A Portuguese lesson

Portugal has more to offer designers than cheap labour, discovers Liz Farrelly, following her recent trip to the Experimentadesign99 biennial in Lisbon

It’s official. Lisbon is a “designer” destination. How do I know? Well, both Wallpaper and Elle Deco have “done” Lisbon, and I’ve just returned from one of those press junkets (AKA pay-back for over-worked journalists) which whiz around everything and everyone worth seeing. Only in Lisbon there’s more on offer than a new restaurant or a pile of chairs.

The reason for flying Air Portugal at an unfeasibly early hour was Experimentadesign99, an initiative, for a biennial no less, dreamt up by two Lisbon-based designers, Guta Moura Guedes and Marco Sousa Santos, who are running the show independently of any state-funded marketing ploy. Anyway, it was well worth getting out of bed for. But more of that later.

Do you remember the Barcelona hype back in the Eighties? Lauded by The Face as the place to jig the night away in spectacular clubs, glamour oozed from every Gaudi-esque flourish. Then Spaniards started appearing on the covers of design magazines, as the city’s architects, furniture and fashion designers, retailers and manufacturers banded together to launch a concerted attack on the aesthetic and economic supremacy of Italy and Scandinavia. It worked: the hype was made concrete. Thanks were due, in no small part, to the support of regional government and the huge injection of capital that came via the 1992 Olympic Games, which happened right next door to the newly rebuilt Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pavilion.

Comparisons can be useful, but shouldn’t blind us to Lisbon’s very particular situation. Since the blood-less revolution of 1974, which rid Portugal of a military dictatorship, it’s been working to shed the “poorest in western Europe” tag. Now part of the European Union, still there is a divide between the old-style elite and the majority, for whom having two jobs is often an economic necessity. Of course, low wages make it an attractive option for mass-manufacturing, and Made in Portugal is stamped on goodies sold by a number of mega-brands, including Donna Karan and Marks & Spencer. The only problem with such a situation is that the design element of those products is imported, leaving Portuguese manufacturers with scant need for Portuguese designers.

Should that be a problem? At a round-table discussion which was part of Experimentadesign99, our own Ross Lovegrove, who was exhibiting in something called Essentials Deluxe, answered just such a question from a Portuguese student by drawing comparisons with our own lot. “In the UK we haven’t even got a manufacturing industry,” he pointed out, “äso designers have to travel to wherever to work, for whoever.” While we’d all love to have a design-led manufacturing base as strong as Italy or Germany, actually setting out to promote one at the end of the 20th century would be totally misguided. Luckily, that isn’t what Experimentadesign99 is trying to do.

So it’s a biennial, with lots of interesting exhibitions of work by Portuguese designers of all ages, and a show inviting big-name Europeans to choose stuff summing up their country’s design culture (Essentials Deluxe). Plus, an Archizoom exhibit was installed in the Design Museum’s permanent collection at the Centro Cultural de Belém. Originating from a spectacular private collection of 20th-century gems the museum is unmissable. There’s a film festival programmed by guest designers, a conference/summer school and some kind of multimedia party-event. But ask Guta and Sousa Santos what it’s all about, and their savvy attitude reveals a firmer grasp on the realities of contemporary design practice than some of their more privileged, and perhaps complacent, European colleagues.

It’s not a trade show, it’s not a showcase for Portuguese designers. It’s about consciousness-raising, prompted by Portugal’s physical distance from the rest of Europe. The aim is to drag people in, get a dialogue going, share ideas and initiatives. No stranger to initiative, Sousa Santos is behind a couple of projects which put Portuguese design on the map. Bringing together local manufacturers with a host of talents, giving them a brief and promoting the results, his company, Proto Design, has launched ranges in ceramic, glass and aluminium which have captured attention, and generated sales, around the world.

“Today, designers sell ideas not objects,” says Sousa Santos. “Experimenta is a neutral place where all designers can come and share ideas. Design is a village so it doesn’t make sense to close the boundaries.”

With designers generating their own products and corporations using individuals to inject creativity into their agenda rather than simply cranking out makeovers, an event dedicated to concepts not launches could feed a real need.

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