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European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century

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The intellectual borders of European design have changed dramatically since 1985, says Max Fraser

European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century
by R. Craig Miller, Penny Sparke, and Catherine McDermott, Published by Merrell (20th April 2009), Hardback, £35,  

Time seems to speed by ever-faster as the years progress but it’s rare that we take the chance to consider the wider historical implications of our activities. This new publication, which ties in with a touring exhibition of the same name currently showing in USA, is written by an impressive trio of design academics and curators comprising R. Craig Miller, Penny Sparke, and Catherine McDermott. As its title suggests, this book focusses on design’s evolution in Europe (actually, Western Europe) within the relatively short period since 1985, helping us piece together our hazy memories of life we have just lived. With an eye on all of the elements of our social make-up, the authors convincingly gather the facts and assert their own opinions in a convincing and readable beast of a publication. And fear not, there are pictures aplenty.

The book begins with substantial essays from each of the authors. Sparke kicks off the trio with some necessary context by explaining the emergence of industrial design in Europe in the post-war period from 1945 until 1985. Her well-written and digestible text explains Italy’s post-war design renaissance, Scandinavia’s concern with the applied arts and the domestic sphere, Germany’s focus on technically oriented consumer goods and Britain’s somewhat lacklustre production efforts. She points out that in the 1950s, these countries were strategically investing in design, at an educational, social, political and business level and their many iconic creations were celebrated across the world.

Working through the influence of USA on mass consumption and media in the 60s and 70s, she clearly positions the rejection of Modernist restraint and utility - soon to be replaced with irony, popular culture, stylistic revivalism and the shift to a more globalized style.

McDermott then picks up at 1985. It is not entirely clear as to the significance of this year, except perhaps that it marked the end of the significant Memphis period in Italy and the start of a new phase of post-modernism in design. Over the past two decades, McDermott outlines design processes, production, and priorities have responded to a very different world. The opening of the borders between EU countries has enabled education and trade to internationalize, the media communicates the global design scene ever-quicker, whilst design has shifted from problem solving to intellectual ideas. Emerging technologies and the influence of computers and CAD are highlighted, while the creation of designers as celebrities is also touched upon. Of course, in the 21st century, sustainability has marched to the fore and McDermott proposes that a designer’s social and ethical responsibilities should now rank above the potential to increase profit.

Miller finishes the trio talking about globalization and a lessening sense of national design identities, about how European countries have to rely on technological and intellectual might to stay competitive against cheaper Asian production, as well as the clear distinctions between industrial, limited, and studio production where designers are now dissolving the lines between design, craft, and art.

The main bulk of the book, full of plenty of pictures, highlights the numerous design genres that have emerged across Europe since 1985 into eight identifiable titles such as Geometric Minimal design, Biomorphic design, Neo-Decorative design, Neo-pop design. Following an explanatory summary at the start of these chapters, strong images and captions justify the numerous desirable products and objects that grace the subsequent pages and the add richness that this book deserves.

There are plenty of books that deal with the here and now of design but very few that dig deeper and tackle the profession’s historical changes over the past two decades with so much scrutiny. This book confidently approaches the  subject and provides coherent and well placed thinking on the era through which we have all just lived.

Max Fraser is a journalist,Editor and Publisher at London Design Guide, acquisitions Advisor at Crafts Council and a Curatorial Director at Detank.com

Resume: Western design put into gloriously illustrated context

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