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07 July 1998

New design at the ICA

A round-up report on the LM sponsored Ice Design conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Saturday 4 July

David Redhead, editor of Design magazine, Janice Kirkpatrick of Glasgow's Graven images and James Heartfield of LM magazine opened the conference with a debate on the re-branding of Britain with photographer Michael Walter in the chair. Redhead warned the industry audience that they would be making a big mistake if they failed to take advantage of the current support for designers, and in doing so endorsed the recent Demos pamphlet on Rebranding Britain (for a critique, read Brand New Britain? by James Heartfield. But for Janice Kirkpatrick, the re-branding project only emphasised what was wrong with design - the arrogance of imposing a designer label upon Scots, and the other peoples on these isles. Kirkpatrick went on to critique the dominance of the English (read British) identity.

James Heartfield wondered whether Kirkpatrick's angst-ridden telling of the conflicts of Britishness constituted a re-branding of Britain appropriate for our times. He argued that there is no such thing as political design - just designer politics. Politicians were drawn to the world of design because they wanted a quick fix to an intractable problem: British identity. The boom in design does not reflect a booming economy overall, indeed in many ways it reflects an unwillingness on the part of industry to reinvest, preferring instead to resolve problems at the level of design.

Following on from that, Nico Macdonald - of the group Design Agenda - chaired a discussion between Peter York of SRU, Caroline Roux, editor of the Guardian's design supplement Space, novelist Michael Bracewell and Jan Abrams of the Netherlands Design Institute on 'Design is Mainstream'.

Peter York welcomed the new interest in design where modernism was promoted by day-time television, restauranteurs, boutiques and the rest. The eighties were about retro-design, but still about design. Those with money then looked back thirty years to an imperial past for their model of good taste. We've got new people now. Modernism used to be promoted by the foreign pointy-heads in fabian fell-walker boots, the sort that Osbert Lancaster cartooned. People didn't like them. But today is different. Modernism's coming home.

Mancunian novelist Michael Bracewell had a different take, seeing a growing infantilism in design that has pushed the old sharp-edged power motifs aside - best summed up by a journey in his sister-in-law's pod-like Twingo, with its rounded edges and primary colours, to see some civic art in Belgium, a giant clothes peg free-standing in a park. Safety and infantilism are the things: Wythenshawe's new police station, apparently designed by Fisher-Price toys, was indicative of the future.

Caroline Roux complained that design is all about appearance these days. Modernist motifs misunderstand the meaning of modernism, form follows function. Too much of Wallpaper magazine, not enough of new products, or of showing how things work. Seymour-Powell's recent programme on redesigning the bra was a welcome relief in a superficial time.

Jan Abrams warned that the discussion in Britain was in danger of becoming parochial: haven't we woken up to globalisation? The old shibboleths of modernism need to be critiqued: the idea that there was a rational purpose informing design was too reductive. Designers today have a great responsibility arising from the demands of clients for solutions to problems of social demographics and influence. Now we are being asked to supply values.

In the discussion architecture journalist Penny Robson asked whether the social engineering criticisms made of Modernism in the past were in fact more appropriate to design today. The old Modernism was really about solving problems, whereas new design was about social engineering. York said 'come on, haven't we answered this, design is about both solving problems and social engineering - it's what now ought to be called Cultural Engineering, engineering society by consent, because we are all so much in the know now that it must be persuasive'. But consent for cultural engineering was not forthcoming from the audience.

Other highlights of the day included Millennium Dome engineer Glyn Trippick of Buro Happold's account of the engineering challenges of what was actually a giant tent; James Woudhuysen's wringing defence of what the Dome ought to be against 'the whingers' and a discussion of design ethics, with Tracey Campbell of Ideology, Ken Dixon from St Lukes and Ken Garland.

The day was organised by Alex Cameron of Ice Design, Claire Fox for LM and Heidi Reitmaier for the ICA.

James Heartfield's pamphlet on the state of the Cultural Industries, Need and Desire in the Postmaterial Economy, is available from Informinc.

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