The fourth edition of the Dundee Design Festival (May 21-28) breathed new life into a familiar yet rundown and underused shopping center in the city’s heart through a series of 14 shops, exhibitions, installations, and workshops. These included a living library, a poster-making playground, and a space where designers made their wares live, as well as an audio installation about the Scottish city’s future and a speculative design piece based around fragrance. Interior Design spoke with the festival’s two Dundee-based producers—Lyall Bruce and Ryan McLeod of design studio Agency of None, and Annie Marrs, lead officer for UNESCO Dundee City of Design and lead coordinator for the event—about the festival’s planning, local focus, and effect on the shopping center and the city’s residents.
Interior Design: How did you come up with the unique format for the festival?
Lyall Bruce: To start with we questioned what a design festival should be, particularly in the context of a city like Dundee. We looked at the previous festivals and thought about what worked and what didn’t work. For example, it is very hard to bring in a big audience of professional designers to hear someone from around the world to speak here. You will get a small gathering of people who know who that person is and will come for that, but it’s hard to get that critical mass, so we questioned whether that was right for the festival. Environmentally, too, is it good to be flying people from around the world to do these things? We wanted to build a team of people around the city who can put a festival together and not have to feel like we have to go outside the city all the time and bring people in.
ID: The theme this year was “Liveable/Loveable Cities” and you did both an open call to designers for ideas as well as an online survey to find out what people thought would make their city more loveable and liveable?
Ryan McLeod: Yes, we created a website to answer those questions and then we took that bank of information and used that as a basis to develop the content and activities of the festival. We translated that website into six languages—French, Spanish, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, and Arabic—which are the most prevalent in Dundee after English.
ID: What were the themes that came up in this survey?
RM: There were a lot of common themes. A lot of people brought up the need for green space and a lot of people also raised the issue of unused space in the city, especially retail space, and the need to repurpose our high streets. These are problems that aren’t unique to Dundee and are happening in many cities around the world.
ID: What does the venue for this year’s festival, the Keiller Centre, mean to people who live in Dundee?
LB: It’s a shopping center that was built in the late 1970s on the site of a former sweets factory, which had a lot of importance for the city. It provided lots of jobs, it smelled good, and had a sweet shop; it was a great place for the city. When it closed, it was demolished and the shopping center was built. It was originally supposed to be a multi-story center, but internal city politics got in the way of that and it became a one-story space. It’s not the most architecturally striking of buildings, but it has its charms. I like the entranceways, the arches, which have a very graphic quality in some ways.
ID: The center has fallen on hard times and is now half empty?
Annie Marrs: Yes, it has changed hands three times in the last 10 years where people have sold it to make money. So, they haven’t invested in it or cared about the tenants. As retail has changed, businesses have closed and left and there hasn’t been that energy to attract anybody new.
ID: How did the existing tenants react and how did you accommodate their concerns?
LB: We thought that there would be lots of concerns. But when we went around each existing unit and spoke to each person, not one person had any objections to us coming in. I think we only got as far as saying ‘We are going to put a café in,’ and they said, ‘That’s great.’
RM: It’s those simple little things that they didn’t have in the center for such a long time that actually could make a difference to their day-to-day.
AM: The hairdressers talked to us very passionately about how they have worked here their entire working lives and it makes them sad to see the space decline the way it has. The festival and interest has brought them back some pride in their place of work.
ID: You created a new typeface for the festival and all the posters, signs, brochures, and assorted products. Can you tell me more about that?
LB: For us as a studio it was an experimentation into variable type, a city is something that shifts all the time and why should things like logos and typography be static? Variable type is something that has started to appear in the last six months to a year; you can make it rounded, thin or thick, or spaced out a bit more and it seems to lend itself quite nicely to how cities operate.
That is the simplest form of identity and then you see how that can expand out into a greater sense of pride…We also wanted to challenge the idea of the role of the designer being that of creating a brand guide. Shouldn’t we rather be creating a system you can play with?
ID: What has the impact of this festival been do you think and what do you hope it might be?
AM: While we have been talking right now the center manager has been showing a prospective tenant around, which hasn’t happened in a long time. Just being able to see the spaces open and bright and colorful has made the place more appealing.
RM: That’s always been the goal, to show the real potential of this space again. The center has four entrances so it’s a little bit of a labyrinth and a thoroughfare that people just pass through, but we wanted to create spaces like the library and poster playground where people could spend time.
AM: All of the existing spaces have traditional shutters on them. So, when a unit is not occupied management traditionally left the shutters down and the center looked uninviting. They have now agreed to keep the shutters up on two of the largest units so that when people come through they can see the graphic patterns we have painted on the walls and it’s colorful and inviting rather than having it all closed off. Even that tiny tweak for the traders makes them feel like it’s a nicer place to be. Also, our new graphic signage outside the center is going to be made permanent.
ID: What’s next for the shopping center? What will the legacy of this festival going to be?
RM: We only ever designed this to be an eight-day festival, so we need a little bit of headspace now and to have a bit of time to breathe and then work out what is right. We need to think how do we create something that is long-term, sustainable, that still meets the mark of engaging people, that works in the space, that actually builds a community that makes this space function again, and work out those relationships with landlords, the center, the current retailers, and gets that balance right? I would love to see DDF have a presence here in the long term and in the creative community, but what that looks like we just don’t know yet.
ID: There’s been a lot of coverage about how design is transforming Dundee and reversing its post-industrial decline, but how can it be made inclusive so that it’s about helping everybody, not just the people who go to the new V&A museum or are studying videogame design at the university? How can it help the most vulnerable? And how do you address that in this festival?
LB: Most directly by not having a design festival that is just for designers. We are aware that part of what we do as designers is to educate about the power of design and how to get involved with design and how to make it accessible. How do you get rid of all the technology and computers and the bits that we use day to day and make it available to anyone that wants to interact with it and put it in a place where people can pass by and say, ‘I want to find out more about this?’
RM: Dundee, like any city, has massive social issues. We are not going to solve all those issues in one festival, but we can show the tools and systems that we have created that have the potential to address these problems and we can build momentum about design and the change it can potentially have in a city. I think those conversations are actually starting to happen with local authorities and other organizations.
AM: And it’s our role as UNESCO design to connect those things. Being named UNESCO City of Design is not a prize or award or rubber stamp, it’s an acknowledgement of a commitment and we are on that journey.
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