One question gets asked every year about the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year award, now in its sixth edition. Every time it’s about a different pair of products that appear to be polar opposites. The likely version this year is how can you usefully compare the merits of, say, the sheer ethereal beauty of Moritz Waldemeyer’s Candle in the Wind chandelier for Ingo Maurer, with the compassionate intelligence of ColaLife’s life-saving rehydration kits? Last year, it was how do you compare a wheelchair with the royal wedding dress? In some ways, the best thing that the award can do is to encourage as many people as possible to explore the many and varied meanings and uses of design.
Waldemeyer laments the passing of incandescent light, the means by which humans have seen the world for centuries. Our interiors, their fittings, the things that we put on the walls and floor, and most art before the end of the 20th century, were all made to be seen in a light that flickered like a flame. Tungsten bulbs are outlawed now, and candles make people nervous about safety. Maurer and Waldemeyer regret that as much as they would regret the disappearance of printing.
Waldemeyer has applied his particular brand of technological magic to make a cloud of LEDs that, hovering from a flat metal disc, evoke the flickering nature of candlelight. Each individual candle is based on a couple of hundred LEDs that faithfully reflect the quality and colour of the real thing, a quality that is steadily disappearing from everyday experience. When it goes on sale, the chandelier will come at a price, but there will be a more practical single candle version that still has some of the magic.
The ColaLife project, designed by Tim Llewellyn for Pl Global, based on Simon and Jane Berry’s original concept, is a packaging system that allows for the distribution of rehydration kits to rural African communities at minimal cost. The most common, and most easily avoided, cause of infant mortality in many remote areas is diarrhoea. The remedy – salts, vitamins and tablets to purify water – is cheap. The difficulty is how to get it to those who need it most.
Aid workers noticed the most reliable distribution system in parts of the world where government authority is tenuous is the Coca-Cola network that moves crates of soft drinks from bottling plants by stages to ever more remote areas through hierarchies of local sales people, paid on commission. The kit is designed to piggy back on this system. It comes in a wedge-shaped container slotted between the bottles into the interstices of a standard Coca-Cola crate. The container also functions as a measuring jug, a mixer, a cup, for storage and as a water sterilisation device.
The chandelier and the kit are two utterly different approaches to design. And yet both have impressive qualities. In the same way, how do you compare the sculptural beauty of Zaha Hadid’s Liquid Glacial table with the elegant economy of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s A Collection chair, based on Berndt Pedersen’s original, which he designed for use at the University of Copenhagen? The table looks like a frozen cascade of water but is actually milled from a solid block of acrylic, while the chair is innovative in its use of bent plywood. The table is a costly technological tour de force, a gallery piece designed to be sold as a limited edition; the chair is designed to be economical, robust and capable of being made in large numbers.
It’s the range of the award, and the exhibition that goes with it, that ensures we avoid too narrow a definition of design. It’s also a reflection of how designers think. Precisely by refusing to be hemmed in by artificial constraints and boundaries, designers can come up with their most important ideas. They always ask questions about how things can be made, about what stories those objects can tell, about how they can persuade us, seduce us, or sometimes even shock us into seeing the world differently. That breadth feeds directly into the world of the interior. Our homes are shaped by design of many different kinds: partly by fashion, partly by new technologies, and partly by new attitudes to design.
The way Waldemeyer asks us to look at light makes the rooms we inhabit feel different. So does the storytelling ambition of the architect David Kohn, who, working with the artist Fiona Banner, produced A Room for London – a one-room hotel in the form of a boat, perched on top of the Southbank Centre. It’s a room with a view but also a room with a lot of backstory, and a suggestion that a house has its own special narrative.
Design is, on one level, a way to make the world a better place. The rehydration kits certainly do that, and they demonstrate technical ingenuity, and an understanding of how the economics of rural Africa work.
The Australian government’s compulsory redesign of cigarette packaging, also a contender for this year’s award, is another example of design with a social purpose – in this case, to make a dangerous product as unattractive to consumers as possible. But you might argue that the new pack did not take into account some of the unexpected consequences that are the product of human responses to objects. Some Australian smokers are going back to using cigarette cases in order to avoid being confronted by the brutal imagery of disease, generic typography, and a drab green packet.
One recurring theme is how designers have worked to bridge the gap between the digital and material worlds. They understand that we still have an emotional need for objects, so have focused on devices that make tangible and tactile the pixelated information we encounter every day.
It’s a phenomenon that can be seen in Replicator 2 from MakerBot, a commercially available 3D printer and the closest that we have yet come to the idea of a desktop factory. No bigger than a laser printer – though rather more expensive – it is a fantasy that has at last become real. It’s an object that you can use to print a broken plastic spare part or make a toy – such as a Lego brick – or a comb or a shoe horn, simply by downloading a digital file.
The digital Postcard Player and the Little Printer tackle the same territory, in less ambitious ways. The digital postcard concept by Uniform prints electronic circuits on paper. The player sits on a shelf: put the postcard in, and you get the music.
The Little Printer also sits on a shelf, gathering tweets, live feeds and downloads. When you want something to read, you press a button, and the collected text is printed, transforming the experience of a screen-based read, and perhaps even breaking our addiction to checking our smartphones every few seconds.
By understanding how we use and relate to objects, design has the ability to adapt technologies to make them mean something to people who are not technologists. Design, in a sentence, is about taking new ideas and putting them to work.
Designs of the Year opened at the Design Museum on March 20, and runs until July 7. The winner of the 2013 Design of the Year will be announced on April 17
Deyan Sudjic is director of London’s Design Museum