The Next World Design Capital: Ireland?

A country's bid to leave behind stodgy Celtic imagery and get out of the shadow of England, Germany, and Scandinavia

Graphic and industrial design is not the first thing I think about when thinking about Ireland—the Book of Kells notwithstanding. When considering design landmarks created in Europe during the entire 20th century, the Irish contribution is rather spare. But after a period of economic boom, the now financially besieged Emerald Isle, and Dublin in particular, is making a bid to be named "World Design Capital," which since 2008 has been so designated every two years by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. The past capitals were Turin (2008), Seoul (2010), and next year Helsinki (2012). The WDC designation aims to build design awareness for cities that are not widely known for design achievements—it is less about legacy than aspiration.

"I think that the growth of Irish design activity reflects a high degree of pragmatism and tenacity that in many ways reflects the Irish psyche."

While Ireland is loaded with aspiration, its design legacy has remained somewhat invisible—until now. A new book (published in Ireland), Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity. 1922-1992 (Cork University Press, March 2011), edited by the design historians Linda King and Elaine Sisson, covers, in scholarly fashion, everything from representations of nationality and Celtic revivals to tourist posters and how tradition and modernity intersect. Although it's not bedtime reading, this handsomely designed volume pulls Irish design out of its relative obscurity and introduces it to the design continuum.

As a fan of Irish culture, I was curious to learn from King where she placed her nation in the history of design, and particularly where it fits in relation to its closest neighbor, England. "What the book demonstrates in its 70 year span (1922-1992) is that comparison of Irish design activity with that of Britain is only one small facet of a far broader discussion that includes the relationship between Ireland and the U.S., and Ireland and Northern Europe," King notes emphatically. "U.S. advertising strategies, Scandinavian industrial production, German Expressionism and engineering, U.S. and European architecture, all had a profound influence on Irish design development."

So why then, is the image of Irish design still so rooted in the stereotypical past? "In terms of inspiration, certainly in the 19th century and immediately post-independence (1921) many examples of Irish visual culture utilized motifs and decoration from early Christian manuscripts—of which the Book of Kells would be the most famous—as a way of marking Irish 'uniqueness' and providing a distinct visual language to that of Britain," King adds. "These visual devices—whether applied to Catholic-sponsored comic books, stamps, album covers, or animated films—have long been utilized as markers of Irish 'difference' and still hold currency today."

Sluis UPA fisherman posteredit.jpgAs a member of the European Union, Ireland cannot afford to be thought of as only embracing leprechauns and other visual pastiche. Design in all its forms is an essential means of busting the stereotypes. As King explains, Ireland's relative lack of industrialization in the 19th century, combined with an emphasis on agricultural production and a political culture of economic protectionism up until the late 1950s, caused slower design activity in Ireland than in other countries. "[Because of] this process of playing 'catch-up' with other countries, Irish design is less concerned with originality of form than with adapting and localizing European and American influences."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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