Friday, 17 February 2017

Beazley Designs of the Year:A Design for Life?

I was back in Holland Park. At the new Design Museum for only the second time after my visit to their Fear and Love:Reactions to a Complex World exhibition at the tail end of last year. This time my friend Adam had joined me for a mooch round Beazley Designs of the Year, in a basement space I'd managed to completely miss on my last trip.

It's a fairly big, and vague, survey of 'the most stimulating and relevant new design' spread across architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product, and transport. There's a lot of stuff and you'd probably need to spend the best part of a weekend in there if you wanted to watch every film, read every word, and play every game. That simply wasn't going to happen so we just took a fairly casual stroll round, looked at everything, but tried to concentrate on a few highlights.

The first thing that caught my eye, as a fan, was the artwork to David Bowie's last album designed by Jonathan Barnbrook who'd worked on five Bowie albums previously. Its stark simplicity only became poignant on Bowie's death just days after the album's release. It's clearly design but purely aesthetic design. That's not all design can be. Design often has to look into functionality too and it's here where the show gets a little confusing. I wondered if two shows, one on aesthetics, one on functionality, may've served better.

I'm not sure I'd have included Richard Malone's Spring/Summer collection from last year in either. Inspired by his mother's Waterford Argos work outfit they're neither practical nor particularly appealing and though he may've, as claimed, 'explored the forms and restrictions of female workwear' I can't see that he's improved it in anyway. Also - 'female workwear' - I thought we were trying to move away from such gender imbalances?
I was far more moved by Nadav Kander's highly effective posters for the Samaritans new We Listen campaign. I'd seen them around of late and had been very impressed by the clear and simple message they carry.

It might've seemed poor taste to have a picture of a sheer cliff face next to a campaign focusing on people who may feel depressed or suicidal but I didn't think that at the time. I was just excited to see Lima, a city I'd visited back in 2009. Grafton Architects for UTEC won a commission to design a university in the Peruvian capital and they've clearly tried to be sympathetic to the natural, and dramatic, geography of that city's position next to the Pacific Ocean.

I think they've succeeded. Irma Broom (for Benthem Crouwel Architects) has too with her Cuyperspassage tile mural for a pedestrian underpass in Amsterdam. She's not so much echoing the natural landscape as the traditional crafts of the area. Most of us will know that underpasses can sometimes be frightening places, poorly lit, and usually reeking of piss. The Cuyperspassage is a 110 metre long tunnel that connects Amsterdam to its nearby ferry terminals. Broom has lined it with light that reflects off the hand painted Dutch tiles. It's a simple, affordable, and effective way of making life both look and feel better. In that sense it fulfils the remit of this show as well as almost anything.

Closer to home there's a look at Herzog & De Meuron's striking Tate Modern extension. I've visited the Switch House, as it's become known, a handful of times and it certainly adds a new dimension to any visit to the Tate. In its brick fa├žade it complements the original former power station but in its stark geometry it rubs up against it. Its a winning trick that I find geometrically pleasing to the eye.

I've not had the pleasure to visit Harbin but I'm pretty certain I'd enjoy its Opera House quite a lot too. The curvilinear building sits on land reclaimed from the Songhua river and contains hidden pathways, open amphitheatres, and viewing platforms. So there's something there for non-opera fans. I wanna go.

I may not have got to Harbin but I did visit China in 2005 and, in Beijing, I got about on a bike. It'd probably have been easier if it'd been more similar to the OKO e-bike, above, made by the Danish firm Biomega. Its beautiful monochrome, and yet to be splattered in mud, colour scheme hides a battery and motor than can help you out on hills etc;

Maybe the Gogoro Smartscooter, the world's first all-electric two wheel vehicle, would be even better for the commute? It can travel at up to 50kph and comes with its own app to help you find the nearest battery charging station.

If you want a really fast ride how about a visit to an amusement park? Bugsy, a close friend of Adam and myself, is rather obsessed with rollercoasters, and Dreamland in Margate particularly, so it was good to see a small part of the show dedicated to The Dreamland Trust's successful campaign to save the park from closure six years back. HemingwayDesign have come up with a load of simple, bold slogans that pay heed to Margate's initial seaside charm without simply replicating it.

Whilst Bugsy likes themes parks I'm rather fond of pubs so it was good to see one of my locals, The Old Nun's Head in Nunhead, represented. The community owned pub has improved vastly in recent years and the architects AOC have used a red brick and herringbone pattern in its makeover to fit in with surrounding buildings and the village green it overlooks. It makes the pub part of the community which surely is one of the main priorities of a pub. Apart from getting a drink maybe!?

Dharavi, one of the most deprived areas of Mumbai, feels a long way from a leafy south London village green but Amanda Pinatih, Jorge Manes Rubio, Krita Suraiya, Shyam Kanle, and Puneet Bareja have, amazingly, set up a pop up design museum there. The workshops that inspire the residents of Dharavi to come up with their own practical solutions sound inspirational but it's doubtful that Virat Kohli would find much joy with any of the rather 'industrial' looking bats above.

Johan Karlsson, Dennis Kanter, Nicolo Barlera, Christian Gustafsson, John van Leer, and Tim de Haas's Better Shelter, below, also offered help to those less fortunate. An attempt to bring design industry innovation to emergency and temporary shelter it looks, as Adam pointed out, far more comfortable than a shipping container and surely safer than some of the things we've seen in Calais in recent years. Made in partnership with IKEA these can be flat-packed in a two box kit with all the required tools and assembled easily (or so they say) in about four hours.


Equally heartening for those of us who don't think refugees and vermin are synonymous was the first aid kit that uses universally understood signals to assist those most in need of help. The architecture may've best pleased my eye but these two designs pleased my heart the most.

Maybe Franz Kolkman (working with the Design Interactions department of the Royal College of Art in London and the Kyoto Institute of Technology) will actually save my heart one day. OpenSurgery is a speculative project being developed to find a more accessible alternative to increasingly expensive, often unaffordable, healthcare. Kolkman's inspiration came from his noticing that uninsured Americans (a large number that will surely only rise under the moronic and vile administration now in power) were using YouTube to share videos in which they perform operations on themselves. He's envisioned an open source version of this, a kind of Wikipedia of self-surgery if you like. I'm not sure I'd ever be brave enough to try but then again I'm lucky enough to live in a country that's still got a National Health Service - despite chronic underfunding and attempts to destabilise it by the Tories.

More so than the uncomfortable looking chairs and the slightly ridiculous looking virtual reality headsets these were the designs that made, for me, this show a worthwhile visit. It'll be interesting to look back at it in a few years and see what caught on and what didn't. Thanks to Adam for joining me and explaining all the technological stuff that would, otherwise, have gone right over my head.


  1. Really enjoyed reading about your perspective. I still am amazed that someone would put virtual reality headsets in the woods.

  2. Cheers. I think if you'd have written it would have been much more about computer technology and stuff. The exhibition was interesting but the beer, food, and company much more so.