For anyone with a day or two to spare, and a desire to take in some of Europe’s most inspired architecture and interior and industrial design, Barcelona offers the definitive route.

Called, simply, the Barcelona Design Tour, it takes in 150 points of interest, and includes hotels, bars and restaurants, design centres and universities, architectonic features, shops, fashion houses and bookstores.

The list is far from complete: Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the towering cathedral to modern gothic design, is absent. However, other works by perhaps Barcelona’s most famous architect – namely the undulatory Pedrera apartment block and nearby Casa Batlló – are part of the tour, as are modern structures such as the Hotel ME, and the Agbar tower, the city’s own “gherkin building” designed by Jean Nouvel.

“Design is important to Catalonia, and even more so to Barcelona,” writes Jordi Montaña, a director of the chair of design management at the Esade business school. “Barcelona is a city that lives with design. Its plazas, public spaces, bars, restaurants and discos are, in general, well-designed and people like to identify with this.”

The distinctive aesthetics of the city have helped make it the most popular tourist destination in Spain, and one of the world’s favourite weekend breaks. Long known as a raffish port city of architectural interest, it was catapulted into the big league of global cities via the much-designed and watched 1992 Olympic Games, an event that inspired a process of urban regeneration continuing today.

While this in itself has provided work for thousands of local, Spanish, and foreign architects, designers and urban landscapers, the city’s sudden visibility has also helped it go some way towards becoming a hub for industrial design.

Carmakers Volvo, Renault, Nissan and Subaru all have, or once had, design centres in or around Barcelona, while at Seat, the Spanish marque controlled by Volkswagen, a team of 80 designers dream up models for the German group and its Audi and Bugatti brands. Hewlett-Packard, the US technology group, researches, designs and develops its large-format printers at a business park just outside the city, while Lego, the Danish toy maker, established a design studio in Barcelona in 2004.

In a report entitled “Barcelona, City of Design” Prof Montaña estimates that there are at least 8,000 designers living and working in Barcelona. The city is also home to an important number of design academies – including the prestigious Elisava and Llotja schools of design – offering a total of 80 design-related degrees and titles.

The fact that the Esade business school even has a professorial chair of design management, dedicated to studying design in business, also reflects the importance of the discipline to Barcelona.

The city is also home to scores of design-focused associations, guilds and events.

This fragmented network is set to find a physical centre at 22@Barcelona, the urban renewal project in Barcelona’s Poble Nou district. The city’s planners have identified design as one of five business clusters to be developed.

The city council plans to build a Museum of Design near the Agbar tower, which will bring together exhibits from disparate museums around the city and encourage industrial, interior and artistic designers to set up studios in the district.

In some respects, the idea is to bring industrial design home to its roots. Poble Nou was a district of mills, foundries and machine shops when the industrial revolution arrived in Catalonia, earning it the sobriquet of the “Manchester of Spain”.

And, according to historians, Barcelona’s industrialists were the drivers of a new wave of Catalan product design in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Without a regional monarchy to foster and patronise artistic development, factory owners turned to the city’s bourgeoisie to organise schools of applicable arts and crafts.

The Barcelona Chamber of Commerce complied, setting up the School of Noble Arts in the 18th century, which gave rise to the Llotja – or chamber of learning and exchange – school of design. Industrial design flourished in the 19th century and the early 20th century, and numerous guilds were established to protect and promote new ideas. The works of Gaudí and his later contemporaries, including painters such as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, only served to add to Barcelona’s image as city of artistic innovation.

“It was a chance for the Catalan bourgeoisies to show off their artistic tradition to the world,” says Jordi Bonet, chief architect on the Sagrada Familia project.

After the Spanish Civil War and the oppression of the Franco years, the city began to regain its prominence as an artistic centre in the 1970s. Barcelona’s preparations for the 1992 Olympic Games fostered a new wave of urban, product and marketing design, according to Prof Montaña.

“It was a golden era during which powerful design teams were consolidated,” he writes. “Designers became public personalities, and their creations, popular.”

According to Josep Miquel Piqué, chief executive of 22@Barcelona, the city’s future as a design hub depends largely on how successfully it lures foreign talent to its shores. The district has already attracted a smattering of design studios and academies.

“Design isn’t just about products,” he says. “It’s also about having the right environment in which to be creative.”

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