Ideas in a design desert


Design is a critical element of innovation. So why is Ireland lagging behind?

EVEN BEFORE IKEA demonstrated the Irish share of the world’s appetite for Scandinavian design, it was an accepted truth that in order to boost the Irish industrial and product manufacturing sector we, in Ireland, could do with a lot more of the magic ingredient that Scandinavian design seems to possess.

Good design is good business, and yet industry seems slow to grasp the opportunities it offers. Reports, such as last year’s Forfás report “Skills in Creativity Design and Innovation”, continue to make the point that “creativity and design are key drivers of innovation, which is in turn a key driver of productivity growth”. So why haven’t we got what the Scandinavians have got? Or have we? Is it the talent that is lacking in this country, or the uptake?

Beyond the rhetoric of Creative Cities and the Smart Economy, good design is both a social and an economic necessity. It is not simply a question of adding value to products designed in Ireland, but of creating things that enhance and enable the lives of their users. A well-designed object may be worth more, but it may become the only product of its type in the market place: think of Dutch firm Brabantia (now with offices and plant around the world) and the ubiquity of the Brabantia bin. EU research adds fuel to the argument.

The document “Design as a Driver of User-Centred Innovation” (2009) notes: “The results are compelling: companies that invest in design tend to be more innovative, more profitable and grow faster than those who do not.” So is good design something that can be taught, supported and created? And what do we need to change if the recently established bid to make Dublin the World Design Capital in 2014 is to have any chance of success? The first time the design question was officially articulated in Ireland was in 1932, by Dr Thomas Bodkin, then director of the National Gallery of Ireland, when he said: “

The example of foreign countries, such as Sweden, in successfully applying art to industry, is not lost on the Irish intelligence.” A generation later, Scandinavians were to the forefront of Irish thinking on design once again, when five (three Danes, a Swede and a Finn) arrived at the behest of William H Walsh, general manager of Córas Tráchtála Teo (CTT), the Irish Export Board. The report they published in 1962, nicknamed, “The Scandinavian Report” was highly critical of Irish design, although some elements, such as Donegal Tweed were praised.

The Irish Timesdeclared the findings “devastating”, with the editorial going on to say that “we have a very long way to go before we can claim that our industrial design reaches the same standards . . . of Denmark and Finland”. Following the Scandinavian Report, and a subsequent trip to Finland, the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) were born, and Ireland made its first concerted attempt to raise the awareness of the importance of design at the heart of production.

The study group had noted that design seemed to be considered a luxury, rather than a fundamental in Ireland. Half a century later, this sentiment is echoed by Dublin architect Ali Grehan: “People need to acknowledge that design is not something superficial, it’s an invaluable element. We don’t use designers at all well here, and that’s a problem.” Kieran Corcoran at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) says: “It’s very difficult to convince people in Ireland that design isn’t on the cost side of business, yet integrating design is taken as a given overseas.”

Earlier this year, Grehan initiated Dublin’s World Design Capital bid (other cities already in the running include Cape Town and Bilbao). While she would love Dublin to win the designation, she is keen to stress that “the process is the thing. The bid itself will be a statement about our tremendous design capacity and talent”. Graphic design is already an acknowledged strength in Ireland, as is (despite the downturn in building) architecture, with global successes, such as Grafton Architects winning 2008 World Building of the Year, for their Bocconi University building in Milan. But industrial and product design still lag behind.

As a comparator, it makes sense to look at Denmark, which has a similar-sized population, and yet which enjoys a global design reputation. Kristian Byrge, one of the partners who set up Muuto (, to champion, and sell, new Scandinavian design, believes that the difference lies in their history. Just as in Ireland we are proud of our literary and music traditions, the Danes are proud of design. “We look up to the big Danish designers, like Arne Jacobsen, and it’s part of our heritage. When you’re brought up with it, you understand it, but you also buy it.” Byrge doesn’t believe that there is any more government support for design in Denmark than in Ireland, but underlines that it’s a question of cultural attitude.

These attitudes are the reasons that, despite excellent courses at the National College of Art and Design, the Institute of Technology Carlow, and DIT; many of our best graduates leave the country. One of these is Gregor Timlin (, now a research associate at London’s Royal College, whose designs include a range developed to improve the quality of dining for older people with dementia in care, one area in which design can utterly change people’s quality of life for the better.

“Leaving Ireland came down to the need to be around other designers and a desire to learn. Everything in Ireland at the time seemed dated or homespun. Although there was a handful of interesting companies and a good architectural scene, there was very little industrial design culture. Very little connected thinking. The idea that design was more than aesthetic was absent in conversation. The prospect of staying in that atmosphere wasn’t an option for me.”

Nevertheless, Timlin notes an improvement in the environment in Ireland, as do two other former DIT graduates, both also now in London, working with Studio Ilse, Jennifer Chan ( and Jonathan Legge. “There’s more of a history of design in the rest of Europe and I did my Masters at the Royal College, so I made contacts here. London has a very good design community, though Dublin is catching up,” says Chan.

“People are getting interested,” agrees Legge. “The Pecha Kucha nights brought people together, and it’s all about people.” Legge set up a temporary shop, named simply “A Shop on Dublin’s South William Street” with his brother Mark over Christmas last year. Selling a mixture of Irish and international craft and design, the experiment went well. “We sold things, but it was more about the conversations that came out of it, people were amazed that you could get Irish products like that.”

Irish design success is more embedded in the world than one might imagine. The Bray, Co Wicklow firm, Design Partners (, also with an office in California’s Silicone Valley, designs for companies including Le Creuset, Logitech and HP, and their work has been exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Founder partner Brian Stephens thinks it is not a lack of talented designers, but of uptake within the business sector.

“Probably the biggest problem is the lack of emphasis on art and design in school and in third level. There are simply not enough educated patrons around to insist that the man-made environment at every scale is really important for all of us. Great products, great buildings and great art define our identity and feeds our souls. It’s time to stop trying to build a miniature Middle America here in Ireland. Now that resources are more precious it’s time that we all started caring about all those little visual and tactile decisions that make our world a more pleasant place to live in. The Scandinavians and the Japanese have had a better understanding of this and have built it into their business culture.”

Another issue is that with several different bodies representing design in Ireland, initiatives and responses can be fragmented and lack clarity. It is also not simply a question of replicating what has worked overseas, as Eleanor Flegg, craft and design historian, points out.

“The state-funded workshop units available to graduates in Holland are very similar in concept to the IDA-funded craft-clusters that were set up in the 1980s. These were workshop spaces for craftspeople, and they didn’t seem to work so well here. They were created on the basis that the businesses would expand and start employing people, and this didn’t happen. The businesses stayed small.

“Before we charge ahead and try to set up something on a European model, we should have a look at our own recent design history. The Irish State has poured a tremendous amount of money into craft-based design since the 1960s, we should look at how this money was spent in terms of what worked and what didn’t work.”

So, given that it is almost 50 years since the Scandinavian Report was published, is it time for another one? Do we need more consultants to come in at huge cost to tell us what we should be doing with our design? Probably not, although it is worth noting that not one of the team who conducted the Scandinavian Report would accept a fee for their work, because “they wished the assignment to be regarded as a contribution to the furtherance of improvement in design and as a gesture of their goodwill towards our undertaking”. Times have definitely changed.

Shaping design history

From 1965 to 1988, the Kilkenny Design Workshops enabled people working in Ireland to create designs with a global reach

Perhaps it was the fault of the excellent cafe in their shop on Nassau Street, but most people have the wrong idea about the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW). More than simply an outlet for pea soup and oatcakes, or a place to purchase ceramics, KDW were innovative, far thinking, and changed the course of design in Ireland. They created an international dialogue, saw the development of skills, both new and traditional, and promoted design abroad. The phrase “design in Ireland” is key, as KDW were not simply about Irish design, but about enabling people working in Ireland to create designs with a global reach.

During their time (1965 to 1988), one of the accusations most commonly levelled at them was that they were not Irish enough.

With a board that included Louis le Brocquy and Pat Scott, and with Oisín Kelly as an artist-in-residence, there was plenty that was Irish about KDW, but the practice of inviting international designers, including German silversmith Rudolf Heltzel and Dutch ceramicist Sonja Landweer, to the workshops, led to the sense of a “lack of Irishness”.

Design and craft historian Eleanor Flegg explains: “People got caught up with feeling that the KDW designs looked Scandinavian, but this was often just because they looked different to the things that they were used to seeing. There was a lot of prejudice, and the idea of multicultural synthesis behind KDW was ahead of its time.”

Over the years, KDW were involved with everything from some of our best-known logos, to local authority litter bins, to the seating at Heathrow airport, to carpets, silver and ceramics. KDW staff were sent to countries in the developing world, including the Philippines, Lesotho and Sri Lanka to demonstrate how the model could be applied there. They also helped to develop Kilkenny Arts Week.

So what killed KDW? They had been going from strength to strength, despite a dip in the last recession, but a board decision to commercialise KDW, and to open a London outlet on Bond Street plunged the company into debt. This was ironic, since retail had initially been envisaged merely as a showcase for what design could achieve.

“Thinking in terms of going forward,” says Flegg, “KDW was of its time and I don’t think that there’s any point in trying to recreate it.”

Nevertheless, it’s a loss felt even more keenly now that such a focal point for creative energy and innovative synergies is more necessary than ever.

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