January 14, 2013 12:19 am

Shortlist balances form against function

From the photogenic Shard and the Olympic cauldron in London to a humble non-stick ketchup bottle, this year’s shortlist for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year awards throws up an almost ridiculously diverse list of designs.

The awards, which span everything from fashion and graphics to architecture and computer games, were founded in 2008, coinciding with the global financial crisis.

Yet that does not seem to have affected the quality or ingenuity of the entries – in fact, quite the opposite.

Last year, in the heat of Olympic anticipation, the award was won, slightly predictably, by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby for the Olympic torch. This year, Thomas Heatherwick’s cauldron is nominated.

Some of the designs selected have the capacity to be genuinely life-changing. There is a wheelchair that folds flat, by Vitamin Design, alongside a pair of glasses aimed at children in the developing world that are self-adjustable for size, designed by British inventor Joshua Silver.

Architecture also throws up juxtapositions. Renzo Piano’s Shard, once Europe’s tallest tower (but now overtaken by another in Moscow) appears, as does Fiona Banner and David Kohn’s small Room for London, a distinctively nautical structure sitting atop the Queen Elizabeth hall

Many public buildings appear on the list. Most of these may well have been projects that were commissioned before austerity kicked in but they remain a reminder of the potency of the public realm.

Studio Egret West’s Clapham library, in south London, manages to create a social centre in a striking building while also providing affordable homes. More striking still is Lacaton and Vassal’s Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris’s notorious banlieues. The architects have transformed a grim housing block into an ethereally light, almost transparent tower of great beauty.

The digital category includes Eben Upton’s Raspberry Pi, a cheap microprocessor on which to learn programming, an the UK government’s ambitious attempt to combine its websites into one public interface.

Finally, the technology of 3D printing, which is being touted as the ultimate democratisation of design and manufacture by allowing people to produce small runs of their designs, makes an appearance in MakerBot Replicator 2, an accessible, compact machine seen by many as a new phase of design.

The shortlist addresses contemporary concerns in design, notably the perception that designers were going too upmarket, keen to grab some of the cachet – and cash – of the art world and gallery boom.

This newer concern with life-changing products and social value is hugely welcome and perhaps it indicates a shift in sensibility from beauty for its own sake to value that emerges from usefulness, just as William Morris advocated in the 1850s.

The winner will be announced in April.

The full shortlist can be seen at www.designmuseum.org

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