Henrietta Thompson: We don't want tourist tat – local or otherwise

Something to Declare

Everyone's gone loco for local. If we're not engaging in our local community, we're supporting local businesses and buying food from our local farmers' market. But as we become increasingly invested in spending our money close to home ourselves, are we forgetting the value that locally designed, locally made, lovely products might also have for foreign visitors? What if local designers, local craftspeople and local businesses were given a brief: to create a souvenir that wasn't a) horrible, b) cheesy or c) ridiculously expensive?

"Tourist tat" isn't a term exclusively reserved for British souvenirs. And given the proliferation of souvenir shops that sell these trinkets, there's certainly a market for it, even though the millions of sombreros sold all over Spain are not only made in China, but actually of Mexican provenance, while Morocco's ubiquitous silver teapot was first created by the metal-masters of Manchester.

There are occasions when designers are brought in, but this is invariably in the creation of novelty (sorry, "witty") souvenirs. In this category I will put the "Icelandic Eruption" condom.

Frequently, too, local craftspeople are employed to spend their hard-earned talents churning out "artisan" mugs, figurines, traditional knitted jumpers and hats.

We buy it – but we don't have a huge amount of choice. The full spectrum of horribleness can be found in any airport. But even the luxury hotels peddle it, just at a higher price. That's the necklace you find in the glass case in the corridor: we'll call it luxury tourist tat, because there's no getting around the fact it's still tat.

Recently, I visited Marrakech with the British Council to learn more about a new project it has been working on called Design Explore. Its main focus was a two-week-long school for talented young Moroccan designers, helping them to develop their skills and knowledge.

Morocco is a case in point when it comes to the value of tourism. If you've visited and gone home without a scarf, a sandal or a whole souk-worth of leather poufs, you're stronger than most. But for all the phenomenal craft activity, the souvenir industry in Morocco is phenomenally lacking in design input and makes a cliché of its merchandise.

The aspiration for Design Explore was that this could be a chance for a new generation of designers to develop ideas around contemporary product design and to encourage the participants to redesign typical tourist products.

This idea was quickly abandoned when it was realised that there was a need for new products that went beyond the tourist market altogether, for an appreciation of the real value of Moroccan design and craft, and what – beyond a teapot – might be made. The project is still in progress, but from what I've seen so far, I know that when it's finished I'll be visiting Morocco for a shopping trip.

What could we make in Britain that celebrates locality with integrity, beauty and charm in a way that would also be interesting for tourists? I imagine there could be a lot of money riding on the right answer. And fudge, by the way, doesn't count.

Henrietta Thompson is editor-at-large of 'Wallpaper' magazine

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