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An Identity Crisis In British Design?

An Identity Crisis In British Design?
culture
Paloma M. Vazquez
  • 24 august 2009

Image credit: Getty Images, Mark A. Paulda/Flickr

Is British design in the midst of an identity crisis?  In a piece for the New York Times, Alice Rawsthorne wonders why so many British design icons have lost some of the impact and relevance their predecessors possessed, and ponders the challenges of capturing a nation’s identity and psyche in design, when that identity is increasingly complex.

The Royal Mail introduced a series of  stamps last week, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country’s post box and other British design icons, including the telephone kiosk.  Accoriding to Rawsthorne,

“like so many other jewels of Britain’s design heritage, the post box is not what it used to be.  An essential quality of a national design gem is that it reflects the country’s culture. The neo-classical dome of the K2 telephone kiosk symbolized Britain’s attachment to tradition and ambivalence toward modernity in the 1920s, just as the Routemaster’s can-do style captured the determination of the postwar era”.

Rawsthorne partially attributes the blame in British design’s tumble to the “change for change’s sake” mentality in many corporations and even in public institutes, where management feels they need to make a tangible impact before they exit through the proverbial revolving door.   She more specifically attributes the blame in national public design to Britain’s increasingly complex and diverse national identity:

“There is another problem, which is specific to public projects. An essential quality of a national design gem is that it reflects the country’s culture. The neo-classical dome of the K2 telephone kiosk symbolized Britain’s attachment to tradition and ambivalence toward modernity in the 1920s, just as the Routemaster’s can-do style captured the determination of the postwar era.  It was easier for designers to accomplish this then than it is today, when Britain’s national identity seems so much more complex, diverse and contradictory than it did in the 1920s and 1940s. Those eras had their complexities, too, but there was less inclination to recognize them, and it is simpler for designers to articulate a clearly defined message, than ambiguity.”

One is left to wonder whether it will be possible for any public design icon to capture a nation’s collective psyche or identity, when a single consistent, common identity might not exist.  Did designers of yesteryear encounter the same challenges when trying to appeal to the psyches of a changing nation, or has the talent of those designers just transitioned into the private (and more profitable) space?

NYT: “British Design: Not What It Used to Be”

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