Object Matters: There is more to Irish design than jobs and exports

The Year of Irish Design celebrated collaboration and gave good return on investment, but its long-term impact is hard to quantify

Collaboration: ‘Plumage’, by Love & Robots, in association with Niamh Lunny of the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Love & Robots

Collaboration: ‘Plumage’, by Love & Robots, in association with Niamh Lunny of the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Love & Robots

 

Taking stock of the Year of Irish Design 2015, what was it for and what did it do? Doubtless, almost as an act of design itself, ID2015 gathered, materialised and communicated phenomena. One result is a numbers game: through commissioned research, ID2015 diagnosed the significance of design to the Irish economy. The findings make interesting reading: the “design sector” accounts for €38 billion, or 20 per cent, of total exports; 48,000 people – 2.5 per cent of the workforce – are employed in design in Ireland; Irish design exports are higher relative to the UK. As an initiative convened by the Design & Crafts Council on behalf of key Government departments and Enterprise Ireland, such figures are likely to please and flatter.

Among the breathtaking quantity of projects during the year (670) the works of Irish designers were promoted in many different versions and scales. The biggest was a flagship exhibition Liminal that appeared in different iterations in Milan, New York, Eindhoven and Dublin. Veering away from the idea of design as the work of a lone genius, and more reflective of the multi-agent reality, it was predicated on the idea of collaboration. And so Niamh Lunny, head of costume at the Abbey Theatre, worked with the Love & Robots digital design studio to create the Plumage cape, a 3D-printed chainmail garment with ornamental attachments that communicates something about how what we wear in some sense makes everyday life a “performance”.

Such technical splashiness was evident in many of the projects on show, although the more intriguing rested on ideas of narrative. I think chief among those was the collaboration between Mcor Technologies and Studio PSK. While a challenge to the world of 3D printing is the disposal of a flood of “crapjects” – plastic prototypes of no further use – Mcor has developed 3D printers that create models out of rather more homely and environmentally friendly paper, ink and glue.

Inspired by the approach taken by Dunne + Raby, who use design as a form of speculation or cultural critique, Mcor and Studio PSK worked with Fintan O’Toole to develop objects that materialised ideas about the future of everyday life in Ireland. For example, a “Tullamore Two Timers” GAA supporters’ badge spoke of an imagined future when “New Irish Time” would be introduced, and split the country into two time zones to better capitalise on Central American markets to the west and Central Asian markets to the east. Although not spelled out, the object seemed a subtle dig at the extent to which Ireland is vulnerable to global markets.

Kilkenny design

The next version of Liminal opens in April in Kilkenny, for long the city most strongly associated with design in Ireland, not least through the establishment of the ground-breaking Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) there 50 years ago. Believed to be the first government-sponsored design agency in the world, and a model for similar initiatives elsewhere, KDW still remain a hugely important phenomenon in the history of Irish design. While ID2015 enabled the design of an app that tells the story of KDW, there is a sense that far more could have been made of that.

However, this in turn might have involved the year having a more directly academic or intellectual remit entailing quieter and perhaps more painstaking research and reflection. Although the year saw a television series that sought to chart the history of design in Ireland and some exhibitions focussed on ordinary material objects rather than strongly authored design, the pervasive attitude was celebration. Charged with job creation, and seeking to underpin Government policy, the year was future-oriented and – sometimes relentlessly – positive. In that, and on its own terms, it seems largely to have succeeded. The direct economic impact in terms of return on the initial investment are presented as 10:1, “public relations value” is reckoned at €15 million and it has been figured that export sales of €23 million have been generated through core ID2015 programmes alone.

The impact of the Year of Irish Design in the long term is harder to quantify. It’s clear that although it focused attention on a particular version of design, it drew also from former initiatives, most recently Pivot Dublin, the venture by the City Council to bid for Dublin to be designated World Design Capital 2014. While not succeeding in that original goal, Pivot persists as a project that, among other things, seeks to interrogate the role of design in everyday services and attitudes.

Design for social change

That design can be used for social change as well as job creation and image projection was not conveyed overtly by ID2015, and yet some of the most significant debates happening around design address such issues. More than a decade ago, the Design Council in Britain was important in mobilising designers to attempt to solve complex problems in relation to health, crime and education. It would be heartening if the seeds sown by ID2015 could generate an understanding of the value of design in addressing societal matters.

Dr Lisa Godson is a lecturer in design history and material culture at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.