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School of the Art Institute of Chicago
2023–2024 Public Programs, Spring Edition
MD Anderson Hall, Farish Gallery

Bess Williamson, Ph.D., is 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. Her research examines how the concept of “access” is valued in contemporary design and what its consequences mean for the everyday lives of disabled people. She is a professor of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches 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. 

Williamson is the coeditor 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 eighteenth century to the present. Her first book, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, explores the history of design responses to disability rights from 1945 to recent times. In a new project, she is exploring the relationships between caregiving and design.

For this lecture, we ask: what is access? Williamson will trace the history of activism and creative tinkering that made changes in the built environment by, with, and for disabled people in recent times. Exploring both familiar legal requirements and lesser-known measures to make environments comfortable and supportive, we will consider the aspirations of access and the barriers still remaining in architecture and design.

This program is made possible through the generous support of the Betty R. and George F. Pierce Jr., FAIA, Fund; the William B. Coleman Jr. Colloquium Fund for Architecture; and the Wm. W. Caudill Lecture Series Fund. 
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