The Peasant in the City

Architecture, Cold War, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

This piece was written for a Zacheta show, Polska – kraj folkloru? You can download the catalogue in English here. It includes excellent essays by Gabriela Świtek, Błażej Brzostek and the curator, Joanna Kordjak.

A Socialist capital – a city for every citizen … the worker, the peasant and the working intelligentsia’ – political slogan Poland, early 1950s

zrzut-ekranu-2013-01-8-o-14-00-12In the 1952 romantic comedy ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ (Adventure in Mariensztat), Hanka, a country-girl, arrives in Warsaw as a tourist. A socialist realist fairytale, ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ was the first full colour feature film in Poland and the director Leonard Buczkowki made full use of the bright fabrics of her festive dress, and the even brighter red horizons of the city. Her route though the capital’s streets, conducted at an exhausting ‘Warszawskie tempo’ (Warsaw tempo) by an animated guide motivated by the spirit of socialism, takes her from Mariensztat, a new housing district, past romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on his plinth and Stanisław August’s picturesque palace which seems to float on the surface of the lake in Łazienki Park. Her tour ends abruptly when she seems to be lost in Constitution Square, the monumental showpiece of new socialist realist architecture in the city. Unperturbed, the joy of finding herself in the radiant future of socialist Warsaw is written in her smile. She is a peasant who is on the way to becoming a socialist activist. She joins a work brigade, becoming a bricklayer. The agent of her transformation was not a lecture or a political tract but the city itself. Warsaw had done its ideological work in this fable. Not only were the workers making the city; the city was making workers of peasants. Access to education, to homes of the kind being built in Constitution Square and to houses of culture would, it was claimed, overcome what Marx and Engels had classed the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in The Communist Manifesto one-hundred years earlier.

Social transformation was declared to be a priority of the new political order in the People’s Republic of Poland. Vice-Minister of Culture Włodzimierz Sokorski announced:

 

there is progress, a constant grappling with the new life conditions, a process of transforming peasants into proletarians. And take a look at the newly accepted university students who come from the working classes of cities or villages. Look how they have to struggle, how they are initially oppressed with the dominance of the pseudo-elites that they meet at the start of their student life. How they don’t give up, nonetheless, how they push themselves up to the surface and hold on tight to the positions achieved. They will be our leading and militant intelligentsia.[1]

 

Yet state attitudes to peasant life were contradictory. At the same time as calling for peasants to be made into proletarians, Sokorski also claimed that peasant culture was the beating heart of national life: ‘Folk art’, had he claimed, ‘formed itself in opposition to aristocratic, courtly culture. And at the same time its roots can be traced to a form of society founded on the drudgery of the masses, the feudal peasantry. When aristocratic culture severed itself from its national origins by becoming a source of docile cosmopolitanism and fossil-like formalism, peasant art nourished itself from a perpetually creative, richly national and deeply class-marked social stream.’[2] Peasant culture was ‘a living movement which renews itself everyday and every hour in the creative march of the Polish countryside to Socialism’.[3] This claim was allegorised in countless representations of the peasant in the company of her fellow builders of socialism. zulawskaHad Hanka looked up during her visit to Constitution Square in Buczkowski’s ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’, for instance, she might have even caught a glimpse of herself. The monumental arcades which flank the square were decorated with mosaics created by ceramic artist Hanna Żuławska to represent the seasons. Spring features a brightly dressed peasant woman marching arm-in-arm with a miner from Silesia, a factory worker and a ZMP-owiec (member of the socialist youth organisation) carrying a red flag. Here was an illustration of the national unity so loudly proclaimed by the state at the time. Countless other representations – posters, magazines, and in newsreels – recreated this happy scene. Almost invariably embodied as a woman in these images, the Polish peasantry was identified with femininity and the proletarian worker with masculinity. The peasant was both romanticised and emasculated in such representations (just as the political parties which represented peasant interests had been in the late 1940s).

The paradoxes of official representations of the peasantry was evident to many, even if censorship meant they could not be admitted. Writing abroad Czesław Miłosz in his critical account of the Stalin years, The Captive Mind, accused the state of making a fetish of peasant culture at the time when it was attempting (and failing) to impose collective farms in the countryside, attacking so called ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants) and encouraging internal migration to new urban projects like the construction of the city and kombinat of Nowa Huta:

 

In the villages, where the entire former pattern of custom is to be abolished through the transformation of peasants into agricultural workers, there still remains survivals of the individual peasant cultures which slowly stratified over the centuries. Still, let us speak frankly, the main support of this culture were usually the wealthier peasants. The battle against them, and their subsequent need to hide, must lead to the atrophy of peasant dress, decoration of huts, cultivation of private gardens, etc. There is a definite contradiction between the official protection of folklore (as a harmless form of national culture designed to satisfy patriotic tendencies) and the necessities of the new economic structure.[4]

 

For those who could not make a permanent move to Warsaw or Nowa Huta, tourism offered an alternative. Day trips and tours to Warsaw were organised for Poles from across the country to witness the miracle of reconstruction. To serve these national pilgrims, plans were put in place for new hotel and cultural centre in the heart of the city, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). architektra002-kopia-kopia-2First conceived in 1946 (though plans for similar structures can be traced back to the First World War [5]), Dom Chłopa was conceived as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdressers. Long delayed, the competition to design the building on a plot on Plac Powstanców Warszawy was not announced until May 1957. The winning scheme was designed by the most successful architect of the Stalin years, Bohdan Pniewski, and Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławek. Organised around a quadrangle, their scheme provided accommodation under a rippling roof line (that earned it the nickname ‘the house of the camels’) and a glass-walled lobby from which all Dom Chłopa’s services could be accessed. Constructed after the so called ‘Thaw’, the architects could now take advantage of the ‘contemporary style’.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-36-34The open lobby was decorated with brightly coloured furnishings and largely abstract decorative schemes by artists Władysław Zych, and husband and wife team of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz. Attempting to produce a thoroughly modern interior, Hanna Rechowicz admits to making some compromises: ‘There were strange birds and other pretty funny unknown animals and plants … Because it is a hotel in which peasants stay, they asked for some that could be read as fragments of reality’.[6] Nevertheless, the Dom Chlopa’s presented its guests with a vision of the bright future in social, political and aesthetic terms.

Dom Chłopa was an exceptional institution but perhaps one that had been prefigured in the writing of the Stefan Żeromski. In his last novel, Przedwiośne (The Coming Spring, 1924), the writer tells the story of a father and son returning home from Baku after the First World War and the revolutionary events in Russia and elsewhere. It is a political bildungsroman. One of the magnetic images which pulls them home to Poland is the father’s descriptions of a liberated country enjoying the benefits of modern technology. Peasant homes are now, he tells his son, made with glass walls – bright, transparent, warm and above all hygienic: ‘water cools the walls; as a result, even in the greatest swelter it’s as cool there as in our cellar in Baku, but without the damp and the bad smell. The very same water constantly washes the glass floors, walls, and ceilings, bringing cool and cleanliness. (…) there is nothing that could rot or go moldy or smell from visible or invisible dirt, since all the utensils, all the furniture and fittings – everything is made of glass.’[7] Żeromski’s vision was fashioned not only from one of the clichés of progress – glass architecture, but also from one of the deep rooted prejudices of modern life – the dirtiness of the peasant. Similarly, the Dom Chłopa had been shaped by the conviction that the peasant needed to be improved to truly engage with the city. When not decorating the city in her gala dress, she appears to have been viewed as detritus (lit. matter out of place). Varsovian Anna Mańkowska passed her opinion of country tourists when interviewed in an article in Stolica (Capital City) in 1958: ‘I see countless tours through the windows of my apartment in the Old Market Square in Warsaw. Unwashed and rumpled and carrying their cases and bundles all day and foraging for orangeade at a kiosk, I wish for the simple device of day hotels, conceived for ordinary people.’[8]

This trope of dirtiness was evident in other campaigns to improve peasant life. Writing in Stolica Stanislaw Komornicki accused new-comers of reproducing the social spaces of the rural home in their new city apartments. The small, often meanly proportioned, kitchen was, he observed, sometimes used like the traditional czarna izba (black chamber) in the peasant home, a multi-functional room organized around the fireplace where household labour was conducted and meals consumed. In transposition, this ‘disposition’ in the new Warsaw apartment left the much-trumpeted collective services like the communal laundry unused. The other, biała izba (white chamber) – which had been used as a site of display and for the reception of guests – was preserved as a space of display rather than self-education or other virtuous hobbies. The small, new flat, which typically accommodated a family in two or three multi-purpose rooms, was designed according to principles of utility. In effect, the design of the apartment was disregarded by its inhabitants. In the view of this apologist for the new Warsaw, this trace of the peasant disposition in new socialist spaces ‘was an unfortunate memory of long-past, unhappy times’.[9] What Komornicki had in mind was not the ‘private’ time of biography but the epochal conception of Marxism in which life was regulated by the metre of progress: in this teleology, peasant life was destined for extinction. Ideologically correct, his article sought to raise a consciousness that would speed its disappearance.

Komornicki’s criticism tapped into deep-seated town/country antipathies in Polish culture. It also anticipated a good number of sociological and anthropological studies made in the decades that followed which sought to understand why newcomers to the city did not avail themselves of the cultural resources to which they now had access, or seem to have been improved by their new surroundings. negatywyAssessing the situation in Nowa Huta in the 1960s, one academic wrote ‘Where the new blocks were inhabited by the families of rural origins, there were frequent problems due to incompetent use of a contemporary flat by the immigrants. It was often the case that the fittings in a flat were devastated (such as water supply and drainage, or gas heaters in bathrooms) due to incorrect use of the equipment (such as drawing water from the radiator), or using bathroom as a place to keep animals’.[10] Internalising the ‘progressive’ policies of the state, much of this sociology eschewed observation in favour of judgment (‘incompetent use’).

Other portraits of the persistence of rural habitus in the city were more sympathetic. They include the social documentaries produced in the second half of the mid 1950s. During the Thaw, film-makers freed themselves from the task of producing propaganda and began to explore the impoverished conditions of everyday life. Known as the Czarna Seria (Black Series), their short films – sometimes involving actors and re-enactments but mostly assuming an observational style – took their viewers to the building sites and workers’ dormitories of Nowa Huta to witness the hooliganism and alcoholism there (‘Miejsce zamieszkania’, dir. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957), and the depopulated towns and villages in the Polish countryside (‘Miasteczko’, dir. Krystyna Gryczełowska, 1956). Another significant theme was the on-going housing crisis in Poland where many still lived in ruins ten years after the Second World War had ended. Made in the second wave of these social portraits, ‘Miasto na wyspach’ (‘City of Islands’, dir. Jerzy Dmowski and Bohdan Kosiński, 1958), a 8-minute film made for Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, features one of the new clichés of the era, the image of the city as the countryside. New buildings were being constructed in Warsaw in small clusters with vast dusty plains in between. The clearance of the ruins had allowed nature and even small-holdings to occupy the city. Sometimes in Dmowski and Kosiński’s film, this lends itself to picturesque contrasts: a tram crosses a grassy meadow and a tethered cow appears with building site in the background. Other shots are more desperate, showing dilapidated shacks and their inhabitants scratching a meagre living by recycling the debris of the pre-war city. (And Dmowski and Kosiński intercut stills from the crowded streets of the pre-war city, decorated with advertising, to emphasise the contrast between urbanity and rurality). Despite the rhetoric of turning peasants into proletarians, it looked as if the village had come to occupy the city. This was not the romantic image of the village populated with happy peasants but a landscape of desperation. These scenes might also have come from the pages of Żeromski’s The Coming Spring. When the son arrives in Poland – still carrying his now late father’s images of peasant modernity in his mind – his disappointment is palpable: ‘Cezary gazed with cheerless eyes at the miry streets pocked with bottomless potholes; at the houses of all different, heights and colours and degrees outward filthiness; at the pigsties and the puddles, the outbuildings and the charred ruins.’[11]

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-33-22Dmowski and Kosiński were making a point, demanding that the post-stalinist state to make good on its promises of improved housing and welfare for all. This argument was taken further in Architektura, the mouthpiece of the professional association of architects in Poland. In 1963 Jan Minorski published an article entitled which interpreted data about life on the fringes of the city generated by Ekonom. Techn. Rady Naukowej przy PRN. Entitled ‘Architektura samorzutna’ (Spontaneous Architecture), it explored the ways in which improvised homes were made from cheap and often scavenged materials on narrow plots of land overlooked by the planners. Minorski’s portrait of such unsupported and largely illegal attempts to ‘meet the needs of human life’ was surprisingly sympathetic.[12] He had been a loyal champion of socialist realism and then, after 1956, of the modernist revival in Polish architecture. Often represented as antinomies, both shared a confident belief in the civilising mission of architecture. Yet, in this article, he expressed a genuine interest in what Bernard Rudolfsky called ‘architecture without architects’.[13] Minorski provided detailed maps of social relations in these households; sympathetic photographic portraits of the inhabitants of these shacks; and positive descriptions of the the resourcefulness and creativity involved in making their homes and running small business in the suburbs. Perhaps to offset the doubts of his readers, he asserted:

‘This architecture is:

  • spontaneous, the result of lively activities,
  • concrete, arising without a blueprint, variable, ‘tachiste’, according to one’s wishes’

Some of these homes and workshops were the product of urban expansion, sweeping former villages into the orbit of the city. Others were the product of tragedy: Minorski, outlining the lives of these householders, points to the dark catalogue of war and destruction that had necessitated this kind of domestic creativity. Moreover, it is clear – from the descriptions of their households – that they are predominately populated with women (or as Minorski puts it, ‘the grandmother reigns over the hierarchy here’[14]). The gendering of the peasant is, in this case, less a matter of ideology than of tragic fate. But his point is that these homes might also contain lessons for architects and urban planners too: they ‘are subject to constant change. Their spatial development is dynamic.’ ‘In spontaneous construction,’ he continues, ‘you can see that what is good comes from heroic efforts to provide a roof over one’s head. What is evil has its roots in the lack of financial, technical, legal, organisational support by the state.’[15] Perhaps little more than a footnote in the history of Polish architecture and urbanism, Minorski’s article did more than any other representation in the period to fill in the details of the figure of the peasant in the city, albeit on its very fringes. Her appearance here was not a fantasy in gala dress or a crumpled figure in need of improvement but was an attempt to understand her concrete existence.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O sztukę realizmu socjalistycznego’ in Sztuka w walce o socjalizm (PIW: Warsaw, 1950) 150.

[2] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O własciwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’ in Polska Sztuka Ludowa (May 1949) 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985) 67.

[5] Bohdan Rostropowicz, ‘Chłopi będą mieli swoj dom w Warszawie’ in Stolica (?) 15.

[6] Hanna Rechowicz cited by Max Cegielski, Mozaika śladami Rechowiczów (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011), 164-5.

[7] Stefan Żeromski, The Coming Spring, trans. B. Johnston (Budapest: Central European Press, 2007) 85-88.

[8] Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)

[9] St. Komornicki, ‘Jak urządzić nowe mieszkanie’ in Stolica (1 March 1953) 11.

[10] S. Panek, E. Piasecki, ‘Nowa Huta. Integracja ludności w świetle badań antropologicznych’ in Materiały i prace antropologiczne, 80 (1971) 30 – cited by Ewelina Szpak, ‘’Between Farm and Factory. Peasants in Urban Space in Communist Poland’ in Lud’a Klusáková and Laure Teulières, Frontiers and Identities: Cities in Regions and Nations (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) 248.

[11] Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.

[12] Jan Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ in Architektura, 4 (1963) 133.

[13] This was a title of an exhibition curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964-5 which surveyed the diverse faces of vernacular building traditions around the world.

[14] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.

[15] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.

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The Poster Remediated – installation shots and press

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Graphic Design

These installation shots in Poster Museum at Wilanów were provided by Podpunkt, the excellent studio which designed the show and the accompanying book. They were photographed by Michał Drabik.

Podpunkt did much more than design the show: they worked closely with me to shape its conceptualisation. Much of the intellectual drive of the show comes from Podpunkt’s design.

The show was controversial. Some designers felt that it undermines the tradition of the Polish poster – perhaps it does. My intention was not to treat posters as works of art (in the traditional sense) but to explore the relationship of this historic form to other media – to cinema, television, print media and of course the Internet. Some of the most striking works in the show are by unknown designers.  So in this sense, the highly artistic and authorial tradition of the poster was abandoned, at least for the duration of the show.

A large number of critics also wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, demanding the reinstatement of the traditional Biennale competition (an open call for designers to submit posters – whether they were commissioned works or simply propositions for posters) and describing the decision to change the format and appoint me  a ‘scandal’. You can hear the arguments being rehearsed on Polish radio here. During the opening of the show, there was a protest against the concept of the exhibition. Ten or maybe twelve painted posters were hung in the courtyard which divides the two pavilions housing the show. Here are two of them – you can judge their merits.

If you read Polish, there are some thoughtful reviews and previews in Polityka, dwutygodnik (a typically excellent and critical piece by Karol Sienkiewicz), Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita. The last(!) print issue of 2+3D magazine also includes an interview with me, an editorial on the Biennale and a feature on the work of Jordan Seiler and Vermibus, two artist who feature in the show. There is also an image-led piece the summer 2016 issue of Eye.

Design Exhibitions Today – Answers and Questions

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition

This piece appears in Disegno magazine, 7, 2014.

 

Design museums and galleries have long been in the business of celebrating things. Walk through the ornate doors of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or into the airy lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the building itself tells you – prepare to be impressed. Originality, beauty, and genius have been the bywords of the expert curators who selected and arranged the exhibits. But these lofty criteria start to look shaky in the face of the conditions shaping design today. Globalization, open source knowledge, interactivity, post-Fordism, biotechnology and other unsettling phenomena are changing the practice and role of design, and not always in ways that are unequivocally good. The question facing curators is whether established techniques and methods of exhibiting contemporary design are up to the task. Does the design exhibition need a redesign?

Consider the furore over Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun. When the American law student released the files for the boorishly-named ‘Liberator Pistol’ in May 2013, he triggered a media storm around the world. Journalists queued up to interview the 26-year old who obligingly pointed the bulky barrel of his plastic pistol at the lens of press photographers when asked. Wilson also caught the attention of the US state department and was forced to take the files down from his website, Defense Distributed. But this was itself a kind of achievement. Wilson had demonstrated the dark potential of 3D-printing, a technology which is usually celebrated in ringing terms. ‘The first time I heard about it, my jaw dropped’, recalls Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA in New York, ‘I always think that anything that happens in design and technology is for the public good. Duh – no! … That was a wake-up call.’

Antonelli reports that Wilson’s gun was one of the impetuses for her latest curatorial experiment, ‘Design and Violence’. Brilliant seismographs of contemporary design, Antonelli’s MoMA shows – including ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ (2008) and ‘Talk to Me’ (2011) – have measured the reverberations of new and prospective technologies on the world. ‘Design and Violence’ began its life as a proposal for a show too, but it soon became clear to her and her collaborator, Jamer Hunt from the Parsons School, that an on-line format would be more suited to the theme. Launched earlier this year as a MoMA microsite, ‘Design and Violence’ explores the role of design in the physical and psychological repression of others, as well as in devices to mitigate its effects. Prisons, hand cuffs, handguns, sound cannons and slaughter houses all feature, accompanied with extended captions. A lightly customized WordPress site, ‘Design and Violence’ has a matter-of-fact appearance. She calls it ‘a grass-roots work of love, but done through MoMA channels.’

The website format extends the reach of ‘Design and Violence’ far beyond MoMA’s usual audiences (which, Antonelli modestly says, often ‘stumble’ into design shows ‘on the way to see the Picassos’). It also allows for disputation too. ‘We realized that an exhibition would not do,’ she says, ‘because an exhibition is often a one way street, even if you let people participate. We decided to make a website through which we would ask people who are experts of violence .. to talk about these objects, to use these objects as prompts.’ Disputation does not simply mean ad hoc feedback: it has been structured into the site. Antonelli has invited an extraordinary cast of commentators to offer reflections on the systems, buildings and objects of designed violence. They include a neuroscientist, science fiction writer, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an army officer – all experts of violence in one way or another. Their opinions and knowledge is what stops this project being a form of virtual tourism into the misery of others (or, for that matter, just an online forum). Nor are they champions of the designs in the site. Invited to write about ‘The Republic of Salivation,’ a 2012 work by Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta which imagines a Soylent Green world of food shortage and state-controlled nutrition, critic John Thackara takes the two speculative designers to task for exhibiting ‘no curiosity as to the causes of this imminent threat. They focus, instead, on ways to change the body so that it can be fed synthetically—a solution that contrives to be both downstream and fantastical at the same time.’

When it comes to focusing critically on such troubling objects, do websites have an advantage over galleries? Perhaps the aura of exceptionality and enlightenment which hangs heavy in the gallery puts a limit on on the kind of criticality and self-reflexivity which themes like ‘Design and Violence’ require. After all, MoMA – founded in 1929 – still sets itself the task of advocating for the new. Museums also struggle to find coherent ways of reflecting differing viewpoints in their galleries, let alone dialogue. Antonelli concurs, ‘At MoMA I might have a hard time doing an exhibition about negatives or at least ugliness, but with a website you can really go back and forth’.

Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun was also one of the first objects to join the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection. Launched in July 2014 by Kieran Long, a curator who joined the museum to focus its approach to contemporary design after working as an architecture and design journalist, the Rapid Response Collection expedites the slow process by which contemporary objects are acquired by the institution. Criteria like ‘beauty’ and ‘rarity’ are not necessarily important when selecting topical designs. They include Christian Louboutin ‘nude’ shoes in an all-embracing range of skin tones; Flappy Bird, the smart phone game which was withdrawn by its designer after being perturbed by its addictive effects; and stainless steel spikes manufactured in Ireland and installed on the forecourts of buildings to deter rough sleepers. The new gallery has attracted considerable international attention. On the day I visit, one of his team is about to be interviewed by a US radio station. ‘The striking thing about the interest we’ve had’, say Long, ‘is that it feels like people have been waiting – including the design community – for a major design institution to come along and take the obvious things seriously and offer them up as evidence of how we live.’

Installed in a V&A gallery, the Rapid Response Collection emphasizes its topicality, not least by the display of at least one new object each month. This also means putting expiration dates on current exhibits too. Many owe their fame to the whirlwind effects of social media too. The mean-spirited spikes were not new but, after a photograph of the entrance to a luxury block in London was tweeted, they were thrust into the public eye by a tremendous wave of anger. 180,000 people signed a change-org petition, forcing their removal from the upmarket apartment building. When being confronted with exhibits like these, it is clear that things are not discrete objects that can ‘speak for the themselves’- they are tangled up in the economic, media and social systems which crisscross the globe.

One of Long’s first contributions to life at the V&A was to write – with other colleagues – ’95 Theses’ about how museums ought to approach their role in the twenty-first century. A knowing echo of Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church in 1517 which kick-started the Protestant Reformation, Long set out to prompt self-reflection on the part of the V&A – a monumental institution with more than 2.5 million objects in its collections and 800 members of staff, many of whom are world-leading specialists in their fields. Rapid Response Collecting is a demonstration of a good number of Long’s theses – including the proposition that ‘Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics’ and that ‘Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.’

One of the curatorial challenges facing Long and his team is that some of the most newsworthy objects are often the most banal. They have put a pair of cotton twill cargo pants – still bearing a Primark shop tag – on display in a glass vitrine. This garment typifies the the cheap clothing which was being made in a reinforced-concrete maze of sweatshops which collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1129 people in April 2013. There is – as we can no longer ignore – a clear connection between cheap clothing consumed in the Global North and the plight of low-paid workers in the rest of world. Yet the display – with a long caption written in a cool, dispassionate tone and a photograph of the ruined factory – does not proselytize. This is the traditional code of journalism – truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity – translated into a curatorial strategy. Such candour, however, makes one wonder about the rest of the objects in the museum, not least the upbeat collection of twentieth century ‘design icons’ next door. Surely many of these things have sinister histories too?

Rapid Response Collecting is one response to a problem which has long confronted curators of contemporary design. If an object is mass produced, heavily promoted or widely available, why put it on a plinth? Perhaps this quandary also explains the appearance of rather extravagant forms of one-off designs in museums and galleries around the world too. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a Marcel Wanders retrospective earlier in the year to mark the twenty-five year career of the Dutch designer. Oversize versions of his lamps and furniture, like props in some kind of postmodern update of Gulliver’s Travels, were accompanied by footage of a nude model garlanded with clouds – a human lampshade – and a dreamy musical soundscape. Jan Boelen, one of the most creative and thoughtful curators of design exhibitions in recent years, does not pull his punches when reflecting on this order of high aestheticism: ‘It is probably one of the worst design exhibitions that you could imagine at the moment because the goal and the place of the art gallery is to discuss, to debate and to educate. But what I saw there was a non-critical promotion of his works.’ The fact that Wanders has pumped-up or revamped his celebrated designs does little to impress Boelen: ‘I wouldn’t be able see a chair in gold or with laid-in diamonds [elsewhere]. But what is the value of that?’

Boelen has spent the last few years making Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, into one of liveliest centres of contemporary art and design in Europe. Often combining art and design, Boelen is not much interested in the difference between the two: ‘The medium or the discipline is not that important,’ he says, ‘Topics are.’ At Z33 this has often meant social and ethical issues which ensue from developments in science and technology. ‘The Machine’ in 2012 exhibited many cautionary tools and instruments, most made by designers rather than engineers. Their interest in 3-D Printing and the hacking of mass produced goods was made all the more poignant by the postindustrial setting in which they were exhibited, a cultural centre in the buildings of a former mine in Genk.

A number of Z33 shows have formed a stage for speculation and design fictions. But perhaps more importantly, Z33 – like many contemporary art centres – has made a ‘performative turn’. In the last decade or so, the exhibition has been reimagined as a fluid and participatory affair in which the exhibits are not necessarily fixed or finished and audiences are imagined as participants or co-curators rather than viewers. Increasingly, curators want their shows to be busy places filled with people and exhibits doing things. A 2010 ‘Design by Performance’ at Z33 audited performances as well shape-shifting and self-generating objects created in the previous decade by designers like Martino, Gamper, Tjep, Studio Glithero and Jurgen Bey. And, at the beginning of 2013, a visit to Z33 involved a welcome from a performer-invigilator who would share stories of ordinary objects in the gallery or even the possessions in the visitor’s pocket. Conceived by London-based graphic design collective Åbäke, ‘All the Knives (Any printed story on request)’ turned the gallery into a living anthology of stories about things. In this case, there are clearly echoes of the techniques employed by artist Tino Sehgal in his ‘constructed situations’ and employment of ‘interpreters’ to talk one-to-one with visitors in galleries and museums. Are Abake indebted to Sehgal? Perhaps so. But the fact that this is an experimental technique – and, as such adaptable and reusable – is more important than originality. In fact, this summer Hans Ulbrich Obrist, the curator of the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, worked with Sehgal to present original plans and models of Cedric Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace scheme (1960-1) as well as material from the archive of Swiss sociologist and art historian Lucius Burckhardt. Well cast and well informed students from architecture schools bring this material on trolleys to visitors and present it in person. There are no spotlights, blown-up text panels, interactive screens or any other conventional exhibition paraphernalia. The qualities that distinguishes the Swiss Pavilion from the encounters with architecture and design in most galleries and museums, according to V&A curator Long, are its ‘intimacy’ and ‘generosity’.

A Z33 project might take the form of a performance, a concert or, of course, a website. ‘We do the research and then find the right medium’, Boelen says. Moreover, launching a website to generate and share new knowledge last year, Z33 staked a new claim to be a research-based institution – more like a think tank than just a gallery. There is little new, of course, about on-line publication, but it means that the themes of a Z33 exhibition can be sustained long after the exhibits have been packed away. ‘I am trying to put things on the agenda,’ says Boelen. ‘Let me give one example where one can feel that things are happening: in April 2012 I made “The Machine” exhibition which referred to the new industrial revolution. It ran through out the summer and six weeks after the exhibition closed 10,000 people here in the region lost their jobs when the Ford car factory closed down. I did not want to address the matter of the post-fordist society too directly because this might seem insulting to those people. But we, as exhibition makers, as curators, as institutes, have to address what is happening globally, and to link that to the local situation … These exhibitions should not only act as an awareness machine but they should also give inspiration and hope. Critique is too easy – it is important to formulate alternatives. Constructive debate is very important.’

In their efforts to set new agendas for design Boelen, as well as Antonelli at MoMA and Long at the V&A, not only have to shape new kinds of exhibitions; they need to gather new kind of audiences too. A few years ago, French philosopher Bruno Latour called this dingpolitik – the politics of things. Things are of common interest even and perhaps because they are often the focus of disagreement. The challenge of curators or critics is to create assemblies where our common interests can be aired and negotiated. Long has an interesting proposition when it comes to thinking about the V&A’s public role. Comparing Parliament Square in London where UK government has banned protest since 2005 and the V&A’s Porter Gallery where a show on ‘Disobedient Objects’ employed in protests around the world is on display, he says ‘Those two things are continuous. Both are part of the public funded, public realm … I don’t see the things here [in the V&A] as being outside the world; they are just in a different part of the part of the public realm.’ And, as he stresses, that recognition of the Museum as a public realm has special importance when that order of space is diminishing – sometimes for political reasons (as in the case of Parliament Square) and sometimes for economic ones. Britain, as he points out, has seen a massive wave closures of libraries whilst the V&A survives and is even expanding. For ‘All of This Belongs to You’, an exhibition planned for spring 2015 when the next UK General Election is scheduled, Long is hoping to persuade the authorities to erect a functioning voting station in the gallery containing the Raphael Cartoons. Originally designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, the site of the Papal Elections, they are now on loan from the Queen. Here one of the ‘95 theses’, that ‘Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounter’, may well be realized in a literal and provocative way.

Making things truly public – the challenge issued by Latour – means many things. Perhaps more than ever, it requires the kind of sharp-eyed, enquiring and intelligent curators who act as editors, collecting and exhibiting things on our behalf. But it also means developing and employing exhibition techniques which allow for exchange with their audiences too. None of the techniques employed by these design curators is a perfect solution to the task: on-line exhibitions forego the encounter with material things whilst the intimate interpretation in-situ are no doubt costly. But perhaps the idea of a solution – a word which once occupied a central place in the professional vocabulary of designers – is itself a distraction. Contingent, responsive and often provisional, their shows don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany – review

Architecture, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism

This review was commissioned by the European Architectural History Network in 2010.

Like a number of other exhibitions on modernist art and architecture, Modernizacje 1918-1939. Czas przyszły dokonany (Modernizations 1918-1939: Future Perfect) at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź opened with images of a society in revolutionary turmoil. In this case it was not Soviet Russia but Hungary which marked the year zero. The gallery’s walls were filled with Mihály Biró and Béla Uitz’s posters of billowing red flags and worker-heroes announcing Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Revolutionary Hungary was the exception rather than the rule in an exhibition which set out to demonstrate that Modernism gained a fast hold in the societies of the “New Europe” which formed after the First World War. After all, the Hungarian Soviet failed after 133 days, sending many figures in the artistic avant-garde—who had been among Kun’s most ardent supporters—into exile. The modernization promised by Kun—represented in Łódź by a particularly spectacular painting by Uitz depicting a cadre of muscular workers building a red city—was over before it had a chance to have any effect.

In other parts of the “New Europe” after 1918, “modernization” had very real and, in some cases, long-lasting results. The capitals of the new Baltic republics, Tallinn and Kaunas (a “temporary” capital while Vilnius was occupied), were home to sophisticated private villas and public buildings. Buildings like Anton Soans and Edgar Kuusik’s Art Hall (1933-4) in the Estonian capital typically combined functionalist unfussiness with strong lines of symmetry and classical proportions. In Czechoslovakia, the elegant shoes produced by in Tomas Bat’a’s factories and sold in an international chain of stores like Vladimir Karfík’s elegant glazed “box” in the Brno were evidence of the kind of complete world of utility and functional beauty being championed as l’esprit nouveau. Moreover, as one exhibition panel reproducing Bat’a publicity reveals, the patrician shoe manufacturer was keen to demonstrate how communist politics (“the evil of the past”) had been eliminated from its factory towns. Here Le Corbusier’s question “Architecture or Revolution?” was answered in unequivocal terms. At both the heart of Europe in Bohemia and on its Baltic shores, a bourgeois “revolution” was underway in settings which have hitherto been overlooked by most attempts to reassemble European modernism.

Curator Andrzej Szczerski set out to demonstrate the attraction of modernist architecture and design in the new and revived states of Central/Eastern Europe formed at the round tables and in the couloirs of the peace conferences at the end of the First World War. In their strong desire to demonstrate their right to statehood, the leaders of these new and restored nations—whether on the left or on the right—often welcomed the images of progress and technology offered by the Modern Movement. Modernism was proposed as a harbinger of deeper patterns of political, economic and even social modernization. A crude national Darwinianism lay behind some of the most vivid examples on display in Modernizations 1918-1939. The ambition of Poland’s Sea and Colonial League for imperial possessions in Africa was mapped in posters featuring compelling photomontages and graceful Art Deco liner imagery. In this, the League hoped to match Italian actions in East Africa. The bridgehead for this imperial “adventure” was to be Gdynia, the new port city built to guarantee access to the sea. This national project drew on the vision and creativity of many of Poland’s modernist architects, photographers and artists—as the Łódź exhibition demonstrated with great effect.

In the Sea and Colonial League, modernism and imperialism were aligned: command of the former providing “evidence” of Poland’s “right” to the latter. This order of arrogance is evident in other key works in the Łódź show. Sixteen extraordinary panels from Jiří Kroha’s “Sociological Element of Living” cycle of didactic montages (1933-34) were on display. Designed to prepare householders for the task of living in new social housing schemes, Kroha pronounced on the “correct” ways to dress, to enjoy leisure time and even to procreate. Formally, the work, fashioned from material cut from the popular press and hand-stencilled lettering, has the visual élan of the surrealists and yet intellectually it represents the disturbing certainty of the modernist vanguard. It is perhaps unsurprising to know that Kroha thrived in the intimidating political setting of Stalinist Czechoslovakia.

A pioneering show and the product of considerable research, Modernizations 1918-1939 brought to Łódź the work of mostly little-known figures whose careers were stimulated by the settlements at Versailles, Trianon and Tartu after the fighting stopped. One cannot help but note that their achievements were then obscured by the Cold War politics which divided Europe after another world war.

Publication related to the exhibition:

Andrzej Szczerski, Modernizacje. Sztuka i architektura w nowych państwach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej 1918-1939, Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2010, 406 pp., 165 b&w and color illustrations, 68 Polish złoty, ISBN 978-83-87937-76-8.

Writing Design: The History of Design Criticism in the UK since the 1960s

Design Exhibition, Graphic Design

This essay appeared in the book published to accompany Communicate! British Independent Graphic Design since the 1960s, an exhibition curated by Rick Poynor at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 2005.

The history of journalism about graphic design in Britain is, in large part, the history of specialist design journals. Unlike other spheres of contemporary art and design, graphic design rarely draws a mention in the culture or business pages of newspapers or on television arts programmes. Whilst the media regularly discusses new products as objects of desire and public architecture attracts both controversy and acclaim, only the publicity-seeking fringes of graphic design draw attention. In recent years shock advertising and earlier, in the late 1980s, the rebranding of privatised industries (‘BT Blows Millions on Trumpet’, The Sun) have been put under the spotlight. Like language itself, graphic design seems so deeply ingrained in the texture of daily life that it is taken for granted. Whilst this might be seen as graphic design’s achievement, it has been a cause of concern for those who wish to promote the pecuniary and professional interests of designers, as well as for those who want to put the social and moral effects of their work under close scrutiny.

Magazines are commodities and, with some notable exceptions, most are produced for profit. Since the 1950s the news-stands of Britain have had to grow to accommodate the new titles that have burgeoned year on year. Seizing the economic benefits produced by new printing technologies (not least the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s), magazine publishing is increasingly characterised by specialist titles serving particular and often narrow interests. The fact that British readers today can purchase half a dozen home-grown graphic design titles when none existed a generation ago might seem to be a simple reflection of the same unerring commercial ‘logic’ that has produced a dozen different gossip magazines over the same period. As Blueprint (1983-) stressed in an early editorial: ‘once upon a time people started magazines because they believed that people would want to read what they had to say; today it is more likely that a magazine is launched because the advertisement sales manager can see a “gap in the market”’.[1] Blueprint was itself, however, initiated by volunteers prepared to write pro bono, ‘moonlighting’ from careers elsewhere. The motives behind the launch of this and, in fact, many other design titles cannot be reduced to commercial opportunism (even if some of these magazines have espoused an out-and-out commercial philosophy).

As this short essay reviewing the recent history of graphic design journalism in Britain sets out to show, in launching new graphic design magazines like Creative Review (1980-) or Dot.Dot.Dot (2000-), editors and publishers sought to change the world in which their readers lived and, more specifically, in which they worked. In great part, the readers of these titles have tended to be designers and others working in closely-aligned fields. Whilst few titles have been explicitly ideological or doctrinaire in the manner of the avant-garde in the 1920s, most have sought to create an imagined ‘community’ of readers; to raise the status of the professions they report; and to influence the quality of design. This is ideological work that extends beyond ‘mere’ commercialism (and sometimes pitches publisher against editor, and advertising against editorial). It has never been a surprise to designers that representation is ideological, even if this is a term which they might not use: to portray and frame one’s activities and those of others is to assert power and is, ultimately, an attempt to shape the world.

Graphic design and typography was framed in very particular and in some unexpected ways by Typographica, one of the two British journals discussing (if not strictly reporting) graphic design in the 1950s and 1960s. Founded by Herbert Spencer, designer and critic, in 1949, it appeared in two series of sixteen issues each and ceased publishing in 1967. Although its title suggested rather narrow interests, Typographica took a rather catholic view of modernist design introducing its readers to now well-known historical figures like Aleksander Rodchenko, Piet Zwart and Henryk Berlewi, surveyed ephemeral lettering traditions and contemporary avant-garde poetry and art

If Typographica was idiosyncratic and eclectic, Design magazine (1949-1999) the official mouthpiece of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID/re-designated as The Design Council in 1972) was much more self-consciously ideological. A monthly reporting the design of consumer and capital goods as well as some aspects of graphic design like packaging, Design proselytised for a ‘good design’, a concept never adequately defined and closely connected to a taste for modernism. An official and bureaucratic organisation funded by grant-in-aid from government, the CoID saw itself as both a servant and a critic of industry. If the design standards of manufacturers and the level of taste of consumers could be raised, Britain’s dire postwar economic situation and the quality of ordinary lives would be improved. Design expounded a technocratic view of progress: designers were technical experts who, working alongside engineers and other specialists, were best able to make rational judgements about the appropriate form of the material world. In the Manichean world of the CoID, design could be ‘good’ (modest, functional, transparent, rational and enduring) or ‘bad’ (gauche, ambiguous, emotional and ephemeral). The failures and successes of British industry – measured on technical, aesthetic and moral indices – were regularly called to task on the pages of its magazine.

Graphic design, a practice thoroughly implicated in the spectacle of the emerging consumer society, posed a ‘problem’ for Design. ‘The image’ – the aspect of design least susceptible to the CoID’s quasi-scientific and civic-minded approach – was increasingly the immaterial basis of marketing, advertising and Pop design (as well as politics and other ‘serious’ aspects of modern life[2]). Despite occasional forays into the record shops and boutiques of Carnaby Street to report the taste for Pop, Design’s writers were ill-equipped to deal with the ephemeral and fast-changing world they found there.[3] They returned to form which, in the case of graphic design, meant reports on the systematic techniques behind successful corporate images, road signage or the practical failings of public information campaigns.[4]

If Design was ideologically inhibited from embracing the ephemeral world of fashion and marketing, it was also unable to provide a platform for the ideas of the consumer society’s most vocal critics. The writings of philosophers like Herbert Marcuse provided the Counter Culture of the late 1960s with a pugnacious critique of the alienating effects of affluence. When the march of progress was measured by the launch of new ‘improved’ products performing old functions, humanity, it was argued, was reduced to ‘one-dimension’. Deprived of their imaginations by advertising, men and women were becoming unable to imagine other ways of living except as consumers. Feeling the pressure of the Counter Culture, Design’s editor responded by invoking the irresistible force of progress (‘the clock cannot be turned back’): designers had to reform rather than reject the world in which they worked.[5]

Design froze in the bright lights of consumerism. Unable to endorse the fast-changing image world or to sign up to the more radical utopianism of the Counter Culture, it withdrew into its ‘tried and tested’ world of engineering.[6] Graphic design, which had never been at the centre of Design’s interests, was treated as a peripheral phenomenon, of greatest interest when it corresponded to the magazine’s worldview. In fact, the only publication published in Britain exclusively covering graphic design during this period was Icographic (1971-1979). The official organ of ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) and under the editorship of Peter Wallis Burke, this quarterly took a disciplined approach to communication, publishing long and often scholarly articles on the ‘efficiency’ of new alphabets, ‘rational’ classification systems in publishing or the need to ‘move [graphic design] from the applied arts to the applied sciences.’[7] Graphic design was discussed not in terms of events or products but as a project to improve the world through the exchange of knowledge.

Icographic was an unambiguously modernist publication which claimed roots in the design and social idealism of the 1920s. It was ideological in ways that virtually no graphic design writing has been since. The explicit internationalism of Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Pictorial Education), a lingua franca of graphic symbols which aspired to transcend national and linguistic boundaries, was shared by Icographic, albeit in changed political circumstances. Neurath’s invention has been understood in terms of its opposition to the xenophobia and belligerent nationalism in inter-war Europe: Icographic rejected the long Cold War divisions which separated East and West, publishing the research findings of Polish and East German designers. Underdevelopment and global inequalities came under attack too. In ‘New Ways to View World Problems’, a co-authored article, an electronic engineer from India, a geographer and a graphic designer from the USA and a technologist from Iran argued for information systems that could display ‘only the stark reality of facts, concepts and the significance of global interdependencies.’[8]

Icographic’s writers turned their backs on the steady growth of business-minded graphic design consultancies in Britain and elsewhere in the 1970s. The reproduction of paintings on the paperback covers of Penguin’s ‘Classics’ series was, according to Germano Facetti, less a manipulation of desire than a cultural service: art on the jacket, he suggested, would find its way to those ‘without immediate access to art galleries or museums.’[9] Icographic could not, however, escape the gravitational pull of economics. From 1972 Letraset International Ltd. provided sponsorship in return for space to promote its new typeface designs, available under licence to typesetting system manufacturers, and its dry transfer lettering. Expressive faces like ‘Shatter’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ struck a colourful and discordant note, out of tune with the journal’s collective and earnest voice. By the same measure, Icographic’squasi-scientific rhetoric did little to support Letraset’s interest in fashion or the passage of its dry transfer letting into the hands of the non-professional designers.

Baseline magazine’s 1990 feature on the comics typography of Will Eisner.

In fact, in 1979 Letraset issued its own occasional magazine, Baseline, to showcase its products. Under the art direction of Mike Daines, prominent commercially-minded designers including Erik Spiekermann and Milton Glaser, were given space to experiment with the company’s products and to reflect on the impact of new technologies like laser printing.[10] Although Baseline was not firmly established as a magazine until 1995 (when it was bought by Daines and art director Hans Dieter Reichert), its appearance at the end of the 1970s anticipated a wave of new design titles that engaged directly, and often with enthusiasm, with promotion and marketing.

Creative Review, a monthly magazine launched by Marketing Week Communications in 1980, was the first onto the blocks. A sister publication to Marketing Week, it provided a glossy, colour pages in which the output of the ‘creative industries’ could be surveyed. Framed alongside unequivocally commercial products like pop music promos and television advertising, graphic design was presented as a tool which would give an edge to those businesses which made use of its most skilled practitioners. After early issues in which the great and the good lamented the state of creativity, Creative Review established a successful, up-beat formula (still followed today). Unlike its predecessors, it dedicated space to the portfolios of designers working in the commercial sector. Images of the output of individuals and consultancies would be accompanied by a glowing commentary that emphasised the ‘originality’, ‘innovation’ and ‘vision’ of the designer under the spotlight, as well at his or her ability to solve ‘problems’. Technique was discussed, although not necessarily in the familiar terms of materials and tools: readers were as likely to be presented with a discussion of ‘how to master the creative pitch’ as with an article on ‘the art of retouching a photograph.’[11] In an unconscious echo of post-modern rhetoric associated with thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, Creative Review’s journalists were happy to claim the all-conquering importance of the image ‘at a time’, in the words of one, ‘when style is everything’.[12] In promoting a picture of creativity in market conditions, Creative Review flattered designers and reassured those who commissioned them.

Representing those professions which usually operated in conditions of anonymity, the names of designers (alongside animators and illustrators) were carefully reinstated on the pages of Creative Review. And, as if to illustrate this point, Edward Booth-Clibborn, then chairman of D&AD, argued in an early issue that illustrators ought to enjoy the same kind of critical attention as painters.[13] This was not simply a way of generating commissions in the manner of a trade directory: it was a strategy that sought to raise the ‘cultural capital’ of the professional readers of the magazine. Graphic designers, illustrators and other image-makers were represented as masters of creativity rather than as servants to business. Blueprint (1983-present), a title reporting widely across the fields of design, took this trend to its logical conclusion by presenting a ‘star’ designer rather than his or her work on each of its covers in theatrically lit portraits. Although not strictly a ‘celebrity profile’ in the sense of exposing the private lives to public attention, the appearance of graphic designers like Neville Brody on the April 1988 cover with an extensive profile of the ‘tribal typographer’ (one of the least successful labels pinned on him at the time) inside, marked a new stage in the way that graphic design was reported.[14] Blueprint’s starry portraits had a unmistakable influence on other magazines of the day: the fortunes of young graphic designers, Why Not Associates, were given an unmistakable boost when they appeared on the March 1990 cover of Direction within months of graduating from the Royal College of Art).

Whilst Blueprint made stars amongst designers, DesignWeek, a weekly launched in 1986 by the publisher of Creative Review, sought to make their names better known to business. Presenting itself as a no-nonsense ‘newsmagazine written specifically for the British design industry’, it launched straight into the business of reporting design as news in September 1996. With very little editorialising in the early issues, DesignWeek made few attempts to judge design on ethical or aesthetic grounds. Significance was understood largely in terms shared by business: competitions, briefs and fees, stocks and shares, relocations, new appointments and redundancies determined the content of the news pages which opened each weekly issue. Fields that might seem to lack glamour from the perspective of Creative Review or Blueprint were its staples. During the late 1980s its pages filled with ‘aspirational’, corporate identity schemes and food packaging with ‘dynamic presence on supermarket shelves’. Whilst DesignWeek’s editorials regularly used the phrase ‘the design cause’, what this meant in practice was the ‘interests of design consultancies’. Whilst Brody might appear on its pages as a newsworthy designer in the 1980s, it was his art direction of Arena and Italian fashion advertising rather than his logos for socialist groups like Red Wedge and his covers of City Limits, a left-leaning London listings magazine, which made good copy.[15]

The appearance of new titles in the 1980s represents the growth and the hubris of British graphic design in this period. In retrospect, this boom seems to have been scripted by a number of authors including professional bodies like D&AD, new institutions like London’s Design Museum launched with great publicity in 1988 and, of course, the design press. The label, ‘the Design Decade’, was used without irony to brand the era even before it was over. Repackaging, rebranding and other forms of design sophistry were presented as a panacea for industry; public utilities were ‘remade’ into efficient private companies by new corporate identity schemes; graphic design, it was even claimed, could even win elections.[16] Firmly located within the sphere of what Andrew Wernick called at the time ‘promotional culture’,[17] graphic designers reaped the benefits of this neo-commercial rhetoric. Graphic design (and often design journalism too) had become almost indistinguishable from advertising.[18]

The speed at which DesignWeek insinuated itself with graphic, product, vehicle and interior designers and, of course, their clients, was a sign of incontrovertible success: it was and remains the mostly widely read design magazine in Britain. A self-consciously unglamorous title, it worked hard to give amorphous professions (each ultimately defined by competition rather than consensus) a shared sense of community. The response to the collapse of the Michael Peters Group in 1990 is a case in point. Peters, a specialist in packaging design, had developed an enormous and over-extended design business offering diverse services from management consultancy to letter headings by acquiring British and American design companies with funds generated on the stock market. When the Group went into receivership – an event widely interpreted as ‘the end of the goldrush’ in Britain – DesignWeek led the mourning with headlines like ‘Tributes Pour in From A Stunned Design Community’.[19] The newsmagazine also emphasised consensus by dampening down controversy. Speaking for this ‘community’ and reliant on the revenue brought in by the adverts placed on its pages, controversy risked opening up divisive differences. Whilst Creative Review invited disagreement in the form of stage-managed conversations between prominent figures holding different views and DesignWeek took a campaigning stance on the issue of ‘Green Design’ in the early 1990s,[20] any doubts about graphic design’s commercial ‘cause’ or concerns about its social effects remained unspoken.

Eye no. 2, vol. 1 – cover by Jake Tilson

Eye, a quarterly magazine launched under the editorship of Rick Poynor in 1990 by Wordsearch, the publisher of Blueprint, set itself against the grain of current graphic design journalism in Britain. Perfect-bound, beautifully-printed and expensive, it was launched at what seemed an inauspicious moment, one of economic recession. Eye established a wider platform for thinking about graphic design than its predecessors did. Whereas Europe and North America had featured in DesignWeek largely as territories for British design groups to ‘penetrate’, Eye made a self-conscious statement about internationalism by publishing in English, French and German (an undertaking which proved too costly and was abandoned after six issues) and by featuring profiles of prominent designers abroad including politically-uncompromising groups like Grapus in France and socially-minded designers and clients in Germany and the Netherlands. Eye’s self-conscious internationalism created a space for ‘unfashionable’ voices to question the social purposes and effects of design. In an early issue, for instance, explored Jan Van Toorn’s combative approach to graphic design, rooted in the politics of the Counter Culture of the 1960s and in Brechtian aesthetics.[21] The different varieties of design humanism and radicalism found on the continent needed, Eye seemed to argue, to ‘penetrate’ Thatcher-era Britain.

Whilst the format and high production values of Eye made it a desirable commodity in its own right, it has regularly featured opinion which expressed anxiety about the seductive powers of graphic design in the marketplace. In 1995 American critic and historian Steven Heller stressed that graphic design repressed its historical relations with advertising in order to emphasise its status as ‘an aesthetic and philosophical pursuit’.[22] Three years later Poynor compressed the point into three blunt words, ‘Design is Advertising’.[23] This had, of course, been implicit on virtually every page of Creative Review for almost two decades. But in a new political climate shaped by global protest, anti-consumerist movements and ‘culture jamming’, this assertion was now an accusation designed to shake graphic designers’s deeply held self-image as agents of culture and progress.

The growing critique of consumerism on the pages of Eye made the need for self-reflexivity all the more important (i.e., that contributors, including those on the magazine’s small staff, made their own critical positions explicit). With this in mind, Poynor wrote in 1995 ‘What we hope to achieve with Eye is not so much a “journalistic criticism” … as a “critical journalism” .. informed, thoughtful, sceptical, literate, prepared to take up a position and argue a case.’[24] This sometimes meant publishing polemical articles designed to generate controversy. When, for instance, Eye was absorbed with the fashionable question of the limits of typographic legibility, it published a forceful piece by Paul Stiff that argued that such designers, in ignoring the findings of cognitive psychology and ergonomics, misunderstood the embodied experience of reading.[25] Stiff, teaching at Reading University, represented an intellectual tradition (expressed in Icographic in the 1970s and Information Design Journal (1979-)) with a deep investment in the morality of clear delivery of information. At its best, Eye’s has acted as a clearing house for diverse and sometimes competing ideas about graphic design from different constituencies.

Eye has also regularly featured articles on the history of graphic design. Designers had engaged with the past in the 1980s, albeit only in the limited modes of pastiche and what was then called ‘retrostyling’ (lent an intellectual gloss by limp postmodernist theory). Many of the most prominent repackaging and branding exercises during the ‘boom’ years reworked sentimental and popular visual languages like Victorian ornament and Art Deco styling. Eye took a more whiggish line, arguing that knowledge of history would encourage designers to ‘recapture the sense of self-enquiry and rigour’ that had characterised the profession in its infancy and was, by implication, now lost.[26] This was, in effect, a modernist view that understood history as a set of ideas and ideological conflicts. The mode of these history lessons was predominately biographical, with Eye’s writers exploring a canon established by historians like Philip Meggs.[27] A second line of investigation of anonymous or vernacular design was also developed by the magazine, though not with the same consistency. For instance, investigations into the powerful appeal of mass market women’s magazines promised, at one time, to draw Eye closer to Cultural Studies’s critical interest in the consumption of popular culture.[28] Ultimately, Eye, as a commercial product, has remained wedded to its core readers, graphic designers. This fact continues to limit the extent to which their work can be explored as the anonymous texture of everyday life or tested by moral critique. To have one’s work appear on its pages is still regarded as an endorsement.

One of Eye’s major achievements (shared, it must be said, with other prominent titles abroad like Émigré) has been to gestate new writers, many of whom also practice as designers. Although graphic design has a long tradition of designer-writers, most members of this select group have been wedded to the book. In recent years, however, the design magazine has enjoyed a revival (stubbornly resisting the communicative advantages of the internet as a medium). Numerous graphic designers have seized this most ephemeral of products to demonstrate their creativity as designers and writers. A celebrated, early example of this phenomenon was Octavo (1986-1992), an occasional magazine (preceding Eye by four years). Produced in eight issues by 8vo, a London-based design group established by Simon Johnston, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir, the rigorously structured design of the magazine was striking (an effect all the more pronounced when viewed alongside ‘local’ whimsical and pastiche-ridden designs of the 1980s design boom). Style, on the pages of Octavo, was not ‘everything’: the designers used the magazine as a way of introducing continental design theory and history to its readers. Issue four, for instance, reproduced Wolfgang Weingart’s 1972 lecture “How can one make Swiss typography?” in which he argued that the seemingly objective typographic designs of the Swiss School were ultimately based on intuitive choices and could therefore be used expressively. If the logic of Weingart’s lecture seemed controversially radical in the context of late Swiss asceticism, it seemed remarkably principled in the laissez-faire design world of Britain.

Well versed in the history of modern typography (demonstrated not least by some of the powerfully argued articles on the subject that appeared on its pages) 8vo’s publishing venture invoked the tradition of the pamphlet and the small magazine that characterised avant-gardism in the 1920s. Designer-writers – largely from continental Europe – polemicised in order to communicate the failure of the societies in which they lived or to report the ‘discovery’ of principles with which to build a new world. It is, however, hard to contend that the recent wave of small magazine publishing by designers in Britain can be characterised as cultural and design activism in anything like these terms. Numerous occasional magazines – from Miles, Murray and Sorrell’s Fuel to Abake’s Sexymachinery (2001-) – are so closely defined by a set of ‘personal’ preoccupations with that they are much closer to self-promotion than reportage or cultural intervention. Whilst there has been much discussion of design authorship and ‘no brief’ work in the late 1990s as a way of breaking out of the service relationship which designers have with clients, such liberated publications often present their readers with little more than marginalia.[29] Now that designers have grasped the mantle of authorship, it seems as if they often have little to say. Magazines and journals ought to stimulate intellectual exchange. And this is how they should be judged. In this regard, Dot.Dot.Dot (2000-) is a welcome and provocative rival to Eye. Founded by Stuart Bailey, a British designer living in Amsterdam, and Peter Bil’ak, a Slovak based in The Hague, this biannual title channels the international ebb and flow of the more experimental and undisciplined currents of graphic design today. Positioning it alongside pop music, experimental film and conceptual art, Dot.Dot.Dot eschews the glossy ‘show and tell’ world of the portfolio or discussion of design as business. Readers are presented with an unpredictable range of articles from the organisation of arcane systems mapping London’s postal and telephone districts and ironic profiles of fictitious designers to more familiar discussions of graphic objects venerated by the cognoscenti. In this messy variety, Bailey and Bil’ak abstain from editorialising in favour of a more pluralist conception of design and design writing. Pluralism is, of course, ultimately a sign of confidence. What remains a limitation of this and, in fact, all of the other titles surveyed in this essay, is the limited character of their readership. Writing on graphic design continues to be a minority interest, even amongst graphic designers. The challenge of persuading those outside the profession of the significance of its intellectual questions and visual pleasures still remains.


[1] Editorial in Blueprint, no. 2, vol. 1, November 1983, p. 3.

[2] An assertion which formed the basis of Daniel Boorstein’s The Image. A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Harper, 1961

[3] See Corin Hughes-Stanton, ‘What comes after Carnaby Street?’ in Design, 230, February 1968, pp. 42-3; Christopher Cornford, ‘Cold rice pudding and revisionism’in Design, 231, March 1968 pp. 46-8.

[4] See Gillian Naylor, ‘The designer v. Jack the paintbrush’ in Design, June 1966, pp.40-49.

[5] Corin Hughes-Stanton ‘Leader: One-dimensional man?’ in Design, 240, December 1968, p. 21.

[6] Jonathan Woodham, Twentieth-Century Design, OUP, 1997, p. x

[7] Patrick Wallis Burke, ‘The Education of Graphic Designers’ in Icographic, 4, 1972, p. 1.

[8] Shyram S. Agrawal, Mei-Ling Hsu, Aaron Marcus, Yukio Ota and Ebrahim Rashidpour, ‘New Ways to See World Problems’, in Icographic, 14/15, 1979, p. 23

[9] Germano Facetti, ‘Penguin Paperbacks’ in Icographic, 3, 1972, p. 12.

[10] See Baseline, no. 6, 1985 and no. 7, 1986 (both edited and designed by Erik Spiekermann).

[11] Richard Addis, ‘Pitch Doctors’ in Creative Review, August 1984, pp. 36-7

[12] Simon Rocker, ‘Marketing by Design’ in Creative Review, October 1984, p. 46.

[13] Edward Booth-Clibborn in conversation with Marina Vaizey, ‘The Art of Illustration’ in Creative Review, April 1983, pp. 28-9.

[14] See Neville Brody in conversation with Simon Esterson and Rick Poynor in Blueprint, 46, April 1988, pp. 50-3.

[15] Cynthia Kent, ‘A Lively Arena for Brody’ in DesignWeek, 14 November 1986, p. 10.

[16] Reference to follow.

[17] Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture. Advertising, ideology and symbolic exchange, Sage, 1991.

[18] By the end of the 1980s Britain spent the second highest proportion of GNP on advertising in the world. This figure was boosted by the sums spent on promotion by the then Conservative Government.

[19] DesignWeek, v. 5, no. 34, 31 August 1990, p. 3.

[20] See, for instance, ‘The Green Stuff’ in DesignWeek, 10 February 1989, pp. 14-15.

[21] Gerard Forde, ‘The Designer Unmasked’ in Eye, 2, 1991, pp. 57-68

[22] Steven Heller, ‘Advertising. Mother of Graphic Design, in Eye, 17, 1995, pp. 26-37

[23] Rick Poynor ‘Design is Advertising’ in Eye, 30, 1998, pp.

[24] Rick Poynor and Michael Rock, ‘What is this thing called design criticism?’ in Eye, 16, 1995, p. 57.

[25] Paul Stiff, ‘Stop Sitting Around and Start Reading’ in Eye, 11, 1993, pp.4-5.

[26] Rick Poynor, ‘An Eye on Graphic Design’ in Blueprint, October 1990, p. 36.

[27] Philip Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1983.

[28] Keith Robertson, ‘Spot the Difference’ in Eye, 15, Winter 1994, pp. 36-43.

[29] See Michael Rock, ‘The Designer as Author’ in Eye, 20, Spring 1996, pp. X.

A spectre haunts the world and it is the spectre of migration

Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review appears in Frieze, November 2011.

In recent years Studio Formafantasma – Italian designers, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin – have made a number of journeys into the past to excavate the meanings which traditional and even ‘lost’ materials and techniques can possess. Their ‘Botanica’ (2011) series of lamps and vessels, for instance, revisits early attempts to make ‘natural’ plastic from plant extracts, resins, blood and even insect excrement. They were led to these materials by early studies of Botany. ‘Botanica’ was not simply an exercise in technological antiquarianism. At the end of oil, another time without it might have things to offer.

Work from the ‘Botanica’ collection See http://www.formafantasma.com/botanica.html

Studio Formafantasma’s show at Libby Sellers gallery – featuring two groups of works – brings a more explicitly critical perspective to this interest in the past. ‘Moulding Tradition’ (2009) is a series of ceramic vessels bearing photographic portraits of an unidentified black man and tagged with scraps of data about the migrant labourers who work illegally in Italy. The unglazed lidded bowls and flasks are strung with ‘framed’ photographs, inscribed loops and labels – additions which seem to reinforce their status as mobile objects. The wine flasks and bowls were made in Caltagirone in Sicily, a traditional centre of ceramic production. With their portraits, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels refer to ‘Teste di Moro’ (‘Moorish heads’), vases which have been made there for centuries. Often grotesque and sometimes comic, these three-dimensional portraits in clay are distant reminders of the fact that not only was Sicily once an Arab island but also that Majolica came to Europe from the Muslim world.

Formafantasma, works in the ‘Moulding Tradition’ series, 2009

That people and things have always travelled between the Maghreb and Europe is, of course, a platitude for historians. But in light of Italy’s ambiguous and often hostile relationship with North Africa, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels clearly engage with a more recent past too. In 2008 Colonel Gaddafi signed a deal with Italian president Berlusconi to repatriate African immigrants caught trying to cross the Mediterranean in their overloaded and unseaworthy vessels. This was a controversial agreement. Denied opportunities to claim asylum, the human rights of migrants were threatened. In fact, the same deal, the Italians committed to invest in Libya. Gaddafi could represent Rome’s Euros as reparations for Italian colonialism in the 1930s and, at the same time, Berlusconi could look tough on immigration.

FIAT Tagliero building Asmara designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi photographed by 10b Travelling / Flickr reproduced under a creative commons license.

‘Colony’ (2011), a second series of works by Studio Formafantasma on show, addresses these themes in a direct fashion. Three mohair blankets identify Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia, former imperial possession of Italy in the 1930 and 1940s. Italy’s expansion into North Africa was claimed by Mussolini as ‘the reappearance of the empire on the fateful hills of Rome after fifteen centuries’. The imperial adventure was an opportunity for artists and architects too. The new city of Asmara in Eritrea was taken by Italian modernists as an opportunity to fulfill all their rationalist preoccupations. Taking the form of monumental postcards, each blanket features an architectural drawing of a building over an Italian plan for an African city. Asmara is overlaid with a line drawing of Giuseppe Pettazzi’s famous FIAT Tagliero office in the city (1938), a building which came close realizing the futurist aeropittura fantasy of flying architecture. In another, Tripoli’s ‘Colonial Home’, a modernist villa from the early 1930s, is accompanied by ‘Accord 19’ of 2009 which commissioned Italian businesses ‘with the necessary technological skills’ to design a system of land border controls in Gaddafi’s Libya. Design – the field in which Trimarchi and Farresin were trained and with which they identify – is identified with repression.

Formafantasma, ‘Asmara’, a woven blanket in the ‘Colony’ series, 2011

Despite the poetry of the Studio’s name (which Trimarchi and Farresin translate as ‘ghost shape’), there is a strain of didactism in its ‘Italian’ projects. It is not heavy-handed or indifferent to aesthetics, but it is there. In their interest in migration, we might detect an echo of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s influential text, Empire (‘A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration’). This said, there is little of these writers’ euphoric view of the ways in which nomadism and méttisage can contest the containment of nation or of race.

Formafantasma were exhibiting at the Libby Sellers Gallery, London, 19 September – 8 October 2011

Any colour .. as long as it’s black

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Uncategorized

Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art – in its temporary location of a socmodernist furniture store – is, appropriately enough, hosting an exhibition by German designer Konstantin Gricic. The works on display do not come from the drawing boards of his Munich studio: Grcic here takes on the role of curator.

Like his Serpentine Gallery show in London in 2009, Grcic’s Warsaw exhibition is an exploration of the forms of the modern world. Gathering a diverse range of objects for a long corridor-like gallery, he has adopted Henry Ford’s famous prohibition – ‘Any colour … as long as its black’. Entitled ‘Black2’ (‘Black Squared’), Grcic seems to be interested in how a motif (like a ‘black-letter’) or a phrase (such as ‘black box’) becomes a thing.

Most of the exhibits are mass produced objects – books, ashtrays, plastic pallets and electric guitars. Exhibited without captions or any other kind of textual support, Grcic’s black objects seem to have no history. They are also stripped of the cables which might animate them with electricity (no glowing stand-by lights here) or the handles which could be grasped by users. The viewer enters into the world that Rilke, another occasional Bavarian with an interest in dinglichkeit, called ‘indifferent things’:

Even for our grandparents, a ‘House’, a ‘Well’, a familiar tower, their very dress, their cloak, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate: almost everything a vessel in which they found and stored humanity. Now there come crowding over from America empty, indifferent things, pseudo-things, DUMMY-LIFE … The animated, experienced things that SHARE OUR LIVES are coming to an end can cannot be replaced.
Rilke in a letter to von Hulewicz, November 1925.

The point is to make us think less about the role that these products of industrial culture play in our lives and more about the black skins in which they are sheathed. The exhibition opens with a set of heavy tomes in a vitrine which discuss the Kaaba at Mecca, Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ (1915) and Kubrick’s Black Monolith in ‘2001AD: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). These are the eternal blacks of the deep cosmos. One could easily extend this monochromatic range: ‘Black dirties’ says Wittgenstein; ‘black is the death of colour by colour’ according to Briony Fer writing on Ewa Hesse; and the black tulip is the historic symbol of hubris .. But let’s not leave the exhibition too far behind. Grcic’s exhibits are rather more mundane. A pair of black boxing gloves rest close to a black Amex card in another vitrine to tell us something uncertain about power. A uncertain black object – probably an ashtray – sits on a shelf next to a copy of The Bible. Ashes to ashes, perhaps. Often funny and sometimes poignant, Grcic’s products seem to be a modest gathering of things in light of the deep reserves of meaning that can be dressed in black.

‘Black2’ opened at Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej on October 2nd 2011.

Boiling the City

Design Exhibition, Design Exhibitions, Design/Critique, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized


At the Łódź Design Festival last weekend, I saw this exercise in data visualisation and sonification. Culling data pulled from one of the major Hungarian news sites –www.origo.hu, Kitchen Budapest’s animation tells you something you already know, that the capital dominates the country. One in four Hungarians live in the Budapest metropolitan area. At 30 frames per second, each frame represents a single day. One month flashes by in a second. And the animation covers the period from December 1998 until October 2010. Every time a Hungarian town or city is mentioned on the pages of origo.hu, this digital map of the country pulses. The country bulges to accommodate the waves of news. At the same time the sound – a buzzing harmonic drone – echoes the visual effects.

Undeniably mesmerising, like so many of these attempts to animate data, one is left wondering what it all means. This visualisation boils in two ways – the line flickers in the manner that animators call boiling and the surface of the country bubbles with geothermal energy. There is another,  far less appealing association too: Budapest seems to be constantly erupting like some kind of malignant ulcer. It would be easy to read or misread this project as a kind of objection to the megalopolis. Surely this is not Kitchen Budapest’s intention?