We recently spent some time in Cadaqués, Spain, a fishing village a few hours north of Barcelona renowned for its vibrant creative community (Salvador Dali was known to spend much of his time there). While we were there, we had the pleasure of meeting Viviana Narotzky, author of La Barcelona del Diseño (Santa & Cole, 2007). The book is a superb account of the ‘Barcelona design boom’ of late 1970s-80s, a period in history that helped define the Spanish transition to democracy during that time.
As the publisher notes:
That collective outburst of design-led passion, that had started quietly in the midst of political turmoil in the late 1970s and peaked a decade later, left a profound mark on the city’s morphology and self-perception. For a few years and in sharp contrast to the preceding decades, design became one of the main cultural frameworks of Barcelona’s identity, both locally and abroad. Paired with architecture in a seemingly unavoidable partnership, it provided the seeds from which ultimately emerged the narrative of the city as it is seen today: that of a decaying post-industrial provincial capital miraculously transformed into a sophisticated European metropolis.
Narotzky took some time to answer our questions about Spanish design and its role in the nation’s recent history.
Your book looks at the impact that cultural and political change in late 20th century Barcelona had on design. What happened during that time and how did it affect the world aesthetically?
Spanish design first emerged into the international scene with great energy in the 1980s. A fascist dictatorship, that had taken power in 1939, had finally ended in 1975 and the country was going through a political transition. For Spain, that was a time of huge changes and transformation at all levels – social, cultural, political and economic. In Barcelona, design became the way to express that change formally, the excitement of a whole society engaging with the outside world after 40 years in limbo.
Throughout the 20th century design has been deeply linked to ideas of progress, modernity, innovation and technological change, and all those concepts became very important at that time in Spain, as they represented the move away from decades of deadening stagnation. The formal qualities of contemporary design symbolised modernity and the hope for change. That was true not just at the level of individual tastes and domestic spaces, but also in terms of the urban environment itself – Barcelona, as is well known, changed dramatically during those years, becoming a paradigm of architectural regeneration and cosmopolitan urban culture.
Maybe you could exemplify by giving us an example of a design piece from the start of that period and an example of a design piece from the end. How are these items connected – how are they different?
It’s difficult to assign clear boundaries as historical processes are very fluid and there are always continuities through change. But let’s say that in design terms, that period could be defined as going from the mid-seventies to the early nineties. Throughout those two decades, design in Barcelona was still mostly low-tech, as it had been, out of necessity, throughout the 20th century. It was also quite formalistic, in the sense that it defined itself through the exploration of new shapes and styles, in particular as it engaged with postmodernism in the eighties, with a great flourish of formal exuberance but without a real self-reflexive process that might have engaged with postmodernism’s more serious conceptual drive. The work of the Transatlantic group for instance, or even to an extent that of Xavier Mariscal, would be an example of that.
In a way, the greater changes have come from the mid-nineties onwards, as a new generation of designers have had increasingly easy access to the international design networks. That is particularly crucial in the field of design education. Most of the Spanish design schools now have well-established exchange programmes, with Italy and the UK especially. Many young designers spend a period studying abroad, both at BA and MA level. They become part of an international scene that brings together education institutions, manufacturers and media, and they have developed a keen sense of the current debates and issues that affect design practice. Their work engages comfortably with the latest technologies, is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and it is also very often driven by strong conceptual approaches and combines commercial work with experimental design research projects. Marti Guixe is a good example of that, although I’m not sure he likes to think of himself as a designer! Azuamoline, Hector Serrano and CulDeSac are also doing great work along those lines.
That would be Xavier Mariscal. His work encapsulated all the energy and deep transformations of 1980s Barcelona. It was full of humour and joie de vivre, it mixed in popular culture in a very playful, postmodern way. He was also the first local designer to really break the geographical barriers and become internationally famous, initially through his 1981 collaboration with Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group in Italy, for whom he created the Milan Trolley. Then came his design of the dog Cobi, the official mascot of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, which broke the mould of Disney-like Olympic mascots for the first time and became a world-wide icon of the freshness of the Barcelona style.
When do you hope the book will be available in English?
Soon, I hope! There’s been talks with Thames and Hudson, and the English text is ready, but I haven’t signed a contract yet… I’d like to see the book come out in English before the end of 2009.
Where is it available online?
Through my blog BCNDesign, on Design and Barcelona.