Driving over the mountains from France to Portbou just over the Spanish border is an experience you are unlikely to forget. This Catalan village lies hidden in a cove with mountains on three sides and the Mediterranean on the other. The road is narrow and precipitous. But once you arrive it’s like Eldorado, a forgotten treasure. Given its beach location, it’s surprisingly tourist free, but being on the border there’s a steady flow of French day-trippers filling up on cheaper petrol and two-litre magnums of Pastis.
Its border location has been the making, breaking, more breaking and gradual remaking of the place. At one time all international Spanish mail came here to be sorted and passed through customs. The village acquired a huge railway station and full employment. In the Civil War it was a natural crossing point for volunteers (and then later, refugees) and was one of the few places where imported supplies could be landed. Needless to say, Franco constantly blitzed the village, and the residents huddled in the railway tunnels under the mountains while their homes, way of life, culture and language were relentlessly attacked. After Franco, Spain joined what was then the Common Market, and the need for mail sorting and customs clearance evaporated overnight – and the village quietly stagnated. But was there ever a more perfect place to stagnate?
Holding a Catalan graphic design festival here makes perfect sense on every level – particularly one that boasts a ‘zero budget’. The village welcomes these odd visitors and the trade and quiet kudos they bring, and the organisers, a loose co-operative of Barcelona-based practitioners and teachers, felt strongly that they needed a venue away from the many distractions and frantic pace of Barcelona. Portbou provided the perfect refuge and, now in its second year here, is the festival’s permanent venue. They just get on so well together.
“We chose Portbou, a small border village on the sea,” say the organisers, “because it lies on the border – like graphics: on the border of art and communication, of culture and enterprise, of inspiration and thought, of city and nature.”
‘Slow’ is the key. The festival is “an open encounter about the communicative and social functions of graphic design from a conscious perspective: calm, slow, away from the usual stressful environment of those who work in graphics. A meeting for thinking and opening up.” It was memorably described last year as “the Woodstock of design festivals”, and those hippie, ‘free-festival’ inferences are both apt and telling.
During the first weekend in October, when the festival took place, the weather was as near perfect as you could wish for. Portbou does have a wind; the whole Mediterranean, of course, has a host of winds with personal or familiar names beloved of car manufacturers. Here it’s the Tramuntana, and everyone has an opinion or story about it. One person will tell you it drives people mad; another will say it brings inspiration and creativity. Both will cite Salvador Dalí as evidence of their point of view. This time it blew the entire Catalan design community, practitioners, teachers and students up to Portbou, where they (almost literally) painted the town red.
While formal events take place in the Civic Centre and the Walter Benjamin Room, the festival generally invades the entire village. Every meal, every drink in a café, stroll along the promenade, shopping trip is punctuated by shouts of ‘Hombré!’ followed by hugs and mutual back-slapping. Students prowl the backstreets initiating minor happenings and encounters.
By way of an aside, Portbou’s one modest claim to fame is that the exiled German philosopher Walter Benjamin came to Portbou, although he committed suicide, rather than put down roots here. He is one of the few people actually buried in Portbou’s mountainside cemetery – most reside in an arresting sort of tenement like a budget Japanese hotel. Digging through solid rock is not an option for a run-of-the-mill funeral. Benjamin is celebrated throughout the village, and has a huge iron and glass monument, by Dani Karavan, set into the mountainside, with stairs leading down to a slightly abstract view of the sea, and a line of his writing etched into glass.
A good many festival events naturally gravitated towards the pebbly beach, whose uniformly smooth oval stones, perfect for skimming on this calmest of seas, provided their own inspiration – firstly in the form of a keenly contested stone-throwing competition, and secondly in the most charming event of the whole weekend: the illustrator Àfrica Fanlo’s collection of ‘stones looking at the sea’, left all along the precarious beach path.
In every sense the festival is inclusive; it uses and involves the whole village; there are events for children, and numerous workshops on typography and signwriting that spill out into the streets. There is nothing exclusive or precious about it. There was, however, one minor controversy; a moment of sudden and uncharacter-istic silence when the man discussing the future of e-books casually let slip that their design and typography were not matters of any significance; and anyway, they had software to do such stuff. Not the most diplomatic remark to make to a room full of passionate graphic designers.
Various other activities and talks took place indoors, and mostly, as you’d expect, in Catalan, a language that looks a little like Spanish, and sounds a little like French, but is invariably delivered at a such a pace that all an English visitor can do is enjoy its music and passion. Two talks however were delivered in English: by type designer David Quay, who is based in Amsterdam but teaches in Barcelona; and myself, with no Spanish or Catalan credentials whatsoever. I also took several hundred books down to Portbou, and curated a small exhibition celebrating design over the decades at Penguin. Everyone, and especially the many design students, clearly loved them, particularly revelling in the four Great Ideas series, designed by David Pearson and friends, and Stephen Russ’s poetry covers.
Amongst the various paraphernalia I had taken was a blown-up photograph of Allen Lane, Penguin’s founder, alongside a ‘Penguincubator’, a 1930s book-dispensing machine that had a brief existence on some London train platforms (apparently it dispensed far too many books for sixpence).
By the sort of happy coincidence which the festival naturally attracted, an updated book slot machine was installed in the civic Hall, selling pocket books produced by Blur Ediciones at an amazing half euro each. They sold in their hundreds and are quite exquisite.
Quay in his talk celebrated the amateur graphics of sign painters in Amsterdam. We tend to use the word ‘amateur’ in a slightly derogatory sense – as being the opposite of professional – a little shambolic, possibly hippie-inspired, naïve, crude. But Quay was using the word carefully, and reminded the audience that the Latin root of the word is ‘amator’; an amateur is someone who ‘practises something for the love of it’. For exactly the same reasons, the Portbou Festa del Grafisme is proudly amateur.
Steve Hare is the editor of Penguin by Illustrators, published by the Penguin Collectors Society