Going on the general ambience at this year’s industrial design degree show at the RCA, the days of precious spot-lit plinths are thankfully over. This year you enter a buzzing bazaar of work displayed in cabinets found in many a retail emporium; built by the first year students to their professor’s design.
This retail-reminiscent environment sums up much of what Daniel Weil has brought to the RCA. The show is as lively and colourful as it is busy and egalitarian and allows the more confident work to shine. Weil’s influence is also noticeable in the emphasis on the low-tech, user-friendly, consumer-desirable end of product design.
This year the old boundaries of what used to be termed “industrial design” have been firmly nailed to the floor. But do we want them replaced by clever, quirky giftware?
Perhaps on the evidence of this year’s shows it’s enough to observe that industrial design is still firmly split into two distinct areas – industrial design engineering (IDE), where good ideas are developed to help us tackle the problems of modern life – pollution, disability, the high cost of materials and processes – and industrial design (ID), where good ideas are developed to entice the consumer with a rich play of novelty, texture and form. The latter is no surprise, when you remember that Alessi is one of the major sponsors of work in ID and that Weil works for Swatch.
What the ID show most certainly provided this year was a refreshing buzz of excitement and even some glamour – the whole show is a pleasant and warming experience – particularly for the uninitiated, who are less bothered by how things work and what they are made of than just whether they’re cute or cool or sexy.
The soft leather portable phone is very desirable; a set of scissors whose handles and blades play on typographic forms is fun; an intelligent and innovative range of modular cookware is something the Conran Shop could sell tomorrow, and the brilliant (and brilliantly coloured) latex-membrane percussion instruments provide a crossover between the toy and musical instrument market.
An important factor behind such refreshing diversity may be the continuing strong international, multi-cultural mix of students – many of whom have educational and work experience outside their native country, and bring a variety of style, influence and background together in their work.
If you are looking for products designed from a more overtly functional and theoretical base, the IDE show next door is the place to be. Here, the sometimes boffiny approach witnessed in past years has been replaced by a people-centred, response-to-need philosophy – clearly influenced by the RCA’s own DesignAge unit. A shower-fitting for those with limited arm mobility, a pollution protection capsule for children in pushchairs and a domestic waste management system all figure prominently in this category – as do a healthy number of women designers. There are other simple attractive ideas too, like a tubular spiral shower curtain and an electric work-top oven that combines its stylish stainless-steel exterior with a more traditional, energy efficient, terracotta “brick” cooking interior.
While the ID show contains some very strong and beautifully constructed icons of a materially obsessed consumer paradise, the IDE show offers some fundamentally sensible ideas; a few products whose magical modelmaking almost obscures the reason for their existence, and one or two hampered by unnecessary or inadequate detailing. In a culture so used to the seductive power of the object, any attention paid to presentation is not wasted: for both ID and IDE communication must be king – after all, what’s the value of a good idea if you can’t sell it to anyone?
Anne Gardener is a Partner at TKO Product Design Consultants.