Absence of national symbols on notes reflects euro's all-inclusive approach

 

It's the biggest art exhibition opening in history. However, to view the seven works by Viennese designer Robert Kalina when they go on display next January, you won't need to visit a gallery - but a cash dispenser.

The reviews will be quick, brief and probably negative. But whatever the reception, Mr Kalina is guaranteed a footnote in the history books of the European Union as the man who put a face on the euro banknotes without using any faces.

Mr Kalina (46), a banknote designer at the Austrian National Bank in Vienna, was one of 46 designers who took part in the 1996 competition to devise the winning design for the new single currency.

To stop a cultural cat-fight before it started, the competition rules forbade entrants from using portraits of historical figures or designs "attributed to any particular monument in any single country".

Instead, entrants worked with ideas such as "European style" and "communication among the people of Europe".

Instead of designing his notes around the faces of dead white men, the traditional favourite on European banknotes, Mr Kalina took the history of European architecture as his inspiration. Historical styles of windows and doors in his design would "stand for the new and the open", and bridges would "express the connections in Europe".

His break with banknote tradition was a risk but it paid off when his "virtual" designs won the competition. Then the trouble started. With a typical display of Gallic pride, residents of the southern French town of Nimes announced to the world that the aqueduct on the €5 (£3.94) note was the Pont du Gard, a 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct outside the town.

Not long afterwards, Italians staked their claim on the €50 note, saying it was in fact the Rialto bridge in Venice. With the banknotes already printed, the European Central Bank (ECB) was having none of it.

"If the images on the euro banknotes bear any resemblance to existing constructions, it would be pure coincidence," read a brusque statement in a tone that seemed determined to stamp out the first, and possibly last, traces of affection for the new currency.

Mr Kalina rejects the claims of countries that have adopted different notes as their own. "All bridges, windows and doors are virtual, they are just types that represent the individual style."

Even now, with only weeks to go to the launch, he says there are still things he would like to fix on the notes.

"Naturally there are things that could be improved, but it is always that way, just like in a newspaper - you can always keep improving an article but then comes the editorial deadline," said Mr Kalina.

Small imperfections aside, he has mixed feelings about the introduction of the single currency. "I am sorry to see all currencies in all their diversity disappear. But naturally it is a great feeling to have created something that 300 million people are going to carry around with them," he said.

That's a feeling shared by Mr Luc Luycx (43) of the Belgian Royal Mint, whose design for the eight euro coins was chosen over 35 other entries in 1997.

"It's going to be great to have my money in everyone's pocket," he said with a laugh. Unlike the notes, Mr Luycx only designed one side of the euro coins, showing different maps of Europe and lines joining the stars of the European flag. He says his design represents the evolution of the European Union.

"All European countries once worked separately, but now we have one Europe without borders," he said, describing his design as "clean and simple" - although he is a little worried about the quality of the finished product.

"Some of the smaller coins are not too nice because of the copper used," he says. Some countries have also expressed concern that some coins contain nickel, which can cause allergies among people who work with money.

The reverse face of the euro coins are "local", featuring national symbols from each country. All countries vary the local symbol depending on the value, except for the Republic, where all euro coins feature the harp symbol.

Mr Jarlath Hayes, who designed the harp for euros minted in the Republic, died recently so, unlike other euro designers, he will not see the launch of his work.

The decision to let countries personalise their euro coins is dismissed as "tokenism" by Mr Garrett Stokes, who co-designed the Millennium pound coin featuring the Broghter boat.

"It was a lamentable but pleasant task to design the last-ever Irish coin. I was proud to have been involved in an act of tribute to the passing of history," said Mr Stokes, of corporate and Web design company Catalysto.

He says the euro banknotes and coins are "very European-looking, simple and well-designed" but sees the currency as an erosion, not a celebration, of individual European identity. "I am a great advocate of difference and it is a pity that this means a lot of difference is now gone," he said.

That's a feeling shared by Mr Robert Ballagh, the Dublin-based artist who designed the current "C-series" of Irish banknotes that go out of circulation next year. "Whatever about the economic arguments, the euro is a politically driven project. I do think culturally we will all be the poorer for the lack of diversity," he said.

For him, the euro banknotes are the product of "extraordinarily bureaucratic committee thinking".

"It looks like the euro notes were chosen not to give offence to anyone," said Mr Ballagh. "But if you go down the road of giving offence to nobody you also give pleasure to nobody."

As the Republic's only surviving banknote designer, he submitted two sets of designs for euro banknotes, one featuring European wildlife and the other depicting European history through the ages. He was in favour of featuring historical figures on the notes, such as one celebrating Beethoven and his music.

"No European could quibble with that but, as far as the officials were concerned, Beethoven was German and national figures were not allowed," he said.

It is almost guaranteed that people will have a negative opinion of the new currency once they get their hands on it in the new year, says Mr Ballagh. He had to get used to derogatory remarks about his own banknotes, often from unwitting strangers around Dublin.

After the launch of the James Joyce £10 (€12.70) note, he saw two girls in a cinema queue inspecting the new "tenner".

"I was trying to hold back the temptation to tell them 'I did that,' " he remembers. "Then one held up the note and said to the other: 'Did you ever see anything so shite in your life?' That's what I call the pride before the fall."

Those who cannot wait until the New Year to see the new euro currency can pick up starter kits at banks from the middle of December.

Mr Wim Duisenberg, the ECB president dubbed "Mr Euro", is confident trade in the starter kits and the currency itself will be brisk, judging from his oft-repeated mantra: "As a banker, I have never had any problems getting rid of my product."