When Glasgow won the right to host the Commonwealth Games, the country’s artists were invited to submit ideas for souvenirs that would show off Scotland’s rich cultural and industrial heritage. Now, on the eve of the Games, we preview the six winning entries and the intriguing story of how they came into being
Think of souvenirs, and the adjectives ‘tacky’ or ‘kitsch’ normally spring to mind. An Eiffel Tower snow globe or Graceland biscuit tin may have a certain tongue-in-cheek charm, but it’s hard to imagine either making a design-conscious heart beat faster.
When Glasgow-based curators Panel, run by Lucy McEachan and Catriona Duffy, heard that Glasgow would be hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games, they decided that visitors to the city should be able to buy a memento with a bit more substance than a nasty acrylic See You Jimmy hat – something that reflected the city’s culture, heritage and recent track record of producing Turner Prize-winning artists.
So, before Clyde the dancing thistle was even a twinkle in the organisers’ eyes, Panel had put out an open call to the designers of the host nation. They called it Scotland Can Make It! and asked the artistic community to come up with products that could be manufactured in Scotland. Something that told an important story about the country’s history, geography or industry and that was also a lovely object in its own right. Something that any visitor would be thrilled and enchanted to own, not a geegaw bought with a heavy heart because they needed a gift for Granny.
The suggestions began to roll in. One of the city’s Turner Prize winners, Martin Boyce, helped to sift the runners and riders. In the end, six items – a cashmere-lambswool blanket, an Art Deco-inspired jelly mould, a supporter’s scarf, medals based on a Tunnock’s teacake wrapper, a keyring celebrating a demolished tenement in Dalmarnock, and an iPhone app – were taken to the prototype stage and shown at Glasgow’s People’s Palace to great acclaim in 2012.
Then it all went quiet.
Behind the scenes, while the east end of the city was being flattened and rebuilt as arenas and velodromes, Duffy and McEachan were finding out whether calling their venture Scotland Can Make It! was well-founded optimism or hubristic overstatement. Could Scotland actually make all these souvenirs? Should Panel have played to the country’s existing strengths and chosen half a dozen knitted products, or was there more to Scotland’s manufacturing base than simply weaving and textiles?
Duffy recalls: “We didn’t know what might be possible at the beginning. We knew where there was really strong industry in Scotland – it’s well known, textiles are big business here, a big export. With ideas that were less worked out, we had to do a lot of research. It was not easy finding a foundry that would manufacture a golden tenement keyring.”
After some sweaty moments, it turned out that Scotland can make it after all and Panel found a way to produce all six souvenirs without crossing the border. According to McEachan, Carlton Die Casting, in Paisley, “really enjoyed making the Golden Tenement”. The company’s regular orders are for football stadium light fittings, or turntables for stereo specialists Linn. Creating a die-cast miniature tenement block to hang on a keyring “sits outside what they would normally produce,” says Duffy with some understatement.
Highland Stoneware in Lochinver, the last operating pottery in Scotland, produced Katy West’s jelly mould. The shape pays homage to the Highland landscape, while the material harks back to Bell’s Pottery, which operated in Glasgow in the 17th century. This piece, Duffy explains, gets back to the original idea of the souvenir, something that had a very strong and unique geographical connection to the location it was made.
“We haven’t coloured the glaze, so that the soft grey tone reflects the colour of the clay that is made there, which is made that colour because of the quality of the water. It goes down to really deep-rooted ideas about place.”
The jelly mould is also one of the products that grew arms and legs in the development process. It now comes with its own tea-towel, which tells the story of the Art Deco design and suggests some jelly recipes. There will also be a very small number of scale models of the Golden Tenement. “The products have layers,” says Duffy. “We have helped to grow that side of things.”
Duffy and McEachan are the first to admit that these products are not a substitute for an official Glasgow 2014 T-shirt or a cuddly Clyde. “My daughter thinks Clyde is great,” says McEachan. “There’s definitely a place for those sorts of souvenirs. Ours sit aside from them; they are design objects that have been considered in a really different context.”
They also sit apart from the official merchandising structure; these are limited-edition art objects, not baseball hats for the masses. Instead, they will be on sale online, at a pop-up shop in Glasgow’s South Block and at galleries in Mull, Ayr, West Kilbride, Dundee and possibly Aberdeen.
As curators and exhibition designers, Duffy and McEachan were never going to shove their exquisite blankets onto a shelf and hope for the best. “We want to set them up in a framework that helps to tell their stories,” says McEachan.
Duffy adds: “The products themselves are really beautiful. When they’re presented together as a collection, they say something very distinctive about Scotland now” – its manufacturing heritage, its quirky sense of humour and its emerging digital industries – “rather than trying to conform to a traditional idea of what a Scottish souvenir should be.
“They are really diverse. The blankets showcase the idea of Scotland being linked to high-quality products, whereas the app is free to download anywhere in the world. Tunnock’s teacakes are something everyone can enjoy and get excited about. Their design is so iconic and it hasn’t been played around with here, it’s just been packaged and presented as a memento of the Commonwealth Games. It’s a really clever way to work with product design, to recognise what is already enduring and culturally significant.”
“We hope that people will engage with the narratives of the products,” adds McEachan, who is both proud and relieved that Scotland can actually still make such a varied set of special souvenirs. “But we also hope that people will buy them because they really like them.”
You can browse the complete article with more stunning photography on pages 162-168, issue 96.
Words Anna Burnside
Photography Gordon Burnistoun