In Emigre no. 64, three American design teachers – Kali Nikitas, Louise Sandhaus and Denise Gonzales Crisp – talk about a two-week visit they made to London and the Netherlands. A note of disappointment runs through their conversation. Nikitas observes how she has always been interested in what is happening in design outside the US. “I think everyone should look beyond their backyard,” she says. “It seems natural to have a dialogue with designers in other countries. But maybe our education was unique. And maybe the Europeans we met are content and aren’t looking elsewhere for any answers.”
The designers they visited apparently failed to show any interest in their work or in what is happening in the US. These designers, they say, are either ignoring history or unaware of it. Only one designer, Goodwill, seems to impress them much for trying to break away from what Gonzales Crisp calls “the dictates of Euro-determined design”. But poor old Goodwill is way behind the (American) times. If only he had been in contact with designers from Cranbrook, CalArts and Yale who explored these issues ten or fifteen years ago, he could have saved himself a great deal of trouble.
As a European, I had mixed feelings reading this. It contained more than a grain of truth, but it was also patronising. Europe is a collection of countries with a long and complex history. We speak many languages. To understand how design is evolving in any of these territories, you have to combine a sensitivity to local factors with a grasp of the broader, global issues that relate to design everywhere. You also need to understand the ways in which design in Europe (a safer way of putting it than “European design”) might be reacting against American tendencies and consider why this might be.
Few would question that, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, American graphic designers produced the most challenging design and design discourse. So successful were these “radical commodities” (as Rudy VanderLans termed them) that they were fully assimilated by commerce. After that, what? If we judge by its output rather than its design school rhetoric, American design is still looking for an answer. The debate that emerged around 1999 saw a shift to a more engaged and explicit design politics. It was time to lay cards on the table and some of the leading postmodernists, who had made the running in the early 1990s, sounded distinctly uncomfortable when asked to examine design in these terms. At the end of the Emigre conversation, Louise Sandhaus says, “We have got to get over the Adbusters mentality in academia. Instead of critiquing everything and complaining, we have the opportunity to really address our society and culture. . . . I want to emphasize the need to accept this culture as it is . . .” I have no idea how one separates addressing our society from the process of critique.
So what are the chances, at this point, of a genuinely international design discussion? Design Observer was started with the idea that some kind of transatlantic debate might be possible and revealing. Insularity is a human tendency wherever you go, although many Europeans have always looked beyond their borders – it’s often a necessity for economic survival. Contrary to what Emigre’s correspondents seem to think on the basis of a two-week visit, and this should hardly need stating, Europeans are continuously bombarded by the products of every form of American commercial and cultural endeavour, including American design.
Graphic design in Europe was certainly inspired by the experimentalism and energy of American design in the early 1990s, but from the second half of the decade, design in France, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the Netherlands (which seemed played out in the early 1990s) displayed a freshness that American design, locked into familiar routines, has arguably lacked in recent years. Other design economies, such as the Czech Republic, are emerging and Czech designers too are hugely receptive to ideas from overseas. Cultural development doesn’t proceed with perfect linearity, so naturally Europeans respond to their circumstances in their own ways. How else should it be?