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.

Hacking away at Limerick City

I’ll reiterate here what I said I liked about this module at the beginning of the semester; it isn’t predictable, it keeps you on you toes and it challenges you. All of these criterion were included in our “Design the City” task for week 4. We were taken into Limerick city, away from the comforts of the studio, away from the handy tools, the layout pads, the pens, the papers and the people we know. So yeah, that kept things interesting and got us thinking on our feet. The whole point of our excursion was to study the environment, take in the locals, the structure of the places, evaluate what’s there and what’s not and come up with a solution for whatever we find.

Chicago's "The Bean"

Countless cities across the globe have sampled this culture of using what they already have on the landscape and simply making it better. It can be a complex set of circumstances that yields a design solution, or a minute change that alters the way the public sees something. An example of these is “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millenium Park. A highly reflective, highly polished metal structure in the shape of a bean which has drawn the attention of the public beautifully, as well as encouraged other aspiring designers to emulate its form and take the idea behind it a little further.

"Jelly Baby Family", Marble Arch, London

Some more fun examples that I’ve seen myself are “The Jelly Baby Family” set up in Marble Arch in central London. Simple, colourful, vibrant and a little bit of fun. I personally loved the idea that the city of Las Vegas, Nevada used for one of their hotel / casino complexes, The Stratosphere. Check out the video to see the 3 theme park rollercoasters they’ve shoved on top of a skyscraper….yep, skyscraper. It was such a fantastic experience and an incredible, exciting use of limited space in a city such as this.

A more interactive design hack for a city appeared in Barcelona a year or two ago. Granted it was part of a mobile network advert, but it still drew a crowd and showed great creativity. The designers took the popular (and by popular I mean extremely addictive) android game “Angry Birds” and scaled it up. It sat in the middle of a plaza in Barcelona and allowed great interaction between the oversized game and the community. I feel they are the best design solutions, the ones that can inspire and involve all.

Log / Bench

So for our design hack, we were given a small stretch of road and a riverbank walk on the outskirts of Limerick. I was kind of glad though, because every other team had a section of the concrete jungle, while we were the only group with a bit of scenery, some green. And we approached it in that manner by evoking the scenes of the city from afar. By the river we decided on installing benches that would fold away. When away, they looked like logs that would blend into the landscape and when open the allowed for comfort and relaxation. So from here we decided to make picture frames, or rather, kitchen windows in the trees that allowed the person relaxing to look out at the city. From differing angles the user would see different views of the city.

Elevated View of Scenario

View 1 from Benches

But we also had another idea, for joggers / runners / walkers. From the angle of their eye line (i.e. standing up and not sitting down) they would only see out into the river at close range. So why not give them something to look at too? A floating flower-bed was our solution. Connected to the land, they could just float around close to the bank and provide some beautiful scenery. A more interactive design solution to promote the city’s beauty from the outside. Like I said, I believe those are the best hacks, the ones that inspire and involve.

View 2 from Benches

Aerial View

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