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Towards a Design Culture

Dr Stacey Hunter

Founded in 2015, Local Heroes is a curatorial agency connecting audiences with design and the designers who bring colour, form, light, pattern, poise, intelligence, invention and humour to Scottish culture.

At Local Heroes, our definition of design culture is a societal appreciation for design. We increase awareness and understanding of design ideas, bringing them to life in new and exciting ways. We demonstrate design's contribution to society and Scotland’s place in the world as a design nation.

Local Heroes at Edinburgh Airport was estimated to have been seen by around 500,000 passengers and visitors. Edinburgh Airport public plaza. Image by Future Positive

For us developing a design culture means making Scotland the kind of place where designers feel welcome and appreciated – where high-quality design (across sectors) is regularly commissioned and celebrated and where a national design programme will promote Scottish design as a cultural export.

Design can be one of the most defining aspects of a culture – and arguably one of the most democratic. It’s the convergence of invention, desire, commerce and beauty. Too often it seems that design is too creative for the economists and too commercial for the arts – and without patrons, experimental design shows are hard to come by. Local Heroes was established in 2015 to progress the curatorial argument for design culture by using experimental approaches and unconventional presentations.

The first Local Heroes exhibition was initiated to present the work of exceptional designers at Scotland’s biggest airport during the most international time of the year – the Edinburgh Festival. Our timing aligned with Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design 2016. The ‘bigness’ of companies like Edinburgh Airport and organisations like VisitScotland made our partnership rare and special. The encouragement and advice of Creative Edinburgh and Creative Dundee from the outset lent us credibility and confidence, and the participation of nine of Scotland’s most interesting and exciting design studios allowed Local Heroes to materialise.

We believe that design exhibitions have an important role to play in reflecting a culture at a particular point in time.

Hilary Grant
Archipelago travel blanket
For Local Heroes at Edinburgh Airport
Image by Future Positive

Our vision was to communicate Scottish design with a fresh visual language. We commissioned each designer or studio to produce a travel-themed souvenir design object and worked hard to ensure we captured the essence of each designer and their commission through photography and film. Our identity was created by Martin Baillie and our exhibition – a converted shipping container – was designed and fabricated by Old

School Fabrications. Local Heroes at Edinburgh Airport lit up Scottish design throughout August and received critical acclaim nationally and internationally.

"Design Culture is more focused on cultural production – the insertion of new ideas into society – and recognises that human needs are very multi-dimensional. Therefore, Design Culture is more experimental and provocative – providing a space to test new ideas for their own sake."

Among design commentators there is consensus that the Italian ‘Memphis Movement’ of the 1980s marks the moment design divided into 'Industrial Design‘ and ‘Design Culture’. Cranbrook’s Scott Klinker says "Design Culture is more focused on cultural production – the insertion of new ideas into society – and recognises that human needs are very multi-dimensional. Therefore, Design Culture is more experimental and provocative – providing a space to test new ideas for their own sake."

This was the context for Galvanize! a Local Heroes project aimed at making space for radical design, in the Spring of 2017, Local Heroes was commissioned by arts hub SWG3 – known in Scotland for their ambitious risk-taking approach across many forms of culture. The organisation have previously hosted Comme des Garcons and Jim Lambie’s Poetry Club side by side with public graffiti festivals and their regularly curated ‘Hypermarkets’. Local Heroes were invited to curate an installation for a new indoor/outdoor space. With SWG3 we developed a highly unusual open brief for an emerging design studio called ‘SLAPS’ led by Giulia Fiorista and Ed White and based in Glasgow.

The curatorial starting point was an essay by Paul Goldberger (Design Research, 2010) which reflected that the dream of modern design made available to everyone had broadly come true – from Ikea to iPhones, never before have more people been able to enjoy modern design. The consequence of design moving to the centre however, is that the space for creativity in design has been reduced — what was once radical is now commonplace. With Galvanize! we offered the designers real creative freedom and encouraged an experimental approach that embraced the avant-garde, the unpredictable and the playful. The results were two pieces of social furniture, the Glasgow-Rella and the Calm Tree.

Karen Mabon Raindance Umbrella For Local Heroes at Edinburgh Airport Image by Stuart McClay

Visits to Design Miami; the London Design Festival and the Milan Mobile (where Local Heroes was invited to discuss Scottish design by Design Language), brings us face-to-face with inspiration and other design obsessives. Currently in Scotland – opportunities to see, connect with and buy high quality design is limited in the public sphere (there are more stockists of high quality, contemporary Scottish design products in Tokyo than at home). No other art form is less understood or celebrated than design. Yet Scotland excels in many design sectors – and has the capability and expertise to make design one of our country’s key high-quality cultural exports.

Our research into the origins of design nations reveals what benefits the development of a design culture has brought Finland, Japan, Norway, Korea, and Singapore. Finland credits the introduction of its design policy with lifting the country out of its late 1980s recession. Design there is supported by the state in several ways including being part of cultural exports around the world alongside architecture, music and sports. The Ministry of Employment and the Economy supports the use of design in small and middle-sized enterprises on a national level. The pairing of design and innovation is a policy.

Cultivating a design culture could involve extracting value from Scotland’s cultural characteristics. Design curator and practitioner Kenya Hara believes that Japanese designers need to consider how to create – or design– value, to think of culture as a resource.

“When we typically think of resources we think of materials and minerals,” Hara says,“but a resource can also be aesthetic, or even cultural.” Whether in the form of jewellery as social commentary or radical furniture that connects audiences to conversations about design, the platforms for discussion and space for experimentation must be expanded in line with design nations like Denmark, Finland or Italy.

Before Droog, the second ‘d’ in Dutch design was lower case – and referred to what was then the Netherland’s best known design export – typography. After the establishment of Droog in 1993 Dutch Design gained a capital ‘D’ and a whole culture of design assembled. Founders Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers began by bringing irreverent, humorous furniture to the Milan Furniture Fair – but underpinning Droog has always been a commitment to innovation, creativity and discussion. Their legacy is continued by Wendy Plomp the super- connector behind Dutch Invertuals – both organisations are heroes to us.

Future activity for Local Heroes

Laura Spring
For Local Heroes at Edinburgh Airport
Image by Future Positive

Our regular column on contemporary Scottish design for The Skinny gives design a much-needed voice and also
acts as an ongoing, live research project. This integrated relationship with Scotland’s design community makes us participant programmers who can facilitate the realisation of new and exciting work. Local Heroes has become a platform where businesses and organisations who are excited about, and understand the value of design can collaborate. And while tradition and heritage remain a focal point in the popular imagination – diversity, pluralism and connectedness to global networks are influencing a whole generation of designers.

Scotland needs and deserves a national design programme and a reflexive design policy. We want to initiate big, ambitious, cross-sectoral projects. Designers tell us they want opportunities to expand their practice, collaborate and present their work to international audiences.

Together, with the design community, we can promote design in unconventional ways with exciting models of presentation, production and partnerships.

Nations who invest in their design culture provide the intellectual space for designers to test new ideas enriching their economy and built environment and solving problems in society. And while a national programme could promote Scottish design as a cultural export, international competitiveness is not the only outcome; modern design in Scotland is increasingly defined by our ability to collaborate, co-produce and create strategic alliances.

There has never been a better time to invest in design culture.