City Design Tour: Montpellier
Having recently moved to Montpellier in the South of France, Anda Lupascu RGD, an Independent Graphic Designer, shares her initial impressions of the city's design scene.
What makes this city’s design scene special/unique?
Having arrived in Montpellier a little over a month ago, I have to begin with the disclaimer that the following city profile will be a very first-impression and probably starry-eyed account of the city. Montpellier is a relatively low-key, medieval-hearted student town in the South of France. I moved here after completing my Master's degree in Information Design in the Netherlands, for better sunshine, among other reasons. I would not immediately describe Montpellier as a design city, rather more an arts-and-arts-and-crafts city. Design is certainly present, but it is far from the lifeblood. However creativity is very much present here.
Some of the things that make it particularly special for me at the moment are its beautiful medieval architecture in the centre of the old town: walls in yellow pastels, dusty robin’s-egg blue window shutters, delicate wrought-iron lace balconies everywhere. The sun shines differently here, radiant and yellow, bouncing off of this colour palette. It is a lovely sight to experience every day. And to contrast this, the city’s newer architecture retains this same sandy palette but applied to more modern, organic architecture.
I feel that a city’s visual personality has a big impact in shaping the creativity of its inhabitants. A more industrial city will encourage a more industrial, perhaps modern, sense of creativity so what kind of creativity will this kind of soft pastel, sunny medieval space encourage?
Is there a place/landmark in the city that helps inspire you as a designer?
So far I have spent the most amount of time in arguably the city’s little soul: the Promenade du Peyrou. This small park, or esplanade, is the highest point in the city. It contains a statue of Louis XIV, as well as an exceptionally beautiful water tank where the city’s ancient Roman aqueduct comes to rest. It is a functional and highly engineered place, however its function does not determine its civic usage. Around the gorgeous aqueduct pool is a small park maintained in the French style with square Plane trees and wide paved pathways for slow walks. It is the perfect place to come and watch the sunset every evening and it is almost always populated with young and old, dancers and skateboarders, people having picnics, reading, drawing or just sitting around to chat. To me, this place is the best place to recharge every day. There’s no shortage of angles for great photos and no lack of people watching.
I also want to underline that this is a wonderful ‘third space’ where everyone is welcome from any background to do and be as they please. You do not need to spend any money to be here, no membership, no demands, which to me is absolutely essential for creative people in any city.
Is there a design project that stands out for you as emblematic of the local design scene?
This might sound a bit odd but the design project that stands out to me as emblematic of Montpellier are its trams. The city has 4 tram lines in operation, so the network is quite small but it is very, very visible. What makes the trams unique and emblematic is the creative decision to dress each of the 4 lines in their own unique and unapologetically bold uniform. This isn’t something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world and it is delightful. Usually you might see a bus or a streetcar dressed in some extensive advertisement for a well-known soda brand, but this is, of course, a choice of advertising first, beauty second (if at all). The dressings on the Montpellier trams are most certainly design decisions made to enhance the visual experience of being in the city.
The graphics of lines 3 and 4 were designed by Christian Lacroix, with motifs inspired by the Mediterranean Sea. To me, all of them work like magic. Every time I see a tram go by, it makes me smile. That’s good design. They really pop against the perpetually yellow stone of the downtown and pop even more as you travel into the suburbs of the city where it can get a little less cheerful with the architecture.
What do you wish the city had that designers would really love/benefit from?
This is tough for me to answer having just arrived, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that has applied to me in every city I’ve lived: places to chill. We designers need to chill, relax, unwind, rub shoulders in non-professional, informal, casual settings. What is more valuable to creativity than serendipitous connections, either to ideas or other people, than space? Good non-referential space, where you’re not expected to be anybody, any type of way or buy anything. I have no doubt that designers would benefit from chill spaces like the Promenade du Peyrou anywhere, in any city.
Are there any challenges that designers in the city face?
Interestingly, and I might be wrong in 6 months, I feel that Montpellier is a difficult city to be a designer in, only because it is not like Toronto or New York: it is not, by any means, a big city (rather a comfortable mid-sized one), it is a place with routines and traditions and a pronounced visual style (whether intentional or accidental) and design is not really close to the heart. Rather, it is more focused on the classic arts: visual art, music, dance, ceramic, etc and I see design as being truly a secondary, supportive presence rather than one that has authority and is working to define itself (as I felt was the case in the Netherlands and in Toronto, and North America generally). As I spend more time here, I will discover more of both the challenges and the unique joys of being a designer in this city. Check back with me in 6 months!