Designing in a Barren Wasteland

Is Ireland a prosperous, culture-rich environment for aspiring designers to build their trade in? An interesting question, I think. My answer would undoubtedly be no.

In our little design culture class, we had an exercise to try to discover some of the things that best describes Ireland as a whole. These are the characteristics that give life to life in this country; they are our culture. Such aspects as religion, the catholic church and priesthood were familiar themes. We seem to be forever bound to this sense that we owe the church everything, that the priest controls our family’s perspective and that we should always feel the harsh guilt set upon us by the church. Other cultural amenities include the pub, drinking culture, laziness and the idea of “sure feck it, we’ll be grand”. Unfortunately it is a mentality that stains our existence. We are bred on a life surrounding a pub, where aspirations of a decent night out revolve around getting shit-faced and puking in a bin on O’ Connell street. The main influence that makes us Irish is our humour, or rather our racist-humour. It spreads from the casually racist grandfathers and grandmothers who would think nothing of their words to the destructive and hateful views held by young people who don’t fully understand the others they insult. We like to pass it off as humour, as ‘banter’ but it is very, very racist in nature.

Catholicism makes a slave of us all

You may be wondering what all this has to do with design. Well I firmly believe that it is the culture and the influences of a society that greatly determine the people who will rise to the top of their respective piles. Unfortunately the spread in Ireland is turning sour. People, and in particular designers, can only make it happen for themselves.  They can only find themselves in the world if they can manage to get themselves out of our own little-minded world. We, as a nation, put ourselves down too much. We undersell ourselves, then give our lives to work and the church, and we only reward ourselves with narrow communal sports and binge drinking in a local pub. The train that is leaving for the future? Yeah, we’ve missed that.

Philip Treacy Collection

And so I feel only the designers that get out make the best of what they have. They move to more accepting cultures, more aspirational environments like New York, Tokyo, London, Paris and Los Angeles. One such example of what I am getting at is fashion designer Philip Treacy. For those that don’t know, Philip Treacy specialises in hats. Extravagant hats. He has designed sculptural masterpieces to sit atop the heads of Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker and Princess Beatrice. 36 hats designed by him were worn at the British Royal wedding of Will and Kate last year. That’s an astonishing number when you consider how high a profile event this was. He started in Galway. He lived in a house with seven brothers and sisters and made gimmicky hats to pass the time. But at one stage he said enough was enough, packed his bags for London, sold himself as a brand and made it big.

Philip Treacy's Designs for the British Royal Wedding

To reinforce the idea of getting out, my chosen designer was Cedric D. Gibbons. An altogether unfamiliar name, no doubt. But just look at the statuette and its clear to see the impact he has made. He started in Ireland too. He lived in Dublin and moved to Los Angeles to let himself prosper. He finished his acting career with 11 Oscar wins (second only behind Walt Disney with 26) and was an original chair-member on the panel for the Academy of Motion Pictures. He designed the trophy that every actor in the world aspires to win. That is some achievement.

Oscar Statuettes

Cedric D. Gibbons Design

And my whole point is that Gibbons, like Treacy, got out. They got out of this rotting wasteland and went someplace where their talents, abilities and aspirations could flourish. And unfortunately for most of Ireland now, especially designers, we too will have to look elsewhere to make a decent hash of our lives.

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What is Product Design?

Rarely do I get much enjoyment from mandatory college course modules, such is the disdain of trolling through Materials Processing and the inevitability of getting lost amongst the mish-mash of Technological Mathematics. However, this semester has offered a respite, Contemporary Design Culture to be exact. The reason I am developing a slight fondness for the module is that the students aren’t molly-coddled into a vague sense of passiveness, but are rather engaged thoroughly throughout the class.For instance, we are straight up asked simple questions. “What makes a good design?”, “What does a product designer do?” and “What is product design?“. Easy enough, right? It was very intiguing to see how little light was shed on these questions by the very students participating in the course. The last question garnered particularly blank stares from all, myself included, but I guess starting from scratch is all part of the learning curve. A statement is put forward, and the few who are brave enough share their views and encourage discussion. That’s what I like about this module, it’s direct. Us students are invoked into the arguement, the situations, the designs, the briefs and the beliefs. We are involved. We are beginning to think.

The part I enjoyed most however was the debate. Is product design art or engineering? Either, or. No middle ground. Persuasive arguements about aesthetics, style and fashion managed to sway opinions towards art, while discussions of function, performance and consistency pulled it back in engineering’s favour. I felt it was a good move on the part of the lecturer to get us up off our arses and get involved in the process, to open us up and have us thinking.

As regards the videos played on-screen, there were a few interesting observations for me. Designer Yves Behar of Switzerland talked of adding value to objects. “It is the value and experience that we put into the products that truly create the greater value. The value we bring can be about environmental issues, sustainability, low power consumption, function, beauty and business strategy“. I admire his views that a product becomes so much more when a thought process is put behind it. Long-lasting, functional products that don’t damage our world are the kind of product that are a neccesary in our lives.

Harvey Moscot also highlights quite brilliantly that the greatest products are the ones nobody thinks about. The ideas that have been there through the years, the ones that are ever-present in society such as varifocal glasses, the blazer and the t-shirt. Simplistic, original and timeless, these are the kinds of ideas we, as designers, should aspire to envisage.

The Classic

Moscot Glasses

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