Exhibition: Designing the Beautiful Game

From the official FSA.Org website:

The Design Museum in Kensington, London, is currently hosting an exhibition on the history of design in the game – Designing the Beautiful Game – until the 29th August. Here design expert Mark Gower tells us all about the exhibition and why fans should consider checking it out…

Design, whether intentionally by designers or unintentionally by supporters, has underpinned football since its early beginnings and The Design Museum’s exhibition Football: Designing the Beautiful Game tells its design story through a sequence of beautifully curated spaces around five themes; Performance, Identity, Crowds, Spectacle, and Play. OMMX is responsible for the 3D design, while Shaz Madani Studio created 2D design.

For me this is a dream exhibition. At school I was good at only two things; playing Football and Art & Design and I have managed to weave my two passions throughout my life and career.

When studying Architecture and Interiors at the Royal College of Art I came across an article where a sports journalist interviewed the famous Basque sculptor and once goalkeeper for San Sebastian Eduardo Chillida. The journalist asked Chillida how it was possible a goalkeeper could be a sculptor, surely a sculptor develops their skills from another origin than sport. Chillida explained that the skills you require to be a good sculptor are the same to be a good goalkeeper.

He explained that a football pitch is two-dimensional but when you operate as a goalkeeper between the goal posts it becomes three-dimensional. Chillida said that it was the time he spent in the penalty area that taught him how to read time and space. Chillida is an important influence on me because he showed me how to make connections between football and design. He saw football as a game made up of a series of spatial patterns that inspired him to become a sculptor.

For me the Design Museum’s exhibition ‘Football: Designing the Beautiful Game’, unknowingly builds upon Chillida’s interview and brings to light the architects, designers and supporters who have sculpted football as the sport we experience today.

Everything you would expect and want is exhibited in this exhibition. It includes the design evolution of balls, boots, shirts, fabrics, gloves, shinpads, formations and tactics, pitches, referee equipment, club badges and stadia.

We are reminded that players like Australia and Liverpool centre midfielder Craig Johnson went from footballer to designer by creating the first prototype of the Predator Adidas boot and the successful advert designed to promote the boot ‘100% legal 0% fair’. It is all there to be enjoyed and poured over.

However, the most memorable aspect of the exhibition for me was the role played, in each of the five themes, by people and supporters who would not consider themselves designers and how they unintentionally shaped the look and feel of our beautiful game. It is these people who, for me, take centre stage of Designing the Beautiful Game.

The first space introduces the theme of ‘Performance’. Football is a simple game and the only real requirement to be able to perform is having a ball. The first display is of two footballs handmade from found materials. The first from Zambia crafted from maize meal sack and tied with string reminiscent of balls made from plastic bags and elastic bands, the second from Uganda fashioned from banana leaf, both are extremely beautiful in their simplicity and craft.

However, these balls were surprisingly made in 2011 and 2007 respectively – is this reflective of the innovation of children in these countries just wanting to play football but not having a ball? Or are there still areas in the world that do not see a penny of the wealth that the game generates? I suggest both.

Still in ‘Performance’ we are presented with what looks like a pair of Adidas World Cup boots, you can tell by the branded soles, but with the famous three stripes removed and replaced by a hand painted Nike swoosh. The designer here was German footballer Matthias Sammer. Borussia Dortmund was sponsored by Nike, but Sammer insisted on wearing his own comfortable and worn in shoes so took the creative approach of customising his football boots.

The next space ‘Identity’ introduces supporters as designers, communicators, and trend setters. The point is made in the exhibition that many supporters do not always identify with the official club outputs and in contrast they bring their own creativity, expression, and humour into unofficial exhibits on display.

When you walk into the space, and you are immediately greeted by two impressive Liverpool banners, which have been crafted with love by Peter Carney and impose themselves on the room.

The first depicts the club’s European Cup wins, while the layout defies graphic conventions, with varying fonts and font sizes, there is again an elegant handmade quality. The second is an emotionally moving Hillsborough memorial banner. The banner commemorates the Hillsborough stadium disaster where 97 Liverpool supporters, all named on the banner, were unlawfully killed. The banner is an impressive piece of work and by including two pockets, which contains flowers conveys how all supporters came together to mourn in 1989.

Before the late 80s official club merchandise was hard to come by. At West Ham, where I’m a season ticket holder, we had a small portacabin situated outside the West stand that sold what little club merchandise there was – a bestseller being pairs of frilly knickers with ‘I scored at Upton Park’ written across them – so supporters had little choice but to create their own identities beyond what could be bought in the club ‘shop’.

The 70s and 80s gave rise to the sports ‘casuals’, these were young supporters who would dress in luxury European sportswear, where everything was considered from their haircuts to their trainers. In the exhibition two mannequins are dressed in authentic ‘casuals’ gear such as Sergio Tacchini, Fila and Diadora, these were young supporters creating their own football identity, with a sense of belonging to a football tribe. London-based fashion designer Martine Rose believes that ‘Casuals’ culture “remains a source of inspiration for fashion designers today”.

‘Casuals’ – Pic: Mark Gower

As a teenaged West Ham supporter in the 80s, the Inter City Firm (ICF) were infamous as was their calling card with the words ‘Congratulations you have just met the ICF’.

Hooligan calling cards to me then were stuff of myth and legend and I had never received or seen one one until visiting the exhibition. Eight dogeared hooligan calling cards are exhibited simply in a display case with no frills but just as authentic pieces of the darker side of football’s history. Most are pretty basic graphically in their layout, but I wouldn’t be surprised that whoever produced the ICF and the Aberdeen Soccer Casuals cards had or are still having a successful career in graphic design.

Fanzines were probably the best example of supporter’s expressing an alternative voice to the official one found in the matchday programmes. The only similar unofficial voices that can be heard now, if you take out Twitter, may be the unofficial club podcasts.

Some of the writing in the fanzines was of the highest quality but that’s not why they have been selected to be in this exhibition, they are here for their design aesthetic quality, and I adore the homemade reprographic quality of these publications.

As with the ‘Casuals’ culture being an inspiration for fashion designers, the same could possibly be said for the influence of handmade approach of fanzines for the graphic design community. I often run collage workshops with my students that aims to free them from the constrains of computer software like Photoshop. Only simple tools are required, a scalpel with a sharp blade, spray mount (Pritt stick will do), architectural magazines and a photocopier and off you go.

In a space between Identity and Crowds is one of my favourite exhibits called Half & Barf scarves designed by Dave Newbold At first glance they look like half & half scarves, which are generally aimed at tourists but on closer inspection they are a lovely piece of football social commentary.

There are three Half & Barf scarves on display – the top is a half Notts County and the other is Borussia Dortmund and it reads ‘NOTTS-BOVERED’. Middle is a Watford and Everton Half & Barf that reads ‘WHAT-EVS’ and the last is Sporting Lisbon and Valencia scarf, which possibly has the best line ‘SPORTIN-NO ONE’. It just shows that supporters are engaged and creative individuals rather than passive consumers and this is conveyed with conviction in this exhibition.

Half & Barf – Pic: Mark Gower

Probably the space that is the most immersive is ‘Crowds’. It’s a space with artefacts that will resonate with most football supporters that attend games on a regular basis however, as you walk around taking in the exhibits and the powerful photographs, especially the large ‘Dortmund’ print by Andreas Gursky, you hear Peter Jones reporting live from the Hillsborough disaster, which becomes the haunting soundscape for this space.

The report must last for no more than a minute but is constantly repeated, so if you are of a certain age, you can’t help but view a lot of the content and recall football disasters or even a time that you may have been caught up in a crush and your feet were off the ground.

Within ‘Crowds’ OMMX have created a mocked up blue tiered seating area, which is strangely called the ‘half-time room’ – maybe so you can have a rest – where visitors can sit and watch a series of clips of supporters celebrating and singing on a large projector screen.

On the day I visited, an early Monday morning, there was a strange juxtaposition of blue empty seats around me while I watched writhing supporters on a large screen. Suddenly I was back in lockdown and a time without fans in a stadium. I’m not sure it was intended but that installation screamed ‘football without supporters is nothing’.

The ‘Spectacle’ space is a graphic designer’s dream. I bought the Argentina 78 World Cup poster that was on display as well as the very good book for the exhibition in the shop that is your last stop. I spent a while in this area, but no one wants me to go on about typefaces and beautiful diagrams depicting the ever-increasing Premier League Profits.

Probably the space that didn’t quite capture the essence of its name was ‘Play’. The entrance of the room, almost replicating how the exhibition had started, by depicting how simple the game is to play by displaying six wonderful photographs of Posts by Neville Gable (Fig. 10). Gable capture’s goal posts handmade, hand drawn, or haphazardly constructed in strangely beautiful contexts from all over the world. I have treasured his book Posts since buying it in the 90s and his pictures are a testimony to the simplicity of the game and the creativity of those who want to play it.

These framed photographs are the highlight of ‘Play’ area. The space has all the hits, Panini sticker albums, blow football, Subbuteo, EA Sports FIFA 2022 etc. but I just felt it missed an opportunity of getting people together to take part in playing a simple game at the end of the exhibition, possibly on an oversize foosball table could have worked in this space.

Despite this one missed opportunity this exhibition is a joy and hits the target enough times for you to go back for more. Go and see while you still can.

Profile: Mark Gower
Mark Gower is Programme Director of Interior Architecture and Design at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Mark graduated from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1999 with an MA in Architecture and Interiors. While at the RCA Mark received a commendation for his dissertation entitled Football’s Hidden Architecture.

Mark has worked with various design companies, responsible for leading design teams for major clients in the UK and worldwide including Hong Kong and India. Whilst at school, Mark was signed by Newcastle United Football Club and spent a year with the club before being released.





‘Chelsea Supporters Group’ can also be found on Twitter and Facebook

Related Images: