Dezeen Magazine

"EU design displays the best and the worst of doing things by scrupulous consensus"

Opinion: on the Brexit battleground, fluffy design nostalgia is being pitched against the EU's bland passports, forgettable glass buildings and uninspiring flag. This could all have been avoided, says Will Wiles.

For Liz Hurley, it's the light bulbs. "If it means we can go back to using decent light bulbs (60-watt, peach-coloured, both bayonet and screw-in)," the actor said in an interview with Spear's magazine, "I'm joining Brexit for sure."

The quote was reported in several newspapers, and then widely mocked on Twitter and elsewhere: a prime example of the astounding triviality of many of the arguments for Brexit, the proposed British exit from the European Union, to be decided by referendum on 23 June 2016.

Nostalgia for the gentle hues of incandescent light bulbs is a trifling justification for dynamiting the bedrock of Britain's economic and diplomatic relationship with its closest neighbours and the rest of the world.

As is so often the case, the quote that was circulated was somewhat mangled, and only told part of the story. The Hurley case for Brexit does not, in fact, rest on light bulbs alone. She cited a number of reasons – all curiously material, related to the look, feel and meaning of everyday objects.

In the same sentence as the bulbs, she mentions high-powered hairdryers and vacuum cleaners. Elsewhere she talks about returning to the UK's old "gorgeous navy blue" passports, and of a sense of foreignness and adventure that she misses in travelling on the Continent. Superficial stuff.

But she also makes it clear that she's speaking emotionally and off the cuff. All these thoughts are prefaced with the words "I can't imagine for a second that any voters would be remotely interested in what I have to say so I've refused but I can tell you this...".

These are a few impromptu quips misquoted from a gentle interview with a magazine for a small number of very rich people, not a speech to the United Nations. We can perhaps acquit Hurley of charges of inappropriate triviality. But not the Leave campaign as a whole, which shares many of these obsessions.

In fact, Hurley has adeptly put her finger on three of the most common design justifications for leaving the EU. Nigel Farage, leader of the ferociously anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is fond of brandishing his small, mauve EU passport as a symbol of the transnational shackles that bind us. David Coburn, a UKIP MEP, is a hairdryer obsessive, and we are darkly warned that toasters and kettles are next. The pro-Brexit tabloid newspapers are as desperately fixated on fluorescent light bulbs and allegedly under-powered vacuum cleaners as they are on Bulgarian fruit-pickers.

But light bulbs, vacuum cleaners and passports are not the only objects the tabloids are passionate about. If you take into account areas where they are mistaken or lying, the material universe of imperilled Britishness expands vastly.

The European Commission maintains an immense index of Euromyths, entirely directed at correcting the nonsense spouted by British newspapers, and dating back to the early 1990s.

Its rigorous and patient tone is matched only by the palpable futility that wafts from the screen – trying to fact-check the work of journalists uninterested in truth for an audience who will never see it. This melancholy list does, however, create a remarkable cumulative picture: the design objects and qualities that, for some, generate Britishness. It's like a map of the material pressure points of British identity.

Square gin bottles, which the EU does not intend to ban. British car number plates, which will not have to carry EU flags and will not be harmonised out of recognition. Three-pin plugs, which are not going to be replaced with Continental two-pin versions. Shepherds' crooks, which will not be made unrecognisable by a ban on carved horn. Traditional street lights, which will not be scrapped under safety regulations.

Barristers' wigs, wood-burning Aga stoves, glass milk bottles, brandy butter, double-decker buses, mushy peas, model railways, lollipop ladies' sticks, corgis – truly this is a snapshot of the nation's soul, all in the form of a list of lies that British newspapers have told about Europe. (Some stories are baroque and creative enough to raise a laugh: no, the EU does not require you to pressure-cook your dead pets before burial.)

And, aha, here it is: powerful vacuum cleaners are not banned, energy-inefficient ones are. Several high-performance vacuums on the Which? Best Buy list conform to the rules perfectly well. Perhaps James Dyson would have done more to put right this misconception if he hadn't come out for Brexit.

This goes triple for pearl, incandescent light bulbs, which are inherently inefficient, generating more useless heat than useful light, and then actively reducing their light output with frosted glass. While we're on the subject, the UK announced the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs in 2007, before the European Union got around to the subject, and it's part of a global move away from a dumb, wasteful, archaic technology.

Often the objects in the Euromyth database have changed the way they look or perform, but the EU has had nothing to do with it. Take, for instance, ambulances, which used to be white and are now fluorescent yellow and green. Even if you think this matters (it really doesn't), it's thanks to the British Standards Institute, working with the European Committee for Standardisation, which is not an EU body.

Even if we did regain navy blue passports, they would not be the large, stiff-covered version beloved of pensioners because every passport in the world now has to fit the same machine-readable format. That standard is set by the International Civil Aviation Organization in accordance with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The EU has, for a generation, served as an all-purpose scapegoat for practical changes made by UK and global bodies to smooth international trade and travel.

But this is all very boring. At the time of writing, the Leave campaign enjoys a convincing (and depressing) lead in the opinion polls. Part of the reason for that is that is that its case is strongly emotional, brandishing these totems of identity that they believe have either been defiled or threatened by the European "superstate" – useful heat against useless light.

The counterarguments are practical but long-winded and dull. Global trade in the 21st century is not the buccaneering world of tall ships and handshake deals that Brexiters like Boris Johnson describe. Globalisation is bureaucratic, opaque and complicated. Exactly the way the EU is portrayed. Indeed, the EU is unusually democratic when considered against the backdrop of the ISO and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The Leavers are mostly mistaken about the underlying reasons for these things – and that ignorance is nurtured by their opportunistic leaders – but they are not wrong to care. They do matter. The look of the world, the way it feels and performs, is important.

The way this part of the debate has played out stresses the vital importance of thoughtful, distinctive design. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of intellectual, creative activity that the tabloid newspapers openly despise, which is why we let committees decide things in accordance with international standards, so officialdom can shrug away the Daily Mail's jackals rather than engage with them. Or we end up with soggy nonsense, such as the whirlwind of serif rococo schmaltz that passes for pound notes – because it doesn't matter if you make the design world despair, just as long as the tutting Express readers don't mind too much.

The problem is that Express readers are always going to mind, because they are cosplaying in a fantasy world, and that vivid imaginary world will only be supplanted by strong, authentic new ideas, not by disingenuous watered-down ISO-compliant versions of a Radio 2 version of 1956.

Which brings us back to the EU's terrible identity problem. Its design displays the best and the worst of doing things by scrupulous consensus. It's rational and uncontroversial.

It's also bloodless and bland. The dreary bank notes. The forgettable glass buildings. The flag, which is OK until you look at it next to almost any other national flag – it's the flag of an organisation, not a place or a people. Where it looks at home is next to the flags of the ISO, the IMF and the World Bank. (Yes, they have flags.)

And those passports. It's not a great colour. (Side note: the colour is in fact called burgundy red, and EU member states apply it in different shades. The UK authorities could still get the Pantone swatches out. Croatia has rather smart black passports.)

The eye is naturally drawn to Norway's wonderful bank notes, to Switzerland's justly famous red passports. Rem Koolhaas' OMA, of course, tried to warn the EU about this problem when it proposed its glorious, mad "barcode" flag, comprising stripes from all the union's national flags. OMA has, incidentally, implored Britain to Remain.

Artist Wolfgang Tillmans' posters for Remain are also appealing, suggesting a distinctive, modern European identity that might yet emerge beyond the committee-decided dross.

Internationalist art and design has been bold in the past – look at Per Krohg, Marc Chagall and Fernand Leger at the United Nations in New York. The flight from identifying marks on the Euro bank notes was clearly a strategic error. The continent of Europe can probably serve up one or two individuals of outstanding cultural or humanitarian achievement to serve instead of all those non-existent bridges and windows, and a swift rotation of faces is probably enough to keep everyone happy and make surprise dud choices short-lived.

The worlds of art, design and architecture have come out strongly in favour of Remain. If – fingers crossed – we do vote to stay, hopefully the establishment will wake up to the disastrous cost of its decades of fanatical complacency about these matters. Sentimentality matters. By neglecting this great hinterland of the psyche, we have let it be conquered by nostalgia and reaction. Trivial it is not.

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.