When we started working on the identity design for Valletta Design Cluster, our starting point was a simple question: “What does Maltese design look like?” Could we discover a design style such as Scandinavian Design, Bauhaus, Swiss Design, De Stijl? Was there actually such a thing as Maltese Design?
As part of our discovery process for this ambitious undertaking, we interviewed influential designers and artists who shaped the more recent development of design in Malta. Through their stories and insight, we learned that Maltese design originated in commercial art and design (and frequently overlaps with fine art, architecture and folk art). Our next challenge was to find historical images and references to Maltese commercial design, which led us to the National Library and the National Archives. Unfortunately, nothing is recorded as to what Maltese design or style “is,” but through this search we discovered Salvu Scerri and his work.
Scerri is believed to be Malta’s first Graphic Designer—or rather, Commercial Artist, as it was called back in the 50s. His work is characterised by intricate (obviously) hand drawn illustrations varying in styles and influences. We interviewed Scerri’s grandson, Graphic Designer Marco Scerri, who generously shared images and his knowledge of Salvu Scerri’s contribution to Maltese design history. You might be familiar with some of Scerri’s work, which blends Italian, British and sometimes Swiss design influences—an eclectic mix.
When thinking about Maltese design, some obvious references come to mind: the Maltese cross, patterned tiles, Maltese balconies. The bad news is that none of these originated in Malta. The eight-pointed cross is actually known as the Amalfi cross. Patterned tiles are found across various countries in the Mediterranean including North Africa. (If you’re still not convinced, check out this profile.) Even the Maltese balcony is more North African than Maltese. So what is “ours?”
Our geographical location has made Malta the melting pot of the Mediterranean. This is evident in our language, food and architecture, so why shouldn’t design have followed the same path?
Given its very nature, we may never arrive at a definitive definition of Maltese design per se. Maltese design is an eclectic meeting of influences, and perhaps it is only this eclecticism that is “ours.” In building an identity for the Valletta Design Cluster, there is one thing we came to know for sure: Maltese design, though somewhat ambiguous, is beautifully interesting and intricate, and definitely worth celebrating.