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Old books March 4, 2013

Posted by Oireachtas Retort in Books, Design, History.

Very interesting collection of old book covers here

Everything from fishing to celibacy to textbooks.








SWP’s new webpage September 17, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Design, Marxism, media, Media and Journalism, Socialist Workers' Party, Transport.

The comrades at the SWP/PB4P/AFA/Globalise Resistance have relaunched their website with a new design format. It makes much more use of white space, a bit less cluttered than the old site and they’ve put ‘SOCIALIST’ in about as big letters as is feasible.

Some nice use of menus for ‘most popular articles’ and links to SWP press releases though their last one deals with the Danish newspaper publishing the cartoons about Muhammed, suggesting the SWP Press Office is a little behind the times.

People Before Profit is not given quite as big a plug as I would have thought, being one of a number of campaigns the SWP are involved in, or in the case of one or two like Shell to Sea, claim to be involved in despite carrying out little or no activity. The angry little red fist thing seems to have been taken out as well and it seems quite graphic lite though good use of photos.

Finally, don’t seem to be able to read the Socialist Worker in pdf anymore, which is a little annoying. Overall, a slight improvement I think. Shame about the party.

Myth-making: Political imagery, posters from the Troubles and the contradictions of armed struggle by socialists September 3, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Design, Northern Ireland, The North.


I was looking for the poster above on the net after skimming through the actually quite good “INLA – Deadly Divisions” by Jack Holland and Henry McDonald while cross referencing with the R Ó B biography dealt with in part here last week. The poster was based on this photograph…


…taken of Joe McCann of the OIRA when that organisation took over Inglis Bakery in the Markets area in Belfast during the internment swoop in August 1971.

Anyhow, I found it on the rather good yankinulster blog which appears to have been dormant now for over a year. It’s a pity, the eponymous yank shares many of the same interests of the CLR, including political design culture and the North. But the yank has also established a rather fine exhibition of political posters which span the Troubles and include such gems as this one which clearly indicates the geographic and territorial preoccupations of Ulster Unionism in the early 1970s…


. .. and this fine, albeit using a somewhat chilling visual imagery, semi-constructivist poster for the IRSP.


yankinulster also provides a good bit of information in the accompanying captions. Very impressive indeed.

Anyway, back to the Joe McCann poster. In a way it provides the perfect example of the dichotomy facing Official Sinn Féin in the early 1970s. On the one hand the necessity to retain and project an armed presence in the North – particularly in the face of those upstarts from PSF. On the other the ideological drive to the left led to some recognition of the destructive aspects of that very armed presence in terms of building working class unity. Joe McCann was one of those who exemplified the link between those two positions, a link that became progressively more attenuated as the decade lengthened.

McCann had gone with the Officials during the split, but was always strongly in favour of an armed campaign and is alleged to have participated in various activities including [according to wiki and Deadly Divisions] the attempted murder of John Taylor of the UUP then Northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs, and the deaths of up to 15 British soldiers. So while the image is one of the revolutionary as romantic hero, Starry Plough flag fluttering in the breeze behind him, the reality was considerably more hard-edged and contentious. What possible political gain could there have been from murdering John Taylor? How precisely did an armed campaign fit into the project of winning hearts and minds in the working class as an entity which comprised Nationalists and Unionists?

These questions aren’t in any sense to take away from his self-evident courage, or indeed the reality that McCann was genuinely interested in and convinced of the utility of political struggle as well as an armed campaign, merely to point up the contradictions inherent then – and now – in the means chosen to deal with the situation at hand (and one might point to fact that this predated direct rule).

His death, in some ways, also sat within the archetype of the young male revolutionary (he was only in his mid-20s – although perhaps Deadly Divisions overstates it when it describes him as ‘the nearest thing…to a Che Guevera figure’) cut down in his prime. He had been ordered by the OIRA to remain in Dublin after a sequence of actions he was involved in. He returned to Belfast, was spotted by the RUC who relayed the information to the Parachute Regiment. During a confrontation and chase with soldiers the unarmed McCann was shot dead. Ten spent cartridges were counted near his body by a local shop keeper, indicating that this was arguably had the hallmarks of a ‘shoot to kill’ incident.

It’s not unreasonable, I think, to suggest that in this imagery one can see the clear suggestion of a future that would lead to the establishment of the IRSP and INLA. The symbolism of the gun against the Starry Plough, the reference to the “Soldier of the People”, even in a sense the way in which the soldier becomes autonomous from the people, the vanguard, the individual fighting on behalf of those same people. But it also, curiously, contains within it an explanation of just why that route was abandoned by OSF, why it might be difficult to present any such actions as more than rooted in a single community and how it could be necessary to transcend that iconography in favour of one which genuinely reached out.

There’s a lot of talk about how PSF simply took the OSF/WP line. But in truth both strategies failed. An armed campaign of itself was too limited, too contradictory, to provide a clear way forward in the North in a context where national allegiance meant every action would be painted as effectively sectarian. The attempts to construct some sort of political alliance across the working class was equally futile. Perhaps the only strategy remaining was to start to deal with Unionism as it actually is and hope that that might lead to some sort of rapprochement. We’ll see if that will one day be added to the list of failed approaches.

In “Deadly Divisions” the story is recounted of how some believed that the image of McCann as romantic revolutionary was exploited by OSF. One individual alleged that in the weeks prior to McCann being shot ‘he noticed that the famous Inglis Bakery poster had been taken down’, although intriguingly it is also noted that ‘whatever the people in the Dublin head office might have thought of McCann’s famous picture, it remained hanging in the main hall of the Officials’ Belfast headquarters in Cyprus Street until 1982′. Logic might dictate that the armed struggle was, after the initial eruption in the North, a cul-de-sac, but emotion and history have their own momentum.

According to wiki a plaque was unveiled at the location of his death in Joy Street in the Markets in 1997 where representatives of various groups including the WP, PSF and the IRSP were in attendance. That must have been quite a meeting.

Mind you, returning to yankinulsters archive, what about this then? A poster for Sinn Féin from circa 1994. Clearly the print and design budget was being conserved the day it was commissioned.


iPhone, therefore I will… January 15, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Design, Technology, Uncategorized.

I’m not one to go gooey eyed over technology. Nor am I one to laud a single device, well not usually. I’ve also been fairly resistant to the charms of mobile telephones. I first purchased one in 2003, not so much late adopter as almost didn’t adopter. But lest this descend into solipsistic nonsense let’s talk about Apple’s latest offering (coming to a mobile phone shop er…well, sooner or later…).

The iPhone as a piece of design is really something else. If the interface and the styling work as advertised, and to judge from accounts from Macworld journalists who saw it this appears to be the case, the iPhone is a significant step forward. I’m generally fairly immune to the keynote product announcements which usually have all the charm of a cross between an Oxford Street Christmas car boot sale shop and a revivalist meeting but Steve Jobs presentation of the iPhone is an exemplary bit of showmanship which can be found here (although it’s worth noting that when Jobs used the video features the screens cut to pre-shot footage so perhaps that has yet to be ironed out).

The idea of the smart widescreen, with the phone switching to that mode depending upon how it is held is one of those things which once thought of has all the inevitability that any great concept contains, as is the switch to touch screen. However, how is this to impact upon the iPod? Or is the long term gameplan to shift away entirely from single function to multi-function devices? For those of us who’ve just sort of kind of got to grips with text messaging will the iPhone give us the more ‘traditional’ key interface (and it’s worth noting it’s not 3G enabled)? Which sort of defeats the purpose of the exercise…I know.

And yet, in the same way as the various iterations of the iPod generated a self sustaining ‘ecology’ of accessories, and arguably kicked the MP3 music market into real life, the iPhone could be the missing link between hand held sub computing devices, MP3 players and telephony.

Certainly a further crucial issue is the way in which Apple has finally dropped the ‘Computers’ element of it’s name and has come out as an unashamed technology corporation.

An interesting point about the delayed release schedule, it hits the streets in June 2007, is that it probably is designed to give customers locked into contracts with telephone companies time to move from them. But then what happens to those who hold back from purchasing an iPod when they can get the – admittedly – lower spec iPhone. And do we then have to expect a widescreen, touchscreen video iPod as well? It’s confusing.

I’ve been an Apple user since the late 1980s, and stuck with them through good and bad. However, I’m no evangelist (although I note that the rather excellent Karlin Lillington in the Irish Times is becoming more and more an Apple partisan). Some things they do very well indeed. The integration of OS and hardware has broadly been second to none (bar the flakiness of the latter stages of OS9 where they largely seemed to give up trying too hard). But it took me until last year to finally get an iPod, and I wouldn’t touch the iTunes store at all (too low a bit-rate, too mainstream a selection). So I’d wait and see anyhow. In fact I’m still waiting and seeing in terms of jumping over to the Intel Macs.

Finally I can see some interesting future directions. For a start this utilises OS X as the operating system, so theoretically aps from the Apple stable should be able to run on it. Now, thinking about this (and I’m sure I’m not the only one to make this point), if one has a video line out of some description isn’t it feasible that one could run Powerpoint or Keynote from it? Such a port on the iPhone has yet to appear, sure the iPhone has yet to appear full stop. But why not? It’s a logical next step. I do seminars where I have to lug a Powerbook around. Now it’s not the worst thing in the world to carry, but I worry about it a tad when I’m cycling home of an evening. Much handier would be a simple plug and play option for a file from an iPhone, and if that’s just one potential application for it there must be many more as it becomes a convergent device.

And it kills me to say this. But a year or so down the line, if and when it hits the Irish market I’d be very very tempted indeed to purchase one because this does seem like a distinct shift – despite the Jobs rhetoric, the showmanship and the crucial lack of product in the shops – towards new and perhaps definitively styles of interfacing with various devices. Or perhaps I might start a fund on the net so others could contribute towards one for me.

Hey, whatever works…

Moonbase, Missile Defence, and just why there’s a good reason for them both… or Victor Papanek and the necessity for ethical design… December 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Design, Education, Environment, Environmentalism, Ethics, Greens, NASA, Pseudo-Science, Science, Technology.

Okay, I’m slightly exaggerating about Missile Defence, but hear me out about Moon Base.
In 1970 Victor Papanek, an Austrian designer and educator wrote a book called ‘Design for the Real World’. Originally published in Sweden, so popular was it that it was translated into English only a year later. The idea behind it was what Papanek felt was a mismatch between the power of design in contemporary societies and the lack of moral responsibility felt by the broad product design profession. As he noted himself ‘no a single volume on the responsibility of the designer, no book on design that considers the public in this way, has ever been published anywhere’. And from this Papanek developed a critique of this form of design and how it dovetailed with capitalism and sought to present a sort of roadmap for those involved in design. He argued that consumerist design was akin to medicine and ‘comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetics’.

Essentially he proposed that there are six areas where designers must positively engage.

Firstly in the area of design for the Third World. Papanek considered that in a world where billions lacked the appropriate and sustainable technologies to improve their lives. He pointed to the lack of development in lighting or in upgrading or making more sustainable simple technologies such as paraffin or oil lamps.

Secondly in the area training and educational devices for those who are disabled. His particular focus was on simple products which improve life, such as hearing aids. The costs of such items were extremely expensive, but through a more rational allocation of resources such costs could be cut. Yet this would demand a political and social will.

Third he looked to design for medicine and health. Topical this, indirectly in an Irish context. He noted that at the time medical instruments were either over designed or extremely crude. He sought a more measured approach.

Fourth he considered design for research was a necessity. Here we see an interesting, almost techno-utopian strand in his thinking. The idea is that much experimental equipment was over designed or badly designed thus inflating the costs of research. Again, he sought social and political change, but also accountability on the part of those who commissioned such products.

Fifth, he saw the design of survival systems in hostile environments as a crucial priority. This included underwater, deserts, polar areas and space environments. With increasing pollution and a global environment under significant pressure he considered that it was necessary to ‘sustain human life under marginal conditions’.

Sixth, he looked to design for ‘breakthrough concepts’. This is in some respects the most radical of his ideas. What he sought was rather than continual marginal improvement in products, instead a complete rethink about the purpose and function of items in order to make them more sustainable. So if you design a kettle you create one which allows for more precise control of the amount of water boiled in order to save electricity, and so on and so forth extended outwards to encompass all products.

Needless to say this is a significant rupture with traditional consumerist design techniques, and one which hasn’t been un-influential. ‘Green’ and socially responsible design has begun to permeate product design in particular.

And as for Moon Base, well look to the fifth area. That sort of cutting edge technological advance isn’t without benefits, particularly if this is positioned within an international context. More to the point, while direct applicability may not be absolutely forthcoming, aspects of it certainly are. I don’t want to overstate this. Project Orion, as the crew component of the new Lunar missions is named, is in many respects simply an extension of the old Apollo capsules, with capacity for up to 6 astronauts rather than the previous three. It’s not comfortable, it’s not a 2001 Earth Orbit to Lunar Surface style vehicle. But it is technology that has been proven to work previously and can be further refined. And this is also important in terms of our ability as a species to protect both ourselves and our planetary biosphere. One of the more disturbing aspects of our growing knowledge of how fragile that biosphere is has been the realisation that it is vulnerable both to anthropogenic threats such as climate change and external threats beyond the atmosphere. It’s something of a cliche to suggest that once humans travelled beyond Earth orbit and were able to show us the image of the planet from afar our relationship with the planet changed, but consider the manner in which for example An Inconvenient Truth was advertised. This sort of signification is of value.

Naturally there’s much to disagree with Papanek, if not in his overall argument, then in the detail. For example, it’s difficult to see how consumerist design can be modified very rapidly. In later books his proscriptions, particularly in the area of societal structures become a little arcane (for example he goes someway along the path Rudolf Bahro and other deep Greens went with regard to dismantling current society into much smaller self contained units – ideas I’d not necessarily disagree with but find difficult to believe will be implemented any time soon). But on the other if he provides me with a justification for Moon Base…

Mind you, now I think about it, wouldn’t that be the ultimate small self contained unit…

By the by, for those interested in this area a book by Nigel Whiteley, Design for Society, although dated, provides a good overview of the area.

Forgot to add this…of course even when the US or US/UN gets there they’ll still only be second…or third…or fourth as this most interesting site 😉 indicates…

Okay, now for the culture bit… September 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Architecture, Art, Culture, Design, The Left, Uncategorized.
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I had the slightly dubious pleasure of attending the Arts Council sponsored Critical Voices “Art, Architecture, Design, Crossover” conference in the National Gallery on Saturday. Dubious only because I was tired from the previous week. But once there it actually was well worth the effort of hauling myself south of the Liffey. The idea of the conference was to consider creative practice and strategies in those fields and consider whether there is a blurring of distinctions between them.

Let’s stop for a second and think about if and why this matters. After all, who cares if Art, Architecture and Design are becoming more similar? Well, actually we all should. It’s not a matter of simple categorisation, but an actual reflection of how this society, and by extension global society is changing under pressures of commercialism, mass communication (I give you the internet as exhibit A), the ability to do new stuff with technology and so on and so forth. What appears to be happening is a convergence of disciplines in these fields where architects, artists and designers will work jointly on projects such as motor-ways and large scale public infrastructural developments, or commercial buidlings. We’ve moved beyond pure functionalism and utilitarianism into an area where our society currently has sufficient extra capital to see a need to incorporate aesthetic elements. These are used to soften the impact of a deveopment, or to link into the local community or whatever. Sometimes this is cosmetic, but often not, and it displays a genuine shift in the nature of the society, a shift towards the visual and the ‘social’. Of course the cynic in me is well aware how such activities can be used as a sort of ‘public good’ fig leaf. But even so, it’s a remarkable change from the brutalism, both aesthetic and concrete of the past…

In any case, the list of speakers was fairly diverse from Tom de Paor who is an architect and responsible for the Irish pavillion (made of briquettes) at the Venice Biennale in 2000 and has worked on the A13 motorway in the UK [see here], onto Aisling Prior who is Artistic Director for the Ballymun Art Commission programme through Breaking Ground (and by the by responsible for the commissioning lighting of the Boilerhouse in Ballymun that bright pink red colour at night – which was so liked by the residents that a six week art installation was extended for four years), and a number of UK and US based architects and gallery curators.

Of those Adam Scott was particularly interesting as he was one of those involved in the Millennium Dome, a project which was and is regarded as an abject failure of creative imagination and one that was utterly tainted by commercialism in it’s most crass manifestation. He’s working on a number of projects, including an installation for Liverpool city which would have a beam of light shone vertically into the sky, a sort of luminal version of Dublin’s Spire. Other pieces included a message as you enter Liverpool, they suggested an enormous metal and neon HALLO over the road as one drove in and a GOODBYE as one drove out again. Sadly Liverpool bottled it. Perhaps next time.

Perhaps most interesting for me though was Sean Griffiths, an architect from Manchester who is part of the FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) architectural practice (check out their memorial for Diana – the Diana Bridge – tasteful!). FAT have been involved in a number of projects, including social housing, which lean upon the vernacular. Griffiths father was a strong left wing trade unionist. This has informed the work produced by Griffiths and FAT, although as he points out he is no longer a ‘raging lefty’ himself, and this is manifested in a wish to undercut or reverse notions of liberal bourgeoise taste. And by that what do we mean?


Well he showed a couple of images of interiors from working and lower middle class housing from the 1960s onwards – note the fine example above. These consisted of extremely decorative fireplaces, a sitting room with a complete pub interior set into a corner including taps, bar space and so on, a fireplace which wrapped around a wall, another which looked like an explosion in an antique store (see image) which drew from many different and seemingly contradictory styles.

The audience at the conference laughed – uneasily it has to be said – but Griffiths pointed out that above and beyond taste these were enormously creative, the result of thought and time directed towards an aesthetic end. He contrasted this with the interiors of the next generations which were filled with strip flooring (oops, I have that)…and IKEA furniture (which I don’t) making them into pastiches of modernism (essentially minimalist interior design and decoration) and which he considered to be simply boring.

His point is that there is a divide in visual culture and this is where taste, politics and class intersect. Draw the line and you can tell where people stand on either side of it by class analysis. Good taste tends to be seen as middle class, bad taste tends to seen as working class. Hence the highly decorative interiors as in the image above are ‘bad taste’ and vulgar. But he points out a huge contradiction. His experience (and mine too) of architecture and design worlds tends to see those involved as left-leaning, vaguely middle class, Guardian readers. And yet the cultural expressions of these worlds is implicitly anti-working class or at least indifferent to working class cultural expressions. In fact he ascribes it to a ‘fear of the working class’ or as he said ‘what is it about these interiors that refined, educated people find so horrific?’. As he says “Housing is a process to make places into homes – which is quite different from how architects see designing houses”.

Now there are counter critiques of this. Taste is notoriously slippery as a concept. Further differentiation into good and bad taste is even more difficult (although it’s worth noting that this is a very modern problem, one that has developed only in the very recent past as commodification has spread from the upper classes to the middle classes and on to the ‘working class’). As one attendee pointed out Adorno had something to say about working class culture and why it might not necessarily be adopted wholesale, but I think Griffith’s point is important because it tells us something about the way elitism works, even or particularly when that elitism is perhaps well-meaning and how, in cultural areas, engagement is necessary.

New Islington

Some of the projects he has worked on, in particular a social housing development in New Islington in Manchester has utilised this, by actually going and asking residents what they require. Open plan? Out. The residents don’t want cooking smells wafting through the house. L-shaped rooms in, so that they can have at least two windows in each room increasing visibility and therefore the sense of space (worth noting that the buildings are entirely compliant with energy saving regulations). The residents chose them in an open competion, and why did they choose them?
According to Rita, a long-time resident of the Cardroom Estate who has just moved into her new home, the reason they chose Fat was much simpler:

“They listened. They really listened to what we wanted. And we just liked them as people.”

I think this is important, above and beyond even the notions of taste. If we truly believe in democratic systems of governance, we must also believe in choice in the sense of autonomy, that we listen to what people want. And choice isn’t something that should be restricted simply to our patterns of consumption but should be extended to our patterns of life. In this instance the residents were consulted and listened to. They were lucky, the architects were willing, no were actually philosophically driven, to take on board the concerns of residents, to shape their aesthetic, their ‘taste’ to that of the residents. It’s almost stating the obvious to consider that perhaps those who might actually live in a development should have their opinions taken into account, but we live in societies where until very recently public bus transportation systems made no provision for those with bags, prams, those with difficulties or disabilities or the elderly to board a bus with any degree of ease. This indifference to the welfare of those using these systems, or those forced to use them is certainly more important than simple (or complex) matters of taste but it belongs within a spectrum of attitude.

The final shape of the development used facades as can be seen in the image, behind which were the L-shaped houses. These facades used a playful style which used interesting little decorative features, and even space for bird boxes and mock ornamental gabling, fake windows and so on. The rationale of the oversize facades was as much to provide a visual counterweight to the larger apartment blocks which will be built around the development.

Any mis-steps? One major one. FAT thought they might put the names of the mill owners from the area (the site was built on a former mill) along the top part of the facade in white capital letters, rather like the painted names used on old warehouses. The response was:

‘F*** off! Why would we want to immortalise the oppressors of their ancestors?’.

Which is an interesting insight into how certain elements of traditional ‘class consciousness’ remain extant even in this day and age of supposed meritocracy.

One major element of the FAT approach is to effectively critique ‘modernism’ in architecture and art which they believe, even in it’s stripped down functionalism is no more or less honest than any other ‘style’. Theirs is a sort of ‘decorativism’, ornamentation used pretty much for it’s own sake rather than for any functional requirement, which is hated by purists but is rapidly creeping back into not just architecture, but across the visual media, I point you towards the recent spate of advertising – such as that used by Coke – which uses floral silhouettes as framing devices, or the station ident of the Living Channel on Cable which has more floral motifs growing out of the name of the station. This decorativism is interesting, because it strongly reflects a deeply engrained impulse to take a lived environment and lend it little touches here and there to humanise it.

Sure, some will see this as post-modernist play acting, that FAT are as much part of that game of retrospection and retrieval as the most jaundiced neo-modernist high-end architectural practice. Note this example of their thinking… I like it, but I can see problems ahead.

Tower Block

Perhaps it’s impossible not to play the game. Or perhaps it’s too easy, as in pieces like this, to place too much emphasis on the game. Yet one doesn’t have to be a structuralist in relation to class analyses to appreciate the utility of engagement, indeed it is very much the non-conformity of FAT which is so attractive, that although taking a submerged class position they wind up championing the individual. To my mind there’s a very specific irony in there which tells us more than any arid ideological texts of left or right about the direction which our society is heading.

Still and all, Griffiths was asked how would he feel if one or all of the residents were to use cladding on the facade of the houses. His answer was that he didn’t mind, that it would in some respects be a vindication of the project.

I think he’s telling the truth.

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