, and systems that reflect changing design approaches to disability from the 18th century to the present. Examples include gout “cradles” in the early U.S., prosthetics worn by workers at the Panama Canal, and new approaches to scent in the age of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. I also contributed to a special section on digital culture in the book with a study of 3-D printed prosthetics in fashion and humanitarian design.

I am Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach a range of design history courses, from introductory surveys of modern design history to graduate seminars on issues in design and politics, material culture/”thing” theories, and disability studies in art/design. I teach students in BFA and MFA programs in Designed Objects, Visual Communication Design, and other Fine Arts fields, and my classes contribute to a Design History track within the MA in Modern/Contemporary Art History.