Postcard from the Edge of Design

Again, the year starts those annual “kick-off” meetings, this time in not-so-warm Barcelona. Registering for the event, my choices were an out-of-the-way hovel or the extremely up-market Ritz-Carlton Arts hotel, which naturally I chose. I was expecting something different and I was not disappointed.

Arriving at the hotel a few days later, I was warmly greeted in the opulent foyer and checked in. Managing to throw off the hordes of employees who wanted to carry my bag, show me my room and even push the lift button for me (really), I went up to the 18th floor, and was flabbergasted – the room was magnificent. I took out my camera to take photos it was so perfect in every detail – polished surfaces, fluffy pillows, Bang & Olufsen stereo, huge bath, the list went on and on – a real designer had been at work here.

But then reality kicked in. Initially, I wanted to turn on the lights – no problem with that I thought – and went searching for the light switch, correction light switches. I finally located a draw next to the bed, which had to be pulled out to reveal the “control panel”. The panel had barrage of buttons, beautiful buttons, but the descriptive text for each had been smudged through use, so I had the heater on, the curtains drawn, room service knocking and the TV blaring before I managed to find one of the bathroom light settings – it turned out to be the “romantic setting”. Confused I waddled over and stubbed my toe in the semi-darkness on the step, a beautiful step, up.

From there it just got worse, although everything looked stunning it was totally impractical. The elegant taps disgorged water in to the basin, a beautiful basin, which seemed be specifically designed to channel any fluids directly to your crotch. None of the plethora of knobs in the shower, bath or sink had any helpful markings on them like “hot” or “cold” and the time delay in the shower of knob-adjustment to water temperature-change meant you were either scalded or frozen for the first 5 minutes. But it was a beautiful shower, it even had its own seat.

Back in the room, I wanted to iron my shirt, I got the iron out, but heaven forbid that an ugly electrical socket would disturb the elegance of a wall. I eventually found one and then got out the ironing board, a beautiful ironing board, but it had half a leg missing. I gave up on beauty and ironed on the bed.

The room was an absolute triumph of design over anything practical or usable. The shiny counter tops showed up dust immediately and looked horrible after you touched them or put a cup, a beautiful cup,  down (only €4 to use the in-room coffee machine). The Bang & Olufsen remote was unfathomable with the buttons arranged differently to every other remote I have ever seen. Other design touches included three ridiculous, impractically sized pillows, there was nowhere in the bathroom to put your sponge bag or stuff, you almost needed a grappling hook to get in and out of the bath and once in you scraped yourself on the vastly protruding soap dish – the list went on and on. But all it looked stunning. I decided I needed some inspiration and so found the door knob, a beautiful door knob, and stepped out in to the real world again.

I must have been in Barcelona about 10 times over the past 25 years and each time I have made a pilgrimage to the Sacrada Familia, the amazing Gaudi masterpiece – this is not for any religious reasons – it is just that it too is remarkable to miss. On my first visit, it was basically a façade and a half with some crumbly bits between them. Subsequent visits have been like walking through a building site with no real appreciation for what was being planned, but it was interesting watching the activities of craftsmen chiseling out organic shapes and giant cranes trying to fit the pieces together all shrouded in scaffolding. I was expecting the building-site look again this year, but how wrong can you be.

After paying the €15 entrance fee, I walked in and literally stopped dead in my tracks, flabbergasted for the 2nd time in this trip. The main body, nave and apse have been mostly competed and for the first time, you could get an idea of how magnificent the Basilica is going to be. Gaudi’s aim was to give it an organic feel, and this has been beautifully achieved, with various tree shaped columns sprouting up to the finely detailed roof. Colourful sunlight poured through the stained glass windows, dancing on the pillars and reflected in the marble flooring. I was entranced. I took the lift to the top of the towers, as most of the work is now on the outside with several new towers being constructed, each along the curves and parabolic arches design favoured by this master architect.

I could only spend an hour there, but I have time to go back as the building will only be complete in 2026. It was a wrench to leave, but the memories of Barcelona design, beautiful design, will be with me for a long time to come.

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