Local Lingo

Contemporary culture, and specifically contemporary design culture, endorses globalness. The myth is that with a laptop and wifi connection, a Hip Hotels guidebook, and some Mandarina Duck luggage, your design practice can be as peripatetic as you are. And to, an extent, it’s true. New ideas do tend to flow in the interim zones of airport lounges and during long-haul flights that involve two ethereal sunrises. Furthermore, connecting to the concerns of people beyond one’s immediate working environment is essential to the breadth of thinking that distinguishes worldly design. And, almost without exception these days, design firms find a way to lay claim to their international status. Work in the Pompidou Center as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum? Check. Offices in multiple time zones and clocks tuned to those time zones hanging over the reception desks? Check. A website that makes liberal use of the phrases “internationally recognized” and “global reputation,” and lists several multinational corporations on its client roster? Cross check.

In the context of this globally oriented mindset, does locality have any meaning? When designers can be anywhere is it still possible to be from somewhere?

And if so, in what ways does a locale permeate one’s work? Can you tell a poster or a Flash animation was made in Auckland rather than Philadelphia? Can you read a piece of design as you would a building that can clearly reflect the climate, materials and physical constraints of a particular region? Or, is geographical delimitation meaningless in a design community that has taken the universalizing principles of International Typography to their logical extreme?

“Keeping up with your roots and local influences is a hard thing today and so we tend to get caught in the global mainstream,” says Dimitri Jeurissen, partner of Base, a design studio with offices in Brussels, Barcelona and New York. Jeurissen who is Belgian and lives in Brooklyn, embodies design’s tense relationship with globalness. On the one hand globalness is part of Base’s lifeblood: Jeurissen pushes for seamless interchange between the output of the three studios—”Something I want to encourage is that, at the end of a job, you don’t know who did it, because there’s been input from everyone”—the references he collects on cultural tourism sprees feed his work; and he is “on the telephone or i-chat or email every day concerning jobs in different parts of Europe.” Jeurissen’s pursuit of the global is not unequivocal, however. The Base website jokes that the company plans “to open a new studio somewhere in the world every 3 minutes just like McDonalds.” Jeurissen thinks it’s boring that “there’s a certain type of shop or hotel in which you will not know what city you are in,” and he’s developing the identity for a restaurant that his friends are opening down the road from him in Brooklyn.

Instead of being forced to choose between a celebratory or a diffident stance toward globalness, Base has managed to combine the two approaches: “If a client wants to make a brand and has the power to develop it globally, then that’s one strategy, but we always try to find twists that are local within that strategy.” One of Base’s clients is Puma (fig. 3, fig. 4), the German-originated but now-global sportswear brand. According to Jeurissen, “They are working more locally to develop smaller sub developments within the brand. They are not doing it the Nike way. They want to find alternatives to heavy corporate and global branding, but they are doing it all over the world.”

This strategy approximates to a larger cultural fascination with a new kind of localness—ultra-particular and specific in its reference base but ultimately dislocated from actual place. The irony is that the more we are aware of everything that’s happening everywhere the more we want to connect with something, somewhere. Base provides the creative direction for a magazine called BEople (fig. 1, fig. 2), for example, which is about Belgian culture and, as such, would appear to have defined its market geographically. “Our starting point was very local,” recalls Jeurissen, “but soon we were working on this subject with an international team of collaborators. Then, despite its very local cultural interest, you have people buying it in New York and Tokyo.” BEople is just one instance of this trend in which design plays a key role. Re-Magazine created by the Dutch designer Jop van Bennekom is another. Despite the specificity and locality of its content—whole issues are devoted to the dietary habits of Marcel, a 44-year old sales representative from Wavrin, a village on the outskirts of Lille, or Claudia, the 6 foot 5-tall woman from Berlin—its readership is defined not by place but by a shared mindset that exists in Sydney just as easily as Zurich.

Our potential for connectedness at a trans-national level, through conferences, competitions, festivals, exhibitions, visiting professorships, blogs, online and print publications, ftp sites, and text messaging, can be all-consuming and disorienting. In an effort to find focus and, ultimately, identity, readers of publications such as BEople or Re are seeking resonances that are as local as possible, even if those localities are on the other side of the world.

About the Author: Alice Twemlow writes extensively about design and visual culture for magazines including I.D., Eye and Frame. Her latest book is Style City: New York (Thames and Hudson).