Ultimate Europeans

What’s ‘European’, exactly, and what might it mean
aesthetically? Hugh Pearman wrestles with an
elusive concept – and finds an answer of sorts

I’ve always wondered what ‘European’ meant. For us, it tends to exclude ‘British’. Something to do with us having our own currency, various opt-outs from European legislation, pints, miles, and so forth. But maybe, if you’re Spanish, say, you feel the same way. You’ll have the Euro, the kilometre and the litre, but so do the Irish, and I don’t feel I’ve entered Euro-land when I go to Dublin or Cork (perhaps because they still serve beer in pints).

In search of some help here, I open a big new book with a big title/ European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century (published by Merrel). The authors are good: R Craig Miller, Penny Sparke and Catherine McDermott, all design historians and academics. Can they isolate a European dimension to design?

Here’s how they try. They look at an older and a younger generation across Europe. The older group came to prominence in the 1980s and includes Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, Philippe Starck and Maarten van Severen. The youngsters include Tord Boontje, the Bouroullec brothers, Konstantin Grcic and Studio Job. They were mostly born after 1965 and started to make their mark in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

For McDermott, London may be a creative hotbed, but it is The Netherlands that has produced the most interesting work, notably in the form of Marcel Wanders with Droog Design, which in turn emerged from the Design Academy Eindhoven. She says it’s the most influential design school in Europe, and that’s important, but it doesn’t trip off the tongue like ‘Bauhaus’, does it?

Then the book takes a long saunter through some 200 pages of the yummy work of famous designers. And its conclusion? Tentative. Whereas the book’s subtitle is a statement, the same words are given a question mark in the conclusion, ‘Shaping the New Century?’ Frankly, they don’t know, and they are not going to make themselves hostages to fortune. They just ask questions. Can the old guard, such as Arad and Starck, reinvent themselves, in the way Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini were able to late in their careers? Or will they fade away, to be replaced by the second generation, or the nascent third? Do they hazard a guess? No, they don’t.

Then there’s the expansion of the European Union. Will the designers of the former East provide an infusion of new talent to drive Europe to new heights? Again, the question is unanswered. The book limps to a hesitant sign-off. America and Japan are in disarray. China and India are emerging, but not there yet. South America and Africa are dormant. ‘So it is perhaps to Europe that one must look for global leadership in the design arts, at least for the foreseeable future.’

Don’t you just hate that ‘perhaps’? The book ends with a final unanswered question, described as fundamental – ‘whether a new and vastly expanded Europe will accept the formidable challenges of laying the foundations for global design and decisively shaping a new century’.

I feel a bit let down. Nor does the book help me define what ‘European’ means aesthetically. I suspect McDermott is right – it means Dutch. France is French, Italy is Italian, Germany is German, Britain is British. But The Netherlands – there is nothing much you could call Dutch about contemporary Dutch design. They are, surely, the ultimate Europeans. And that means they are in the driving seat.

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