January 30, 2009
In her New Statesman preview of the coming Tate Modern exhibition Rodchenko and Popova, Rachel Aspen recounts how the October Revolution brought art into everyday life in complete and programmatic way which is bracing for a designer to imagine today: “Their work was no longer to be confined to the elite realm of galleries and studios. The entire fabric of everyday existence – from mass transportation and housing projects to teacups and book jackets – was to be redesigned to serve a new vision of Russian life”.
Let’s go back to the Royal Mail Design Classics, which also belong to an era when it seems you could capture the whole force of social optimism in a thing (Concorde, a mini-skirt, a public phone box…). Am I just torturing myself that it’s no longer this simple? Look at the 2012 Olympic logo debacle. So high are our expectations now of pluralism and interactivity that Olympic logo had to be endlessly changeable and accommodating of infill imagery and colour, applicable in digital and analogue form. No wonder the mark itself is nasty and its typographic resolution poor – you’re almost never supposed to see it as the mark itself, only in its infinite subjective metamorphoses.
Earlier this week I had the happy privilege of visiting Manchester Town Hall. Actually it’s not such a privilege; you can just walk in off the street. But what a neo-Gothic treat of mosaic and stained glass and coffered ceilings and spiral staircases and cloisters is this building, reputedly the most expensive in Europe at the time of its construction in 1877. The guidebook narrates the incident three days after the opening banquet when 43,000 working men of the Manchester and Salford Trade Societies marched into the Town Hall bearing samples of their craftsmanship “ranging from glass swords carried by the United Flint Glass Cutters’ Society to a tin suit of armour worn by a member of the Manchester Tin-Plate Workers’ Society”. In Manchester, amidst all the industrial and bureaucratic steam of the late 19th century, these symbols of industry were incontrovertible civic symbols as well.
Franklin Roosevelts’s New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration, instigated a massive programme of civic building to generate employment in the Depression; a programme of progress manifest in built things (parks, bridges and schools) as well as artistic and literary activities. They are symbols of social good; some more allegorically coded than others, like the famous Rincon post office murals in San Francisco depicting the history of California in social-realist terms influenced by Diego Rivera. Gordon Brown has recently invoked the New Deal in the context of our own recession. But how could its ethos apply in a society now so suspicious of propaganda, political iconography and material depictions of public good? Allegory and symbolism in design now seem acceptable only in the commercial realm where the narrative manipulation is so self-evident as to be unobjectionable.
Design now works subtly and intangibly at citizenship ceremonies, public service reforms and electronic forms of democracy. Obama’s campaign betrays the influence of design through and through but you simply can’t quantify it in things like posters and logos. Has the idea of visually manifest, designed, singular, symbolic identity passed forever into private hands? Has the commercial marketing promise of choice killed off the very idea that your state could commission the one true thing you the citizen need?