Imagine walking into a room and ten luminaries confront you, the brightest brains of their generation. If that room was in France, I bet nine of the ten would be philosophers. In Italy, nine of the ten would be from a visual background, either painters, sculptors or designers. In Germany, it would be different again: nine of the ten would be engineers or technologists. In Britain, however, the vast majority would be writers of some kind.
The reason why the composition of each national group would be so different is to do with culture. In Britain, we have a predominantly literary culture in which the written and the verbal have been elevated above the visual and the aesthetic for many generations.
In France, there is a tendency to celebrate the good idea and to prize conceptual thinking. In Italy, beauty is central to social acceptance and visual literacy is admired above many other forms of culture. In Germany, great store is placed on function, analysis, organisation and engineering.
I have observed, by working in many European countries, how deep-rooted cultural traits express themselves through design.
The French penchant for philosophising has given us many iconic statements in which the idea’s the thing, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pompidou Centre, from the Twingo car to Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer. The idea is expressed in a bold, flamboyant, over-the-top way that would grate in other European countries. But for the French, all that matters is the concept.
Italy’s pursuit of beauty has given us artefacts in which looks matter more than function.
Anyone who bought a Fiat in the UK more than a decade ago will know how gorgeous they were – until they rusted. Even today, the Ferrari has a spectacular visual image not always supported by the mechanical side of things. Many Italian light fittings are marvellous pieces of industrial sculpture – until you want to change the bulb, that is. Then, the impracticality of the product drives you to near despair. But the Italians aren’t bothered. Style is what counts.
The design language which emerges from German culture is very proper and serious: a straight-faced, form-follows-function approach that drove the German lighting designer Ingo Maurer to send up the design culture of his countrymen by making lights out of red chickens. You can see in the BMW or the Mercedes saloon, in the Bosch hand tool or the Braun shaver, the values of a culture which has a rational demand for quality and a mastery of manufacturing.
At its best, German design can transcend its process-driven analysis to become highly aesthetic. Too often, modern German products simply reveal themselves as boring and sterile.
But what of British design? What cultural values do our artefacts and environments suggest? Here, the message is perhaps more mixed.
When social commentator Peter York fixed his gaze on Anglo design in the Eighties and talked of a nation of punks and beefeaters, the exotic and the geriatric, he was expressing a widely held view which explains away all British creativity as belonging to the heritage of eccentricity, wit and invention.
But there are other notable strands, not least the obsession with directing invention towards functionality. The results of this can be seen in a range of quintessentially British products from the Anglepoise and Bestlite lamps to the Mini and the Hovercraft.
The co-existence of the off-the-wall with the eminently sensible is part and parcel of the contradictory and quixotic impulses of design in the UK. But unlike the French, we tend not to celebrate our good ideas in design terms.
Let me give you an example. The award-winning Freeplay Clockwork Radio, the brainchild of inventor Trevor Bayliss, is a brilliant British idea. This wind-up radio for developing countries, where electricity and batteries are scarce and expensive, is powered by an internal spring-driven generator. Bayliss worked with TKO Product Design to bring the idea to market.
The concept has such integrity that you would think its visual expression would reflect the power of the idea. But what appears to matter above all else is the function. The style is essentially utilitarian and practical. The French would have celebrated the idea; but the look of the Freeplay Clockwork radio hides it, and it ends up resembling a me-too product, which it most definitely is not.
By contrast, another award-winning British product, the Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, looks as though it is French because it celebrates new technology by showing the dust flying round at 900mph inside a transparent bin. This is a most un-British stroke – and has been highly successful.
There can, of course, be few more instructive comparisons than between the new national libraries of France and Britain.
London’s much-delayed New British Library is finally emerging from behind the scaffolding at King’s Cross to present an image 30 years out of date. Its restrained modernist brick facades reflect the influence of Scandinavian design on Britain in the Sixties, when architect Colin St John Wilson originally designed it.
In contrast, it took the French only seven years – the length of time the British Library spent just deciding on a new location – to build the last of President Mitterrand’s grands projets in Paris. It is Dominique Perrault’s massive BibliothÃ¨que Nationale de France which, typically, has a big governing idea: the scheme is essentially four giant open books facing each other across a vast rectangular garden plaza.
French librarians and academics were appalled at the concept, fearing that sunlight would destroy the books. Indeed, Perrault was forced to fit his four giant glass towers with wooden shutters to protect the works, and the architect was much abused for his design.
Yet the project was defended politically and built swiftly; now it is there for all to visit and enjoy, a most striking piece of contemporary architecture.
The British Library interior may eventually be a more sensible and functional solution, but it was the French who really celebrated their big idea about what a library should be, just as the Italians would have striven for beauty and the Germans would have organised construction methodically and efficiently. The British lost the plot amid bureaucratic muddle and procrastination, and no flash of eccentric wit could pull us clear on this occasion.
But engaging though it is to speculate, there must be a purpose to such cultural analysis in relation to design. The point I find myself making increasingly to clients is that for all our talk of global markets and new Europeans, we remain governed by deep cultural instincts which are rooted in national and even regional convictions, and which we need to analyse more fully and understand better.
Many projects, we know, are genuinely cross-cultural. The new Ford Ka, heavily influenced by British designers working in Germany, is an example of how the unorthodox and adventurous can emerge from a fusion of different cultural patterns. But where there is a strong national design chord being struck, certain cultural characteristics can be guaranteed to come to the fore in the visual and creative.
For centuries, culture has been expressed in the art, design, literature and artefacts which communities have created. The commercial design of the late 20th century is certainly no less of a mirror held up to the values of society.
If we are to create British design that truly reflects what we are about now and in the future, I believe British design education, consultants and clients need to work together to loosen our grip on the safety blanket of conventional market research and demographics, and delve more deeply into those dark pools of cultural meaning.