Liquid forms: water as a foundational element of design

Malin Graesse*, Mads Nygaard Folkmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conference without publisher/journalConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


Water has a long history for being managed to suit human purposes, such as, gaining access to drinking water through pipes and viaducts, avoiding flooding by being pooled or blocked by dykes, and draining or watering lands to make it apt for agricultural purposes. Even if much design is related to managing, structuring, and containing water and the Modernist movement in design to a high degree had water-related hygiene as a core value, water as a formative element of design has only gained little attention.
Most comprehensively, the design of water is the core theme in a study on the design history of fishways (Graesse 2022). Nevertheless, a systematic approach, directly facing the intricate relationship of design and water, is missing. While “Blue Humanities” (cf., e.g., Mentz 2023) increasingly gains traction within humanities research, focusing mainly on means of representation, water in all its hues is still quite an understudied subject within the field of design. These issues are part of a larger research project termed “Sensing Water”, being developed by the authors.
The proposed paper seeks to explore some of the project’s preliminary research questions through a Nordic lens. The paper will argue that the Nordic countries, while occupying disparate geographical areas with climatic and typological idiosyncrasies, possess compelling connections to water pertinent for design historical research. From providing factories with electric power (e.g., Figgjo Norway) to facilitating global transportation routes, water has been intrinsically linked to the production of design goods. Additionally, water’s symbolic prowess has been instrumental in forming national identities within and beyond the design field (e.g., the three waves of Royal Copenhagen and Finland’s thousand lakes). More recently, the relationship between design and water may be considered one of the strongest markers of current geo-environmental and geo-political concerns, as climate change, according to the UN, primarily is a water crisis (UN-Water, 2022). Finding sound solutions to water issues, then, is fundamentally a design issue.
In this paper we will suggest that the way water has been managed, controlled, and developed through design in the Nordic countries holds important information about historical, present, and future attitudes and ideas about the human relationship with nature. Moreover, we will suggest that water both as material and idea, can contribute substantially to the way Nordic design history develops in the future. By bringing this precious resource to the forefront of design historical research, the paper will argue that water is intricately linked to design, in the past, present, and future.

Graesse, Malin Kristine. 2022. Structures in the Stream: Fishways as design interventions in grey ecologies. PhD Thesis. Oslo: University of Oslo.
Mentz, Steve. 2023. An Introduction to the Blue Humanities. London: Routledge.
UN-Water. 2022. “Water and Climate Change.” September 5. 2022.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date26. Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 26. Oct 2023
EventPast and Future: Nordic Design History Reassessed: he Nordic Forum for Design History’s 40th Anniversary Symposium - Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, Norway
Duration: 26. Oct 202327. Oct 2023


ConferencePast and Future: Nordic Design History Reassessed
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