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When it comes to design Ireland is in a very similar situation as the Belgians were in 2006, albeit with one very big celtic skeleton in the closet.

Ian Walton

Yesterday I wrote about Alex Milton‘s visit to our studio to discuss the Year of Irish Design 2015. As I said in that piece our conversation focused primarily on the YOID, peppered with some very interesting design-related tangents. One of these tangents struck me in particular, the result of which is the following post. Either the planets have aligned unusually or they’re doing some space/time bending experiments in CERN, two posts in one month would have been out of the ordinary prior to this week.

The excellent and sadly missed I.D. Magazine (not i-D Magazine) dedicated an entire edition to the design scene in Belgium many moons back. It was a snapshot of a country which was not synonymous with design, but one in which a design revolution was taking place. It looked at a core group of young designers working out of Brussels spearheaded by Sylvain Willenz, and it discussed their attitudes, approach and design vocabulary. Design was not entirely unprecedented in Belgium at this time, the great Maarten van Severen was producing beautiful furniture from the late 80s through to his untimely passing in 2005. He was however an anomaly, and the work coming from this small group was indeed breaking new ground for the country.

Left: Torch Suspension, Sylvain Willenz, Established & Sons 2008. Right: .06 Chair, Maarten Van Severen, Vitra, 2005.

Having trawled the internet for this edition of the magazine the best I could find was the low res cover shot shown below. The scary discovery being that it was the November 2006 edition. I knew it was a few years ago when I read it. I didn’t realise it was eight years ago.


Cover of I.D. Magazine November 2006. Image Credit: Kobi Benezri Studio

One of the ideas raised by Willenz in the piece concerned design language, making the point that Belgium had no vernacular at the time. European design can be so easily/lazily categorised; the Scandinavians do simplicity, the Germans do restraint, the Italians do flamboyance and the Dutch do playfulness. Think of Belgian design at the time and you would have been hard pushed to pigeon hole it.

What interested me in his commentary was that this lack of voice was seen as a great opportunity. Willenz and his counterparts had no design baggage to shed. He went so far as to say that when there is no ‘correct’ national design language, then there can be no ‘incorrect’. This gave these designers a chance to progress their practice in whatever direction felt right, and the results shown in the magazine displayed huge diversity. In my mind I saw this as the beginnings of a vernacular, almost like a child learning their first words, and I soon realised that I was jealous.

So why am I writing about Belgium in 2008? Let me explain…

Talking with Alex and Marcel yesterday we touched on the subject of an Irish vernacular. It wasn’t something we discussed in great detail but it reminded me of the Belgian story. I was jealous of these Belgian designers because they had a blank canvas on which to draw, as I said they had no preconceptions to wrangle with. Take this to an Irish context however and we are in a very different situation entirely.

It is globally acknowledged that Ireland has a very strong artistic, musical, literary and craft vernacular. When you look more directly at the visual craft-based arts you will find strong connections with this country’s celtic foundations. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Celtic themes may not appeal to my own personal taste, but I am not writing this piece to in any way undermine those who still develop this visual language today. What I do struggle with however, is when objects from these origins are referred to as design.

When it comes to design Ireland is in a very similar situation as the Belgians were in 2006, albeit with one very big celtic skeleton in the closet. We have no strong design vernacular as it stands, and this is a very good thing. This allows designers to explore different voices and to eventually develop their own. However in order for this to happen we have to shake off the historic reference points and look for something new.

Design is not craft, it is design, it is about exploring the new and not directly referencing the past. As designers working in Ireland I believe that we have a duty to establish Ireland’s design voice. Riverdance will never go away, but we must have the optimism and confidence to do something new.