The Totality of Design

What happened after the Modernistas

denim dummies in BCN

...in the 1980s Barcelona was also flooded with a peculiarly nitwitted and lighthearted mode of design, growing from a juncture among disco, comics, fashion, PoMo theory (or what passed for it), and Memphis mannerisms. This is the stuff with franchising clout and media appeal, and it ramps over the city like kudzu.Barcelona, Robert Hughes

If it ever occurred to God to ask contemporary Barcelona to update the Bible, the Gospel of John would start ‘In the beginning there was the Design.’ The idea of ‘total design’ (integrating decoration with design) was adopted from William Morris by the Modernistas — Gaudí designed everything down to the chairs and doorknobs of his buildings — and their contemporary heirs, with inborn Catalan flair and capitalism, leave nothing untouched or undesigned. Toilets are designed. Tapas are designed. Even the dog collars are designed.

The obsession with design began in the early 1980s, not long after the death of Franco (known dismissively as Paco Rana, 'Frank the Frog,' in Barcelona), when the city's pent-up, suppressed cultural and creative energy came welling up. There was an immediate need to show the world and the Barcelonans themselves that they hadn't forgotten their identity over the 'white bread' decades. There was also a tremendous need to start having fun.

Designer bars, initially inspired by the latest science fiction films and post-industrial chic, became a local speciality. One of the first, in 1981, was Zig Zag, by Antxón Gómez, now art director and production designer for Pedro Almódavar. Then there was the famous Torres d’Avila in the Poble Espanyol, created by Xavier Mariscal of Valencia and Alfredo Arribas, with ‘more design per square metre’ than any bar anywhere.

The extremely versatile Mariscal has gone on since to be the high priest of Barcelona design. After a career start in comic strips, he was encouraged to spread his wings by design guru Fernando Amat of Barcelona's late lamented design heaven, Vinçon; after the Torres d’Avila, he was commissioned to design the 1992 Barcelona Olympic mascot, a goofy, non-referential dog-cat thing called Cobi; the nationalists had been hoping for a dragon and complained loudly.

Mariscal retreated to his native Valencia and in a famous interview called Jordi Pujol (then president of the Generalitat) 'a dwarf' and suggested that Catalunya would be better off without the Catalans. Called to account by the Barcelonans, Mariscal squirmed in front of the cameras and the temperamental artiste was forgiven.

Meanwhile, Cobi launched Mariscal on the international stage. His ‘nitwitted and lighthearted’ style has been linked to much that is trendy about Barcelona, and it has indeed spread like kudzu, even beyond the city; Mariscal has since designed Italian furniture, a logo for the Swedish Socialist Party, an aquatic park in Nagasaki, ‘Twipsy’, the mascot for Hanover’s Expo 2000, the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (where he designed everything, including the uniforms of the staff). He has ventured into film, collaborating with Fernando Trueba on an animated Cuban musical love story Chico and Rita.

To promote and show how very very seriously it takes Design, Barcelona now has a 'Design Museum' and a new 22@ district in Poble Nou that it hopes will make it the design capital of the world. Could it possibly be taking it a bit too seriously? Each new tapas and cocktail bar and luxury hotel strives to outdo the last, or to out-zen the last, usually in various shades of black, white and grey, unheedful of culture philosopher Walter Benjamin's warning: 'Monotony is nourished by the new.'

It will be interesting to see what survives from all this into the next decade, or maybe it's not meant to survive. Meanwhile, the locals roam the city in search of the last old, authentic, un-designed little neighbourhood bar...

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