Running until 19th February 2017, the cavernous basement of the Design Museum has been devoted to the 9th Beazley Designs of the Year. It is a huge exhibition, with 70 design projects on show. Definitely worth visiting with plenty of time in hand.
The projects have been nominated because they “promote or deliver change, enable access, extend design practice or capture the spirit of the year” and though somewhat mind-boggling in scale to begin with, due to an intentional lack of a clear pathway through the floor, the designs have been divided into categories as well as clearly signposted themes. This helps break the exhibition down into manageable chunks.
There is truly something for everyone here with sections for Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Graphics, Product and Transport. The ideas on offer are delightfully varied, ranging from well realised designs that are in use worldwide through to non-working prototypes meant to break new ground and get people thinking, (Such as Frank Kolkman's open-source DIY surgical robot. Remote appendectomy anyone?). The diversity on offer makes it tough to pick favourites, but I found at least one standout in each arena.
The Graphics category is particularly strong, with high profile work such as Jonathan Barnbrook’s graphic design for David Bowie’s Blackstar album and Neville Brody and Steven Qua's Channel Four rebrand taking centre stage. The Bowie design has proved polarising but I am a definitely a fan of its pared-down aesthetic as a powerful and fitting final statement for a music legend. But among these juggernauts there are low key gems such as the charming Dear Data – hand painted data visualisations on postcards sent between Giorgia Lupi in New York and Stephanie Posavec in London for a full year. A beautifully humanising comment on the age of big data. My favourite among the graphic design work is the innovative Hello Ruby project by Linda Liukas and Jemima Lehmuskoski. The design is a picture book about computers and coding aimed at five to seven year olds. I love the idea of engaging receptive young minds in seeing code as a language of creative expression.
Continuing the theme of teaching kids to code, the Product category features the BBC micro:bit, a free mini computer aimed at seven year olds. Although my favourite in this category was Brian Gartside, Aaron Stephenson and Dr Theresa Dankovich's cheap and easily mass produced Drinkable Book. In part because it's a cross-over from product design to graphic design, but mainly because it's such a solid concept for helping people avoid serious illness from contaminated drinking water. The pages of the book are advanced water filters that kill Cholera, Typhoid and E. coli. It can be manufactured at minimal cost and can protect one person for up to four years.
In this category I do have a few reservations about the giant smog hoover that is lauded as a "tour de force of technology, design and desire" (in other words, it doesn’t work yet). I suppose I can’t help questioning whether installing multiple huge industrial appliances all over city parks to suck up smog is a net environmental benefit. Wouldn’t it be better to address the source of the problem?
In the transport category I loved Mark Jenner and Tom Putnam's BeeLine bike navigation system. A navigation interface so reductive as to be little more than a compass-like display on your handlebars. It points you in the direction of your destination and shows distance as the crow flies. Leaving you with plenty of skin in the game of navigation – you have to engage with your surroundings and decide which route to take. I love technology that adds to human capacity without forcing us to abdicate responsibility altogether. Rather than squinting at turn-by-turn directions on a tiny jiggly GPS screen as I have done many times in London, this device hands the big decisions back to you while providing just enough information to be of benefit.
In the Eyes of the Animal is an intriguing project in the Digital category by Marshmallow Laser Feast. A Virtual Reality experience that puts the wearer in the body of a dragonfly and other forest creatures. Your surroundings are artistically represented as a simulation of how the subject animal might ‘see’ and what it might hear. It offers a fascinating glimpse of what's around the corner in immersive experiences and how they can shape our understanding of the natural world.
In Architecture, although much taken by the Prada Foundation exhibition complex for its De Chirico-like weirdness, the standout concept for me is Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen's Nida House. A re-evaluation of a living space that stacks the rooms in an inverted pyramid around a central staircase, with the large, glass enclosed social area at the top. It uses a deliberately small range of materials for simplicity and cost saving and it struck me as an example of creative architecture that could challenge the way we traditionally look at our living arrangements.
The idea of children assisting in and learning about design was a recurring theme in the exhibition, most charmingly exemplified by Agi Mdumulla and Sam Cotton's 'Coolman Collection'. Their idea of collaborating with primary school children to design a collection has resulted in a clothing range that is shot through with humour and a playful spirit not often seen on the catwalk.
The Beazley Designs of the Year is an endlessly fascinating look at some of the most creative ideas around. Well worth a trip to the Design Museum in Kensington, I'd love to hear what your favourite designs are. The exhibition – and voting – is open until 19th February.