Mix it up

Some designers are no longer content working in one discipline – why do they diversify?

It’s all gone topsy turvy. Clothing designer Jasper Conran is creating crystal glassware, architect Sir Norman Foster now has a tray produced by Alessi and furniture designer Marc Newson is poised to launch his new Extravaganza bicycle for Biomega. No matter what their discipline, designers are unable to resist the challenge and potential glory of turning their hand to something new. But is this just about brand extension, clever marketing and ego massage, or could there be more to the lure of breaking free from the shackles of familiarity?

Of course, diversification into uncharted areas of products and accessories is nothing new, after all, Le Corbusier’s leather and chrome furniture continues to be worshipped by his followers, Lutyens’ garden seats are perennial favourites and Alvar Aalto is as well known for his wavy glass vase and plywood seating as he is for his buildings. But these latest permutations offer important lessons to all designers. Ron Arad sees the design of small products such as his recent vases and lamps (under the name Not made by hand/ not made in China), as a way of experimenting. “The way the products were made takes precedence over what the products are,” says Arad. “We’ve used a rapid prototyping technique where we can build a model on computer, send off the file and the next morning the model is delivered. The fact that the designs are lamps or vases is incidental to what we can learn… This technique means there are no limits on what we design and that makes it all the more difficult.”

For 3D designer Teleri Jones, working on accessories has been a way of steering her career into previously unexplored areas of design, learning new skills, refreshing and stimulating her imagination.

Jones’ major career break came as the result of a competition staged by Hermès while she was at the Royal College of Art. “I had been studying ceramics, but at Hermès I had the chance to work with leather and produced several ranges of bags. It taught me that once you understand the manufacturing process, it becomes possible to produce designs, no matter what the material.” As well as working on bags, Jones also produced glassware for the Hermès-owned company Saint-Louis. Since then she has kept glass design as her core business, but has branched out into areas such as silverware, and is currently embarking on a new illustration and animation adventure. “I see some designers working for years in just one product area and realised I couldn’t do that,” says Jones. “My work is diverse, but for me that’s the way to keep new ideas flowing.”

Work on smaller products and accessories has traditionally provided young designers with a break, and that was certainly the case with One Foot Taller, the design duo of Will White and Katarina Barac, winners of the first Oxo/ Peugeot Design Awards last summer. The team produced a highly original plastic chair using a specially developed rotational moulding process. “Since the awards we’ve designed other chairs, we’re in development with two entrepreneurs on a number of product designs and we’re working on the interior design of a Glasgow club,” says White. “We’ve worked on a huge variety of projects. When we won the award last year people were surprised by the chair because, until then, our trademark had been based on recycling. Immediately people started describing us as chair designers.” All designers have a tendency to be pigeonholed, but it is something most of them try to resist.

However, White says you can go too far in the other direction. “We also recognise there is a danger in being a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. For example, the reason Charles and Ray Eames produced such brilliant furniture was because that’s what they did, they were furniture designers. The trick is to find the balance between specialisation and innovation.”

The winners of this year’s second Oxo/ Peugeot Design Awards will be announced on 12 July. An exhibition of the finalists’ work will be on show in the gallery@oxo in London from 23 June to 30 July. It then goes on tour to the Nexus Galleries, Edinburgh from 7-31 August, and Newcastle’s Laing Gallery from 7 April to 3 June 2001. Dates for venues in Belfast, Cardiff and Leeds are to be confirmed.

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