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Design Mart Until 19 February 2006 and The Great British Design Quest @ Design Museum

From: Simeon
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 19 February 2006


The Design Museum’s latest show is all about Britain’s past or to be more precise its design past. Here on the top floor you can see immaculately polished versions of the e-type Jaguar or just as impressively, if your into cars, a dinky cream coloured Mini.

The show elicits feelings of nostalgia for a golden, much simpler life in a Britain free from the ever present interruptions of banal mobile ring tones or the unending flow of, mostly useless, information that few would argue is a welcome addition to our lives. Design nowadays might be thought of as a kind of sugar coated pill, hiding something not always welcome or desirable inside.

The point of this show is to allow viewers to come and see design history for themselves and vote on what they think is the most significant piece of design. A wide range of objects are up for consideration including the original underground map through to the Verdana typeface (designed for Microsoft to aid legibility onscreen).

One of the highlights of the show is a small display of Penguin books, whose mostly continental art directors, created fuss free book covers with innovative, clear and simple solutions. Any student of graphic design would surely enjoy seeing them. The kids books are also very good.

This was my third visit to the Design Museum and on each occasion I can’t help thinking the museum is so avowedly modernist that other aspects of design have been left out. There must be whole attics and car boot sales full of shell vases, stag-antler knifes and forks, Scalextrics, stretchy dolls and assorted bric-a-brac that are ignored. Just like art, if your open minded about it, there’s a lot of it about.

One area of design given attention is computer games which judging by the large numbers of people (mostly men) waiting to play them are clearly enjoyed. If computer games are taken seriously as design, why not other industries that utilise design and new technology with ever increasing sophistication? The porn industry for example utilises a very complex mixture of hyper-reality, botox and Baroque splendour to sell its product.

The other show on at the Design Museum is Design Mart. This show, so the museum claims allows you to ‘discover the work of Britain’s most innovative young designers.’ After visiting the show I can’t recall the name of one designer who wasn’t a former student of the Royal College of Art. I found this surprising especially as the museum aims ‘to nurture new design talent’.

Much of the work made by the young designers in Design Mart firmly favours the quirky, having quite a strong sense of the resonance or the ability of materials to suggest moods or experiences. Many of the designers sighted childhood influences as especially important to them.

One example stemmed from two designer’s recalling how as children they’d been told that water and electricity should never interact. This led them to produce a room instillation of red and pink cables suspended from the ceiling. Spreading like tentacles or roots around the room these bundles entered fish sized tanks of rectangular and cylindrical shapes, illuminated by light bulbs emitting standard white light. With the inevitable growth of algae this might have been more interesting to look at.

Unlike ‘classic’ British design contemporary design seems to be less about fulfilling any strict functional or social requirement, though that’s not always lacking, than changing materials much in the way Duchamp or Picasso did earlier in the last century. The designers in Design Mart have grasped this particular conceptual formula lock stock and barrel, so much so in fact that you begin to feel slightly cheated.

Can good design be arrived at so easily? Will there ever come at time, a kind of design Armageddon, when there remains nothing left to take from one context into another? Contemporary sculpture is guilty of a similar laziness (David Mach and Rachel Whiteread for example).

Perhaps craftsmen and women in the past worked in traditions and weren’t befuddled by the need to be ‘young and innovative’, they could evolve naturally, though of course it would be sentimental to imagine they lacked any kind of constraints- think of the Bauhaus and the pressures brought upon it by the Nazi party. Having said that might designs like the Mini car have sprung from a design environment (even a culture) for whom the new wasn’t automatically and without question interesting or even of value in and of itself? I think so.

Go and see this exhibition and chose your favourite British design classic or else enjoy some young talent.

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