Designs on Europe


IN THE aftermath of the second World War, the Council of Europe looked for a symbol to capture its aspirations something that would encapsulate the hopes and fears of a free continent, shaken by a holocaust but still striving somehow to remain optimistic. It naturally took a little time. Five years passed between the formation of the committee charged with the creation of the flag and its final acceptance by the Council of Ministers on December 8th, 1955 a significant date, as we shall see.

The question of representing this new order in cotton had not been an easy one. Over three years the committee examined 12 separate proposals for the flag, but it was not until they received late in the day, a 13th suggestion that they found what they needed. Submitted by Arsene Heitz, a gentleman who was described at the time as "un simple fonctionnaire" in the Council's mail office, the design was strong, simple and fresh, but still, seemed to have some kind of pedigree.

In heraldic terms, the design was described as follows on a field azure a circle of 12 mullets or, their points not touching. If it struck anyone at the time that they had seen this configuration somewhere before they were probably right. It, or something like it, had been showing up in Catholic art and decoration for some time.

M. Heitz, it appeared had been briefed by the same, very demanding client as the Catholic church. In Revelations, Saint John sees an apparition of the blessed Virgin of the Apocalypse. His description lacks a little heraldic precision, but it nonetheless gets the message across. "A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head."

It is no longer possible to be certain if this was M. Heitz's inspiration he died in 1990. What seems clear, however, is that whoever was responsible for setting the calendar for the Council of Ministers in 1955 took the design to have a Marian significance. December 8th is, of course, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Supported by Jacques Delors, the (then) European Economic Community adopted the Council of Europe flag in 1986. Since that time there have been no important European design decisions. Until now that is. With the proposal that a single currency should be in operation for the turn of the century, the search was on for a graphic representation for this second phase of post war European development. It was time to design a couple of items which, with a little luck, every citizen of Europe would handle every day the EuroNote and its little brother, the EuroCoin.

A COMPETITION to choose a design for the single European currency was first mooted in 1985 by a French woman Sylvia Bourdon. The competition was however, only officially launched in April 1993. At the time, the President of the European Parliament, Egon Klepsch wrote that the issue of designing the currency would "bring home" the fact that when it came to keeping life in Europe rosy, there was no alternative to "the European Community the sole guarantor of lasting peace and security in Europe".

The jury of "The Graphic Ecu Competition" looked at 97 banknotes and 44 coin designs, which had in their turn been selected from an original entry of 1,000. Ten proposals for banknotes, and nine proposals for coins were then short listed. While the names and nationalities of the designers whose designs were selected are available, they have not been linked with their relevant designs. National concerns often seem, however, to give away the origins of the graphic artists involved.

In one slightly denode looking note a group of protesting figures holds placards inscribed with the word "FRANCAIS". In another, a large quill drawn letter "e" for Ecu is accompanied on one side of the note by the head of BotticelIi's Venus, and on the other by the familiar, podgy face of Michelangelo's David. It would be hard to believe that this design originated anywhere but in the city in which both objects reside, Florence. (There is indeed a Florentine designer on the shortlist.)

Similarly, a full colour reproduction of Rembrandt adorns another note, while yet another lectures a figure wearing the trademark hat of German performance artist and guru Joseph Beuys, Robert Schuman also shows up as does a bust labelled Caesare Augusto. Coin designs range from another Rembrandt self portrait to a funky, blue disc with a scooped out centre.

To make the choice between all these designs. Sylvia Bourdon, chairwoman of the Graphic Ecu Competition, teamed up with the media in most European countries to promote a "popular referendum" in which the main newspaper and the main magazine of each country polled readers on their favourite designs. Only two countries did not take part ecuphobic Austria, and Ireland.

The winning design for the note was not one of those described above. It carries no images of any of Europe's most celebrated artists, nor of their works. Instead, the note created by Josep M. Codina Filba, Joan Fontanais and Rafael Codina, a team of designers from Matarii, outside Barcelona, is dominated by a familiar European image. These days the logo may be described as Pantone Yellow stars on a Pantone Reflex Blue ground but whatever the words used to describe it, clearly the legacy of Arsene Heitz has found favour once more. (The winning coin, from Germany, also features 12 stars, surrounding an apocalyptic beast).

For Madame Bourdon the popular decision (which was also her favourite for the prize) shows a maturity among the citizens of the Union that is absent in their elected leaders. That the citizens chose a firmly federal image over prettier, and frankly more impressive, nationalistic images gives, according to Bourdon, a clear indication that the citizens have a much stronger image of a federal Europe than their politicians.

"My concept for the design competition came from the idea that if the countries of Europe shared a currency there would not be another war, as that would mean fighting against their own financial interests. I tried not to have any notion of what the currency would look like it the end, but I was very pleased with the final decision. It is a design that is completely European, not tied to any national symbols."

WHEN the winner of this competition is announced officially at a ceremony in the auditorium of the European Parliament in Brussels next week, it will not despite the protracted competition and the popular mandate have any binding effect. The design for the single currency will still be a matter for the central bankers of the Union members. Bourdon has, however, extracted a promise from the European, Union that it will submit the design as the official recommendation to the Monetary Institute in Frankfurt and the organisation of the Mint Directors of the European Union.

This, she feels, is the best that can be hoped for at present, even if she fears that this course might take the decision again away from the citizens and place it in the hands of unelected officials. Already, the designers have had to return to their computer to make a small alteration to their designs after the Madrid conference decided that the name of the single currency would not, after all, be ECU, but instead Euro.... and if we are not careful it could soon become the Euromarc says Bourdon.

When the prizes, to the value of 20,000 Euros for the designers of the banknotes, and 10,000 Euros for the designer of the coins, are presented next week, they will be written in French Francs. As for Bourdon, who conceived this competition some 11 years ago, she now has a new scheme in mind. "Why must the European anthem be a German tune? I mean. I like Beethoven but there are plenty of other good pieces of music we could use. I think the only way to choose the anthem is to have a competition and let the public decide.