Monday, 18 July 2016

Design in Dublin #1: Dublin Honey Project

Work by Maser, image by Nathalie Marquez Courtney

To round off my studies in Curating Contemporary Design last year I undertook some research into (surprise, surprise) contemporary Irish design. More specifically, I looked at design in urban settings in Ireland, as I was getting a little frustrated at just how often Irish design was presented as being rural in exhibitions at home and abroad (you can read some of that research in a three-part series here on I Like Local called Design, Exhibitions and Irish Identity). As my research into contemporary Irish design in urban settings progressed, I honed in on Dublin, and began to see some patterns emerge. I documented these in an essay which I'm sharing here now, in four parts. You can also read this essay - in full - in the third edition of Irish design journal Iterations, which is available to buy through the Institute of Designers in Ireland. Without further ado...

Sites owned by NAMA, mapped by NAMAlab 2011

A much talked-about but very real recession hit Dublin hard. A city that, prior to 2008, was booming and building and building some more had stagnated. While the years following 2008 have been hard, this period of time has allowed for reflection and maturation (not to mention anger and protest). It has also enabled creativity, risk-taking and the opportunity to approach issues in the city in new ways. Here I will explore the creativity and risk-taking that is reflected in a number of key design projects undertaken in Dublin since 2008. The aim is to suggest that while making the best of a bad situation is not unique to Dublin, there is a mode of design practice emerging from the city that is particular to the place and the circumstance this place finds itself in.

There are a number of notable things happening with regard to design in Dublin: one is the people who are applying design processes in the city. Curiously, it is not just designers who engage in design in Dublin: they are joined by communities and activists. They are also joined by Dublin City Council, who through a number of different initiatives is applying design in the city in new ways. So in effect, Dublin is being redesigned from a number of directions, by designers, by users and by government. Another notable characteristic of design in Dublin is the very nature of the design process: it is responsive and agile. Responsive and agile are both words already employed in the design sector, but you will see that I use them differently here. When I say responsive, I am not referring to web design that alters its look and proportions in response to the device you're viewing it on. Rather, I mean that those employing design in Dublin are doing so in response to the city and its conditions. The practices I examine here respond to both problems and opportunities rather than commercial or client demands. And when I refer to agile design, I am not discussing methods of quick, iterative processes and feedback loops favoured in digital design; instead, I am referring to design that is being employed in flexible and resourceful ways. Design processes are being applied to situations that don't look like design projects, by people who aren't necessarily designers, or by designers working beyond their own disciplines or in collaboration with others. This is a form of agility. While one could argue that this range of characteristics and contributors can be found elsewhere, this particular combination of government, designers, community, responsiveness and agility has created something special in Dublin, worth further examination.

I have selected four projects to demonstrate each of these attributes of design in Dublin. First, in this post, I will look at the Dublin Honey Project, a co-operative beekeeping initiative, to illustrate the concept of agile design. In the next post, I will discuss responsive design, using Hidden Rooms and Framework, projects by Dublin City Council, as an example. Staying with the Council, I will further explore the idea of civic design, looking at Dublin City Council Beta in post #3. Lastly, I will look at the role that the citizen plays in design in Dublin, by exploring work by activist Kaethe Burt-O'Dea. Through these four examples it will become clear that design in Dublin is responsive, agile and civic-minded, and I will demonstrate just how important it is to the city that design be practised this way.

Kieran Harnett and Gearoid Carvill of the Dublin Honey Project, image by Oisín Harnett

Agile design: Dublin Honey Project
'We've built our name around collaboration and that's still a resource. Dublin's great for that: everyone's around the corner.' - Gearóid Carvill, 2015

I phone Gearóid Carvill, an architect who has been working in a diverse range of creative disciplines with his studio abgc, mainly to talk about his latest side project, the Dublin Honey Project. We talk about beekeeping, negotiating the city, and how the past number of years have fostered collaboration and creativity as a necessary means of surviving the recession. We agree with each other that Dublin's size and the people who work there make collaboration and cooperation easier than in other places, and we both question how to keep this creative and collaborative spirit as Ireland's economy improves.

'What I'd like to see though (and I'm talking about myself as well as everyone else) […] is for the scale to change. Because we have a city full of great little creative projects, but how do we ratchet it up to the next level? […] The people who have been doing the smaller projects, and got the two and a half grand to have the exhibition, I want to see them get the 40 grand next time, for these things to get bigger and smarter.' - Gearóid Carvill

A project of Carvill's that is getting bigger and smarter is the aforementioned Dublin Honey Project, an example of what I identify as agile design in Dublin. Agile design is a design process applied in a situation or by a person you don't expect: it is design that might not look like design (it could be a community project, a business, a service), or a discipline taken on by a designer of a different stripe. The Dublin Honey Project aims to maintain beehives throughout Dublin city, producing honey from a number of the city's postcodes. It is a collaboration between Carvill, the architect, and Kieran Harnett, a photographer (pictured above). It began when Harnett was making his honey and putting his own name on it. Carvill stepped in, insisting that knowing where the honey came from was far more interesting than knowing the person who made it, and as such he developed packaging with frequent collaborator Nicky Hooper that could tell that story (pictured below).

Dublin Honey Project packaging by Gearóid Carvill and Nicky Hooper

Local honey is marvellously valuable. Honey produced in your area can strengthen your immunity to the pollen you're living among. Bees, believe it or not, love cities. Cities are a little warmer, tend to have a greater variety of flora to harvest from, and tend to be freer of the pesticides and herbicides rife in the countryside. And the feeling is mutual: cities love bees. As active pollinators, bees can contribute massively to the growth, development and diversity of a city's parks, gardens and allotments. So cities really lend themselves to beekeeping, and the Dublin Honey Project responds to and capitalises on that.

Carvill has envisaged the Dublin Honey Project as a co-operative structure, connecting people who want to keep bees, spaces where bees can be kept, and a range of products that are really worth selling. So far, he and Harnett look after apiaries – collections of beehives – in Dublin 14 (Harnett's own garden), Dublin 4 (University College Dublin's orchard) and Dublin 1 (an urban farm cultivated by students in Belvedere College). Carvill and Harnett look after the maintenance and harvesting of honey, and sell most of it through the Dublin Honey Project, while the proprietors of the apiary sites get an amount of honey per year in return for hosting. There are a number of other hosts interested, and while the amount of maintenance Carvill and Harnett can do themselves is limited, there's scope for other experienced beekeepers to look after their own hives, using the Dublin Honey Project as an easier means of selling their own produce.

Agile design is about stretching beyond a practitioner's own discipline and extending design beyond its obvious applications. A photographer learning to keep bees and an architect building hives and designing honey packaging is a clear display of agility. A creative collaboration that then builds a co-operative network of beekeepers, apiary sites and retailers proves more agile, still. And while a clever urban beekeeping initiative is nothing unique to Dublin (nor is a creative collaboration, for that matter), the city does lend itself to these flexible modes of practice. As written recently, 'there is a connectivity in Dublin which is far from parochial. Multidisciplinary studios, collaborative projects, creative conferences and cultural festivals unite a design community which spans North and South of the city and is connected with just a bike ride.' It is as though the city itself were designed with agility in mind.

Stay tuned for parts #2, #3 and #4, coming to I Like Local soon. Thanks to Gearóid Carvill for chatting to me about the Dublin Honey Project.

Images via 1 | 2 | 3 | 4