The Sleep of Reason Breeds...Design?

“The sleep of Reason breeds monsters”, warns a famous Goya engraving of 1799. A man in a flared frock coat pitches forward, face hidden in the crook of his arms. Around his head—they seem to have flown right out of his nightmare—swarm bats and owls, behind crouches a malevolent puma. The image sums up perfectly the interlocking dialectics of the 18th century: Reason arm-wrestles with unreason, Dr Frankenstein uses science to create his monster, technological society battles and flirts with nature. The linked splits linger languidly down through history; they’re still with us today. As I stroll around Barcelona I’m pondering how the dialectic continues to impact on design culture. How “rational” is design, exactly, and what does design look like when Reason takes a nap?

We’re used to thinking of certain kinds of design as the very image of rationality. A designed product—a piece of industrial design – has to work, and work efficiently. When the “medium” of the design, the place where it does its work, is the air a plane has to fly through or the water a Gaggia machine has to infuse with coffee, things are relatively straightforward. When the medium is human perception, things get more complicated. Barcelona, this rationally irrational city, gives me a wealth of examples. I’m at the airport. The graphics do what airport graphics do; they direct me from my arrival gate to the carousel where my suitcase will arrive. A TV monitor and hanging signs in sans serif typefaces send me in the right direction. It’s hard, though, not to notice a certain deliberate beauty in the “practical” graphics which guide me around the airport. They seem self-conscious about their functionality, slightly ironic in their invocation of Jan Tschichold, Helvetica, and the Bauhaus.

Here, “efficient” is just another style, alongside “baroque” or “authoritative.” In a postmodern environment like an airport—an odd amalgam of efficiency and desire, passenger flow and perfume sales—the old Modernist idea that “form follows function” seems like a hopeless attempt to deny design's need to deal with the irrational, the human. “Function” for a train designer may be to reduce wind drag. But “function” for the person laying out an advertisement for perfume is... what, exactly? The awakening of sensuality and desire? Is an image of Boticelli’s Venus “form following function?”

Sergio meets me in the lobby with a handmade sign. Driving into the centre of the city we pass two bullrings. Bullfighting is irrational and cruel, and the City of Barcelona has decided to outlaw it; soon these rings will be closed, converted into conference centers or museums. Then again, what is rational for a city whose main source of income is tourism? Surely “Rational” is anything which attracts a crowd? Pamplona this week will stage its biggest annual event, the running of the bulls. Sergio tells me that these days it's mostly Australians who risk their lives trying to touch the stampeding cattle with rolled newspapers. This eminently unreasonable pastime—rage, fear and excitement coursing through a medieval streetplan—fills Pamplona's coffers with tourist dollars and helps the city deliver public services; sewage, cleaning, power, medicine.

Our red Renault is on the Avenue Diagonal now, and suddenly Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the cathedral of La Sagrada Familia, looms into view. It’s an acid trip set in stone, pseudo-organic forms cascading and melting pell mell towards the street and sky. Gaudi improvised it like a jazz musician and left it unfinished; now, more than seventy years later, a team of architects is trying to second-guess the master, extending his core design, adding new wings, new towers, and a new facade. The effect is more Disney than Gaudi; the extensions lack Gaudi’s sincere eccentricity. Their motives are eminently rational –“Let’s give a million tourists something to look at, something to pay for”—whereas Gaudi’s remain mysterious. What was he thinking, and how did he ever manage to get this fabulous coral grotto, this dream, this dragon, built in the first place?

Later I’m walking in Barcelona’s young, multi-ethnic Raval area. Thanks to the arrival of two contemporary art museums—CCCB and MACBA – and an influx of communication professionals and trend-setters, this area is in the throes of regeneration. There are buzzy galleries, stylish bars and cafes, and an excellent design bookstore (RAR on the Calle Doctor Dhu, currently hosting an exhibition about the redevelopment of Shanghai). The walls of the narrow streets are cluttered with hip street art; wheat-pasted graphics sporting the productless logos of Faile, Obey and The London Police. I've seen and photographed this stuff—a sort of ecstatic, non-commercial cousin of the advertising that cowers on hoardings beside it—on walls from LA to Tokyo, and often wondered if it’s graffiti’s more sophisticated big sister, advertising’s poorer little brother, or some offshoot of Situationism or anarchism. Rick Poynor’s book Obey the Giant enlightens me. The designers of this elegant graphic chaff often sell, for quite considerable sums of money, the look and feel of their multi-national yet productless “campaigns” to clothing or music brands in search of instant street credibility. Even in these crazed wall scrawlings—glowering wrestlers, cheery blobs, iconic portraits of Michael Jackson and Chairman Mao—a certain kind of Reason lurks. With money crackling in the distance, design never sleeps.