Barcelona Cultura

Javier Gimeno: Design and national identity

Javier Gimeno holds a PhD in Art History from the Kuleuven University in Belgium. He is professor and director of MA Design Cultures in the Department of Arts & Culture, History and Antiquity at the VU University of Amsterdam. He is also a researcher and member of the ICDHS board and the FHD patronage.

Last March, he presented the III Symposium of the History of Design Foundation, with his inaugural conference "Design and National Identity". We raised with him questions about the idea of nation as identity and we discussed with him the role of design in its construction, at a time when national cohesion seems a necessity for survival.

What is the relationship between design and national identity?

Design, like any cultural artifact, is something that is integrated into a discourse on national identity, at any time. It doesn’t have to be an object that has been designed specifically to reflect a national identity. Once that object enters a discourse on national identity, such as a book that talks about Spanish, Catalan, English or Scottish design, it feeds itself with a national character that is integrated into that discourse.

At the conference, you mentioned that modernity suggested that the concept of nation is not something that exists naturally, but it is a social construction. How does this process work?

Nations are not natural phenomena, they are built, being a product of history. That’s why there have not always been nations and there are still territories that do not belong to any nation. Nation as a phenomenon has spread in such a way that we do not understand the existence of geography without nations. National identity is an identity that is generated from political institutions. It can also come from the intellectuality sometimes, but it is experienced from individuals, not as a natural thing. That doesn't mean that it is a lie, it is simply something formed in an artificial way because, if we did nothing to generate nations, nations would not exist.

In this sense, what role does design play, how has it shaped the concept of national identity?

Design, like any other cultural product, is a set of objects in which national identity is communicated. In this case, it can be the design of a flag. The logo of a national government is also one of those elements which, by recognizing them as our own, makes us feel that we belong to a national collective. Design is intended to somehow reflect the presence and existence of that nation. In the same way, there are also other products that end up participating of a similar national character, and not because the designer designed them with that intention. For instance, there are some historical movements such as the Noucentisme, which claimed a type of Catalan nation.

What do we mean by Spanish design? Which is the first object that comes into our minds when we talk about our design?

We don’t have to think so much about what Spanish design is and what object it can represent it, but rather what discourses have been generated about Spanish design. It is not so much the objects themselves that represent a national essence, but the discourses in which they are integrated. For example, literature and exhibitions on Spanish design begin in the eighties, at a post-dictatorship moment. What is defined as Spanish design? Everything that represents modernity and anything that goes beyond the scope of a recovery from the traditional, which is what was done during the Franco dictatorship. Research productions on Spanish design in the eighties exalt this type of design. For example, the vinegars of Rafael Marquina were one of the elements that were presented as epitome of the Spanish design, because it was modern and simple.

In this sense, the Design Museum preserves a wide collection of graphic design that contributed to create the identity of Spain during the Transition period as well as the popular Olympic Barcelona campaign. How did this period contribute to the renewal of the national imagery?

The curious thing is that that imaginary, that line resembling a comic aspect, the primary colors, that imaginary that was created in the nineties has been perpetuated in recent work. When there is a moment as particular as Olympic Barcelona, in which such a distinctive design is generated, it works also as a springboard to promote that type of design into the world, it generates its own tradition, and that is why that graphic vocabulary has survived until today.

Would you say that national identities can also be deformed and hybridized, as design has been doing in the last decades?

Sure. In fact, that is the idea that I am more interested in conveying: the essence of national identities, especially in design, does not have to be sought only in what is traditional, they are being built daily. It is not something that freezes and that it is unique, it evolves.

So, designs also take on national identity by who uses them, not just by who creates them?

Each individual has the possibility to attribute character of national identity to certain products. For example, what makes up our daily home is what gives us the feeling of being at home and belonging to a nation. What shapes our domestic landscape is not precisely what appears in Spanish design books. We shape our domestic landscape and our home idea with design that can be national and design that can be foreign. It’s our use of that design that gives it sense. If that object has value for the consumer of creating a sense of home, wherever it comes from, it is generating a national identity.

We are living through an unprecedented global pandemic. What has been the reaction of the design on a global scale? 

Design has involved in terms of finding solutions to problems. The problem we are facing is not new in terms of content  -it is a disease- but in terms of size. The objects that can help us solve the problem are already there, what’s not there is the right amount. The protective mask is an object that has been designed, so design is already making a contribution. 

Have you identified any changes in how the community has dealt with the virus?

Not only in terms of cutting off the disease, of preventing it and curing it, but also in terms of how we interact in a new way with our domestic environment, simply because we have to spend more time at home. How those objects around us can serve as comfort or reinforce a sense of security.

Continuing with the current crisis, what is the institutional image being projected? For example, we are seeing a greater presence of national symbols in the public appearances of government spokespersons.

What I am keeping from all this is how precisely national borders are becoming less important, how we realize that a pandemic is affecting us in the same way as it is affecting other countries. What problems of planetary dimension do is unite the population, from whichever nation.

Do you think it’s a strategy to reinforce the concept of national union?

This is very similar to what happens with the growing awareness of climate problems, they reinforce more the idea of planet and that we are all on the same planet regardless of your nationality. I’ll stick with how this crisis is making it more obvious that national boundaries are of relative importance because we all, in the end, share the same planet. In moments like this we realize more what connects us than what separates us.

Ajuntament de Barcelona