That flag is still flying

It’s ten years since British Airways sent shock waves through the design industry with the launch of its new identity by Landor Associates. And the BA flag now reigns supreme over a new design industry that it kick-started into action, reflects Jeremy Mye

SBHD: It’s ten years since British Airways sent shock waves through the design industry with the launch of its new identity by Landor Associates. And the BA flag now reigns supreme over a new design industry that it kick-started into action, reflects Jeremy Myerson

They called it the Flying Fag Pack. They condemned it as retrogressive, mediocre and a mess. Worst of all, it was perpetrated by Americans.

But ten years after the skies fell in on the launch of the new British Airways identity by Landor Associates, the much-derided image has silenced its critics and is still serving its purpose.

The furore surrounding it did not reflect well on the British design industry, which was evidently still playing by outdated rules when Lord King came along and gave Landor clearance for take-off. A “nasty little outbreak of xenophobia” was how Wally Olins described the controversy.

At least some British design consultants managed to keep a sense of humour. Asked by Design Week’s sister paper Creative Review to devise alternative solutions for BA’s livery, Trickett & Webb suggested a Burberry plane, The Jenkins Group added Tudor beams to the fuselage, and Carroll & Dempsey (now CDT Design) went the whole nostalgia hog with an armoured plane, regal plume, portcullis door and stained glass windows. The Yellow Pencil Company suggested a name change to Air HairLair.

A decade of rampant historicism later, those tongue-in-cheek solutions no longer seem as ironic as intended then. Back in 1985 the British Airways revamp sent two strong signals to the heart of the UK design community.

First, design had become global, with multinational design groups stalking the really big contracts. In a world of flotation and privatisation, national protectionism was out of the window.

Second, the universal rules of good graphic identity – founded on a forward-looking modernist credo – were no longer relevant to the demands of international marketing, no matter how tenaciously sections of the British design community clung to them. Much of the anger and anguish over Landor’s abrupt landing at BA was a last blast against the dying of the light as the rules of design changed – and the certainties of national boundaries and fixed ideologies gave way to the freefall of transnational post modernism.

Actually, if you remember, British design adapted remarkably well. Within a year, the new Prudential image by Wolff Olins had opened the floodgates for a torrent of overtly historicist corporate identities, and a sharper commercial edge to the industry had resulted in Design Week, the Design Business Association and the Business Design Centre all launching in autumn 1986.

Landor found half a dozen British design firms with aspirant global networks snapping at its heels. And by 1989, the UK design industry had spent ú70m acquiring US design interests from New York to San Francisco.

Much of that international expansion subsequently ended in tears for British design. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that the sight of those first BA planes besporting the new Landor livery back in early 1985 was the sharp, necessary slap in the face that British design needed to get its act together.

Nobody likes being slapped in the face, which may explain the chorus of carping at “Fly the Fag” US designers. But without BA’s powerful rebuke to its professionalism and expertise, would British design – with its touching faith in Bauhausian craft values – have made quite the same transformation into an aggressive service industry in the late 1980s? I rather think not.

SBHD: The Holocaust

An anniversary of an altogether different type – the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which has quite rightly dominated the media during recent weeks – throws a deeper, stranger light on the design community. For more profound reasons, this is also an anniversary that some designers might have preferred to forget.

But who could overlook the fact that – as a recently opened Moscow archive on the planning of Auschwitz has confirmed – it was a graduate of the Bauhaus (tried for war crimes in the 1970s) who was largely responsible for drawing up the architecture of the death camps?

It is indeed a perverse irony that the credo of uniting art and technology, as developed by Walter Gropius, should be adapted to such devastatingly immoral purpose by the Nazis.

The Bauhaus may have been one of the great design gifts to the twentieth century, but its belief in technology as a benign force in changing society was disproved forever by the detailed design of the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing machine. This is one of the key messages of the new US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, designed by architect Pei Cobb Freed & Partners using a tectonic language of exposed structure to demonstrate the fallibility of technology.

As yet, there is no permanent holocaust memorial museum in the UK – a glaring historical omission in a nation housing more than 3000 museums.

British designers would do rather better putting their energies, skills and vision into getting this project off the ground, rather than whingeing on about the day BA crash-landed on their pride.

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