Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2011

This year’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year will be announced at London’s Design Museum, where the shortlist are currently on display, on 15 March. Until then, you’re free to go and choose your own winners – although, as with the Oscars, the actual winners are often overshadows by the judging hoo-ha. There have been mixed opinions about this year’s shortlist (read Justin McGuirk’s considered piece for the Guardian), unsurprising as there have been mixed opinions about this year’s design, and that’s all the judges can pick from. With this in mind, I went yesterday with the bar lowered, expecting to be underwhelmed – and wasn’t. There’s some interesting stuff here, although it’s true that no one thing grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

The organisers have taken the decision to organise the exhibition into five or so thematic sections entitled things like “play”, “learn” etc, but this is alongside the categorical division of the competition into “product”, “graphic”, “architecture”, so it’s not entirely clear why the addition is needed. The thematic sections themselves are so vaguely explained that boundaries are blurry – perhaps this is the point.

The essential inclusions are all there -Yves Behar’s Sayl chair, the cheapest office chair ever produced by Herman Miller and a logical continuation of Behar’s consistently good work, especially for Fuseproject; Seed Cathedral (above) by Thomas Heatherwick, the runaway success from this year’s British pavilion at Shanghai Expo; the obligatory ‘classic fashion’, this year provided by Alber Elbaz’s Lanvin and Jil Sander for Uniqlo, although this nomination was one of my favourites – high-street fashion by high-end names is definitely something to cheerlead.

The best nominations were by Daniel Charny, RCA tutor for one of Design Products’ most thoughtful platforms and judging from his choices a champion for clear, considered and effective design. Charny is responsible for the inclusion of one of my favourites from the show: Intimate Rider (above), a sex aid designed by Alan Tholkes, a quadriplegic who saw a way to improve a situation that is never really talked about. It wasn’t a very pretty exhibit, but it was made for a reason, and it works. That’s a design philosophy I saw sporadically throughout this exhibition, and every time I saw it I was glad to. James Dyson nominated a Margaret Howell shirt (below) for the very same reason: a good shirt, well made, with no ostentation. Simply a good shirt. As design philosophies go, it’s not very exciting just to make something well, for a good reason, and make it to last, is it? But perhaps it’s the most apt for current times.

The entire ‘Play’ section, by contrast, devoted itself to fun and games and unashamedly offered few other levels of meaning. I really liked Sam Hecht‘s nomination: Muji‘s twist on Lego, which was simply a hole puncher to make holes exactly the size of the raised bits on Lego blocks – instantly opening up extensions, decorations and all manner of  paper accessories to the huge world of play already inhabited by Lego. Nokia’s Paint Wall (below) was also diverting, a love letter to the possibilities of play created by digital technology. Paint Wall is a huge wall made of pixels which, when you throw imaginary paint at it from the physical paint bucket provided, becomes covered in colourful splashes. Computer sensors place you and your throws, obviously, and it’s not magic; but then, it kind of is, and for those whose childhood was spent watching Hook and wishing that made-up feasts really could become real things, it was pretty cool.

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It was good to see two RCA graduates included, and Hye-Yeon Park’s In-Betweening Clock (top image) is mesmerising to watch. It’s also interesting to note that the science-design nomination E-Chromi, a series of synthetic bacteria developed in vibrant colours to help us visualise toxins and other dangers, drew huge crowds while I was at the show. Science-design is the new food-design, surely? And that’s the most important thing to take away from it all, I think: there were lots of visitors at this exhibition, more than I’ve ever seen at the Design Museum for other shows, and to see so much interest bodes well. Because design can improve our lives, it can save us, it can cheer us up, and it can inspire us – and to keep believing that is why events like this one exist.

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Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2011

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