Conference presentation in Birmingham

“Ancient Greece as inspiration for Greek design”, presented in: Re-Imagining the Past: Antiquity and Modern Greek Culture”, International Conference, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman & Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 27-28 June 2011.

You can read my paper here:

Ancient Greece as inspiration for Greek design

Artemis Yagou

Resorting to ancient Greece in order to gain legitimacy is a widespread and well-studied neohellenic phenomenon, which reflects the peripheral and insecure status of contemporary Greece. Several recent academic symposia and publications have recorded and analysed the obsessive preoccupation with antiquity in many areas of Greek life and cultural production.i In modern times, Greece’s illustrious past has been considered to be a priceless treasure, but also a heavy burden for the people to bear and this has left visible traces in every aspect of society.ii

The term “Greekness”, Ελληνικότης, was introduced in 1851; its exact meaning remained nebulous and open to various interpretations.iii It might perhaps be described as an intangible essence expressing the spirit of the Greek people. Historians, especially Paparrigopoulos, were decisive in formulating the concept of the continuity of Greek civilization and its development through three distinct but interconnected periods: Antiquity, Byzantium, and Modern Times. The rise of national historiography in the 19th century ensured that these periods would be conceived and described as a coherent whole, whose youngest representatives were the modern Greeks themselves.iv This conception of Greekness was subsequently institutionalized and reproduced through various mechanisms, public education in particular, and was deeply internalized by Greek citizens.v

The Greek state had a significant advantage in its attempt to shape a national identity, the availability of what Gellner terms “an old high culture”, that is the culture of ancient Greece. This old high culture had been an invaluable asset for the formation of the Greek state in the first place, and it was also crucial for attaining an early political sense of However, it may be argued that the overemphasis on ancient glories and cultural achievements of the distant past acted as a stumbling block to the development of modern Greek culture. Already by the end of the nineteenth century, the French writer Théophile Gautier, having travelled extensively in Greece, observed: “In these classical lands, the past is so alive that it leaves hardly any space for the present to survive.”vii

My contribution to this conference deals with design, an increasingly significant domain of modern life and culture. The obsession with antiquity has been expressing itself in the field of Greek design during the 20th century and into the 21st, through the extensive use of pompous, populist and commercialized references to ancient Greek culture. Antiquity-inspired elements are meant to infuse modern design with time-honoured prestige and quality; however, they mostly lead to formalist results. I will show selected examples of Greek design and advertising for mass-produced objects which draw their inspiration from antiquity and try to seduce through the evocation of ancient Greek glories.

An early example comes from Antonakopoulos Brothers, a company producing ceramic tiles and bathroom ware in the mid-thirties.viii The ad copy is very plain, it only provides factual data about the firm, such as year of establishment, capital and addresses. The text is enclosed in a neoclassicist frame consisting of two Ionic columns on the left and right, linked at both ends by two decorative bands of meander motifs. The lack of textual explanation implies that the image “speaks for itself”: the connection to the ancient Hellenic tradition is obvious to viewers, and conveys an impression of diachronic beauty and prestige.

Parallelism, but also hyperbole is at work in the ad of 1954 for Elviela sports’ shoes ix. The text reads: “As the Hermes by Praxitelis is considered to be a symbol of ideal beauty, so the products with the Elviela logo are symbols of unrivalled technical perfection.” This facile parallelism is emphasized by the oversized “as” and “so” in distinct handwritten-like type. A thick, curved arrow directs the gaze of the viewer from the elegant Hermes head to the logo of Elviela, “the brand of trust” as the bottom-line states. The connection between the ancient masterpiece and the contemporary, casual, cotton cloth and plastic shoe is clearly far-fetched, but the layout and rhetoric of the ad makes it look less so. In a culture saturated with references to a glorious antiquity and manifestations of continuity between past and present, such a connection is inscribed on the collective unconscious as something natural and perfectly acceptable.x

Another example of the omnipresent and always appropriate association with antiquity is provided by the Diana cigarettes ad of 1956, where the goddess Diana becomes a brand name and her image gives an aura of high status to the product advertised. xi

A Keramikos advertisement published in 1962 shows a tea and coffee set probably copied from a similar foreign product. The product acquires a luster of “Greekness” through the use of the meander motif. This is an easy solution to a design problem; in fact this is not three-dimensional design but simply superficial decoration.

In the Metaxa ad of 1967, the product is placed next to tourist-market dolls in folk dresses and set against the background of the Acropolis. The copy reads: “Incomparable – the Glory of Greece… the Brilliance of Metaxa”. A Doric column stands for the “I” in “Incomparable”. The mixture of modern Greece and antiquity appears obvious and without need of explanation. As Roland Barthes has shown for successful ideologies, Greekness renders its beliefs natural and self-evident: this is the way the world is.xii

Similarly, various bottles designed for the tourist market exploit the antique iconography in a rather grotesque manner, which lacks originality. Such objects may be attractive to some people, as this image from the collection of an American design professor implies, but their aesthetic or practical value remains questionable.xiii

The designer of the Olympian Zeus table of 1984, made of white Dionysos marble and crystal, claims that he was inspired by his walks around the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens and by the landscapes of the painter Mytaras, scattered with broken columns and with a flying Nike in the background. The end result appears overstated and impractical; its formalist inspiration and execution do not fulfill in a satisfactory way the demands and standards of contemporary lifestyles.xiv

In a similar vein, an armchair in French Empire style simplified for mass production by upmarket manufacturer Varangis, incorporates as a decorative element a small head of Aphrodite, copied from a fourth century B.C. figurine. The description of the product in an advertisement published in 2002 is based on a vague notion of eternal Greekness and implies attachment to a rather confused as well as static conception of history and tradition.xv

All previous examples suggest that public opinion has internalised an aesthetics of easily recognisable “national” symbols and expects them to be reproduced by contemporary design.My interpretation of such examples, underpinned by discussions with Greek designers, is that, in many cases, Greek designers lack the confidence to create new forms and to develop novel products for contemporary needs without resorting to aesthetic clichés related to ancient Greece.

As Calotychos highlights in his analysis of Greek cultural politics, there is a “Greek propensity for wielding a symbolic narrative over more pragmatic strategies”.xvi He notes in particular that “this tendency to prioritize abstract narratives, of which the classicizing variety is a privileged mainstay, over more immanent ones constitutes part of what Nicos Mouzelis has termed the ‘formalism’ of Greek society.xvii

Indeed, many of my design examples appear as metamorphoses of formalism, as the visual manifestations of a static conception of history.xviiiObjects of design become expressions of essentialism, in other words of a belief in a Greek “essence” which exists from time immemorial; in such a context, popular culture needs legitimization from a “high” culture. Such objects are also manifestations of what Billig describes as “banal nationalism”, through which the nation is taken for granted and continuously “reminded” to citizens as something natural and unquestionable.xix Identity is presented as a fixed entity, as an essence, not as a process of becoming.xx In this way, nations are “naturalised”, absorbed into a common-sense view about the way the world is, and invested with moral values and a “treasured uniqueness”, which elevate the national over other social groupings.xxi

Futhermore, like many areas of contemporary Greek popular culture, design discourse is loaded with a rhetoric of populist and nationalistic overtones, a rhetoric by which citizens of the country are bombarded. Take for example, as Calotychos mentions, “[…] the metaphors of tabloid journalism that always signpost any Greek news item with talk of ‘burdens’, ‘tragedies’, ‘glorious legacies’, and ‘ancestral voices’”.xxii

Nevertheless, the fresh approach by the Athens-based design consultancy Greece is for Lovers shows that a different way is possible. Its playful, ironic, even provocative take on ancient Greek iconography and culture exemplifies a more creative re-thinking and re-imagining of the past.

The descriptions of the consultancy’s antiquity-inspired designs on its website are characteristic of its unconventional and satirical approach:

Amen tableware: Now that you’ve bought that cookbook, it’s time to buy the plates to go with it.

A is for Amen to the Hellenic culinary revolutionaries.

Zeus: Left or right handed, a letter knife to rip through hatemail with the stealth and fury of Zeus!
Available in solid or silver–plated brass.

A set of dumbbells in solid brass, which come in weights of 1.5 and 3 kilos, are entitled “Build your myth”, a pun on the Greek National Tourism Organisation campaign with the slogan “Live your myth in Greece”. The promotional approach is again humorous:

Is your demanding demigod lifestyle hard to cope with?
Does everything feel like a Herculean task?
It’s probably time to start pumping iron Ionian style!

A range of merchandise under the title Demi God:

If it’s set in stone it must be right.

A pot coaster choc-a-bloc with semi-divine attitude.

Let that marble slab take the heat and get out of the kitchen.

Another merchandise range entitled No sleep till Hades:

Waking up before getting to sleep, rocking the party eight days a week, cold kicking it live while you’re working nine to five, no faking, money-taking.

Three skateboards make fun of modern Greeks’ obsession with ancient heritage. They were originally designed for the”7ply Project” organised by Propaganda Rolling Company, a Thessaloniki-based skateboard firm. The first skateboard, from 2007, is made of marble and is entitled Ridden in stone:

California? We don’t think so.
As with everything cool, skateboarding originated in ancient Athens.
It is common knowledge that Socrates himself used to ride a longboard down the Agora.
Greece is for Lovers have the relic to prove it.

The second, Tougher than leather, designed in 2008:

How old school can you get?

Strap on this leather beauty and pose your cred away. Socks optional.

The third one, Claymate, a ceramic skateboard, handmade in red earthenware:

Beware of Greeks, bearing no gifts, fully clad in Claymates, playing dirty tricks.

And finally:

Hermaphrodite: You wanna feel a bit like King Nero and burn down some ancient stuff?
Our set of candles will help you do just that, in great style.

Who is going down in flames first? Hermes or Aphrodite? Youdecide.

The members of Greece is for Lovers claim that their inspiration does not come directly from antiquity, they rather make ironic meta-comments on the way contemporary Greeks perceive antiquity. They state that their main source of inspiration is daily life in Athens, as they experienced it in the eighties and nineties; their work is very much about the malls in Athenian suburbs, considered by many as an anathema, but which Greece is for Lovers cherish as part of their youth culture and memories. Their designs make references to tourist souvenirs rather than to the ancient ionic columns themselves. They do not necessarily admire antique culture, but they consider it part of their heritage in a more indirect way, through the tourist paraphernalia considered to be kitsch and which they try to re-introduce, to think of in a different way. Thus, what may appear initially as antiquity-inspired is in fact stemming from and expressing a contemporary, urban culture.

Their approach is clearly less conventional and more multi-layered than older design examples shown earlier. However, the members of Greece is for Lovers themselves acknowledge the complexities and pitfalls of their approach. Having become well-known and successful through their fresh, humorous and critical take of various clichés, they admit that this may lead to stereotyping and hinder further creative development; such work might become predictable and lead to stagnation; they are keen to explore other directions in the near future. In any case, their approach indicates a way in which contemporary Greek design could move beyond the uncritical adoration and glorification of a respected past and employ user-centered strategies which are meaningful to a range of modern audiences.

To sum up, though by no means the only approach followed by Greek designers today, the continuing preoccupation with a formalist conception of ancient Greece remains in place and enjoys a high level of acceptability by the consuming public.xxiii This formalist approach may have been psychologically useful in certain periods of modern Greek history, as it has instilled a sense of pride into locals. However, judging from the perspective of a fast-changing global society in the twentieth-first century, the overall balance is questionable.xxiv As Mazower argues, “Nation-states construct their own image of the past to shore up their ambitions for the future. […] But today the old delusions of grandeur are being replaced by a more sober sense of what individual countries can achieve alone. As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, […] the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.”xxv

To conclude, I argue that, with few exceptions, inspiration from antiquity has acted as an unnecessary and outdated filter and has been having a detrimental effect on Greek design. Design approaches founded on a superficial appropriation of ancient Greek iconography have become empty shells and should not be encouraged, especially in the current circumstances of the country. From my perspective, resorting to antiquity in order to legitimize or elevate any aspect of modern Greek life is a major regression; it trivializes the present and undermines the future.



i “Uses of Antiquity by Modern Hellenism” symposium, Moraiti (2000/2002), international conference on “Antiquity, archaeology and Greekness in 20th century Greece”Moraiti (2001/2003) and Benaki (2007), Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, Oxford University Press, 2007; Yalouri (2001); Calotychos (2003); Egrapsan gia tin Acropoli (2009); Koliopoulos and Veremis (2002), Liakos (2005).

iiMaria Nicholas, “A Brief History of Modern Greek Advertising, 1950-1999”, ΗΥΦΕΝ 2Γ, 7-36.

iii Stefanos A. Koumanoudis, Compilation of New Words Created by Scholars since the Fall of Constantinople, Hermes, 1998 (first edition 1900), 355. [In Greek] See also: Tziovas, 35-37, and Michael Herzfeld, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece, University of Texas Press, 1982.

iv Alexis Politis, Romantic Years – Ideologies and Mentalities in Greece of 1830-1880, EMNE-Mnemon, 1998, 30-47. [In Greek]

vConstantine Tsoukalas, Dependence and Reproduction: The Social Role of Educational Mechanisms in Greece (1830-1922), Themelio, 1992. [in Greek]. Nikolaos Mouzelis, Modern Greece: Facets of Underdevelopment, (Athens: Exantas, 1978) [in Greek] (English edition: London: MacMillan, 1978).

vi Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell, 1997, 85.

vii Théophile Gautier, L’Orient (first volume), Charpentier, 1884, 120.

viii Antonakopoulos firm advertisement of the 1930s, Historical Archives of the National Bank of Greece, Series XXXIV, 4-025. [In Greek]

ixPhilemon Papapolyzos and Costas Martzoukos, Hellads – Greece through Advertising 1940-1989, Athens: Omikron, 1997, 63. [In Greek]

x Gallant, 72-74.

xi Papapolyzos and Martzoukos, 73.

xii Alan Aldridge, Consumption, Cambridge: Polity, 2003, 80.

xiii Victor Margolin collection.

xivDesigner A. Triantopoulos. ΘέματαΧώρουκαιΤεχνών(Design and Art in Greece), 20/1989, p. 166.

xv ‘Greekness means continuous questioning […finally, creativity]’, Varangis furniture company advertisement, BHMAgazino, no 108, 3 November 2002. [In Greek]

xvi Calotychos, 3.

xvii Calotychos, 4. See also Nikolaos Mouzelis, ΝεοελληνικήΚοινωνία: ΌψειςΥπανάπτυξης, Athens: Exantas, 1978, p. 313 (Original edition: Modern Greece: Facets of Underdevelopment, London: MacMillan, 1978).

xviii Avdela emphasizes the role of the Greek educational system in creating, reproducing and consolidating a static, ethnocentric view of history in which the Greek nation and its civilization are understood as natural, eternal and unchanging entities. Efi Avdela, ‘The Teaching of History in Greece’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 18, 2000, 239-253. ‘The symbolic burden of the past becomes […] the primary feature of the national identity and the yardstick by which everything is evaluated: the present, the past, the self, and others.’ Avdela, 247.

xix Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism, Sage, 1995.

xx Edensor, 24. Edensor also quotes Ingold and Kurttila who claim that tradition should not be understood as a reified set of endlessly repeated practices, passed on as cultural heritage, but as knowledge acquired through flexible practice. Tradition thus undergoes continual generation and regeneration […]. Ibid, 55.

xxiSee Edensor, 11 (emphasis in the original) and 38.

xxii Calotychos, 4.

xxiii As noted earlier in this paper, classicist, nationally-inspired design approaches often operate in combination with other strategies, e.g. purely modernist approaches, as illustrated by the example of the ION chocolate products in Image [4]. Today, the Varangis furniture company is a characteristic example of a design philosophy and practice claiming to express modernity and Greekness at the same time (see Note 52).

xxivThalia Dragona, Büşra Ersanli, Anna Frangoudaki. ‘How Greek and Turkish Pupils Perceive History, Nation and Democracy’ in: Thalia Dragona and Faruk Birtek (eds), Greece and Turkey – Citizen and Nation-State, Alexandria, 2006, 342-343 [in Greek]. English edition: Faruk Birtek and Thalia Dragona (eds), Citizenship and the Nation-State in Greece and Turkey, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), 2005.

xxv Mark Mazower, Salonica City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Harper Perennial, 2005, 474.