Dezeen Magazine

Will Wiles opinion column on design and souvenirs

"Can design reclaim and redeem the humble souvenir?"

Opinion: designers could offer beautiful, meaningful and lasting alternatives to the mass-produced souvenirs offered inside London's tourist shops, says Will Wiles.

One of the more depressing aspects of London's retail ecology is the "tourist shop". You can find these little purgatories across the West End, and particularly concentrated at the eastern extremity of Oxford Street. They sell tat – plastic tubes containing bears dressed as guardsmen, pencil sharpeners shaped like Routemasters, that sort of thing – and an odd selection of other goods, from suitcases to leatherwear.

Londoners, of course, have little reason to go inside them – the last time I did might have also been the first time, but it was definitely the last time. It was during a sudden downpour and I wanted a cheap umbrella. The I Heart London umbrella I was sold was not cheap and, after an extremely brief second career as an origami puzzle, ended up stuffed angrily in a Soho dustbin about 12 minutes later. There's no sense in mincing words: these places are dumps in which the cheapest materials are put to work making the flimsiest vehicles for the most inane globalised memes: Keep Calm and Gangnam London. They give tourists a terrible impression of the capital and vice versa. Visit Britain should be doing something about them.

They won't, of course, and the ostensibly classier places at the airport are little better – a deeper gouge on price for a slightly higher grade of polypropylene, and fewer violations of the Disney Corporation's intellectual property in exchange for a heavier layering of nationalist kitsch.

Against this tawdry backdrop it's easy to put aside the usual eye-rolling about pop-ups and applaud We Built This City, entrepreneur Alice Mayor's summer-long shop on Carnaby Street. The shop aims to promote London's creative classes, selling works by young designers and artists, and instituting a blanket ban on red, white and blue. It might not be cheap and it might not escape the grasp of kitsch – Corgi perspex brooch by Finest Imaginary, £24. But it is at least directing tourist cash where it will stay in the city a while longer and do some good, and giving visitors something with a little more aura to take home with them. It's a shrewd answer to what we might call the problem of the souvenir.

In the UK, the problem of the souvenir is – of course! – partly tied up with class anxiety. "Souvenirs" have an aristocratic heritage, devolving originally from the crates filled with pelf that the moneyed classes brought back from their 18th-century Grand Tours. But as tours became less Grand and more affordable in the second half of the 20th century, the souvenir diminished. Mass tourism meant mass-produced, purpose-design souvenirs that served just one purpose: to show that the owner had been somewhere.

Back home, these harmless boast-objects – bragatelles? – picked up the aspirational stench of Abigail's Party and the straw donkeys that accompany Coronation Street characters back from their Spanish holidays. As soon as tourism spread to the lower levels of the social pyramid, the upper levels washed their hands of it, and of the souvenir. The very idea of having something in your home that shows that you've been somewhere was rendered somewhat non-U. Such items either had to be shrouded with connoisseurship, special local knowledge or – at the very least – ironic distance. So it's the unique, antique thingummy spotted in a reclamation yard near the second home, or the gaudiest fridge magnet you could find in the airport.

The classic souvenir has become a peculiarly neglected and reviled class of object – which is curious. These pieces are trophies, catalysts for memory and props for self-expression, making them a potentially rich and rewarding field for designers to explore. They tend to be the province of craft rather than design, crafts mostly being rooted in locality and rootedness and locality being central to the souvenir. Souvenirs have, in fact, played a valuable but uncredited role in the survival and development of traditional crafts in many countries. In her recent study of craft's influence on postwar design in Italy, Catharine Rossi shows that the tourism and export markets were crucial in sustaining, for instance, the production of Murano glass.

Indeed, when designers have sallied in this direction they have met with resounding critical and commercial success. The Boym Partners' Souvenirs for the End of the Century project (1997-ongoing), which recast keepsakes as ways to process the violence and chaos of the world around us, has been one of the most influential works of the past 20 years. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the partnership was "inundated" with requests for a reissue of their 1993 World Trade Center bombing model, including from 9/11 survivors. "After much soul-searching", a new model was issued as a fundraising effort.

Mass tourism is the world's largest business, and it's far from new. Can design reclaim and redeem the humble souvenir – make it something beautiful, meaningful, worthwhile, and lasting? Well, probably, there are a lot of clever people out there. I suppose the more important question is: should it? Why should it?

In recent months we've seen two instances of the geopolitical importance of tourism, in Tunisia and Greece. In Tunisia, tourists were targeted by Islamist gunmen and many Western countries (including the UK) have told their nationals to come home, a grievous blow to the country's economy. Greece, meanwhile, is being immiserated by the European Union and IMF's continued denial of debt relief without crippling economic mutilations attached. Both countries could be helped by tourism, and by tourists spending their cash wisely once in-country.

I'm not suggesting that souvenirs – or tourism in general – can actually solve the problems of Islamist violence or neoliberal economic vandalism. But both situations, and their coverage in the "West", show how connected the world has become. The "tourist" has been a state of constructed, useful, cynical innocence, or ignorance. It's past time to drop that charade and be aware that to be a tourist is to be a political actor. We cannot pretend to be unaware of the often harmful effects of tourism, and by the same token it is our responsibility to seek ways to travel for the better. Perhaps rethinking the souvenir is a place for the design world to start.

Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.