When is a design considered 'National'?

As we say goodbye to the old National Gallery of Ireland visual identity, it is interesting to reflect on the factors that influenced that design, created almost 25 years ago to the day.

In the late 1980s the German designer and educator, Gerd Fleischmann of the Fachhochschule Bielefeld, visited Design Factory and pronounced their brochure for TDI, the Trade Development Institute of Ireland, ‘very Irish’. The reasons why a particular design is considered ‘national’ are very difficult to pin down. Fleischmann considered the choice of colours to bear some relationship to the natural environment of Ireland. He commented on the pale blue of the sky after rain, the way light reflects on trees. This approach to defining national style—which avoids identifying specific symbols or traits in favour of less rhetorically-charged factors such as climate or geography—is one favoured by many design historians. John A. Walker, however, in his succinct account of the problems of writing ‘national’ histories of design is sceptical: ‘The land, geology, climates and material resources of countries vary. Certain features of Swedish design have been explained in terms of the country’s harsh climate but, presumably, this factor also applies to Norway, Finland, Canada and the North of the Soviet Union.’ Fleischmann’s comments would later inform Conor Clarke’s thinking in another high-profile project: the corporate identity for the National Gallery of Ireland. Clarke’s design brought the national collection, the heart of the institution, right into the logo itself. His idea was to use the initial ‘N’ of the logo as a ‘window onto the collection’, revealing small sections of relevant paintings in each part of the gallery. He was determined that the main image would be of an Irish landscape, one that demonstrated those colour values cited by Fleischmann. There was a personal dimension to the choice too, as Clarke’s childhood memory of the gallery was of the Irish landscapes room, just inside the main entrance. The work eventually chosen was ‘A View from Clontarf’ by the eighteenth century Irish painter William Ashford (c. 1746-1824). The ‘view’ is of Dublin seen through a lush green landscape under rain-washed blue skies.

Text by MaryAnn Bolger from the monograph Design Factory, On the Edge of Europe published by BIS Publishers, Amsterdam in 2009