Paws for thought, DotY

While David Redhead supports the Designer of the Year award in principle, he thinks the Design Museum’s pet scheme could learn a few tricks from Crufts

Anyone who braved the scrum of wannabes, photographers and celebrities at the Designer of the Year exhibition launch will know the Design Museum’s new award won’t fail through lack of profile. This was a big moment for the Design Museum and it was more than a good party. Some may question the fashion bias Alice Rawsthorn has imported into the museum’s programme but it would be mealy-mouthed not to admit the director has brought more substance and style to the museum.

Instead of whingeing about tight budgets and a remote docklands location, Rawsthorn and her team are staging good shows. This is no exception. It’s well-organised and brings together diverse kinds of design: high-tech industrial and interactive gaming pitched squarely at the mainstream; distinctly bespoke, modern classic jewellery, and; lights, ceramics and furniture, which combine a bit of both.

But having said all that, I do think that though the first prize of £25 000 may be Britain’s most valuable financially, there are real doubts about its value to design’s wider constituency in its current form.

I don’t have a problem with prizes. Sometimes we seem knee-deep in them in this industry, but awards and the ceremonies that go with them provide reward, recognition and a sense of community in an industry that is often dangerously individualistic. I also realise the Design Museum’s ambition to create a prize which, as the publicity puts it, represents ‘design’s answer to the Turner Prize in art and the Stirling Prize in architecture’. But for a prize like this to work, the format needs to be rigorously thought out and the accompanying exhibition scrupulously and fairly organised. Designer of the Year fails to stand up well to that sort of scrutiny on either count.

The problems start with the ‘catch-all’ criteria. The show is open to most types of designer. Entrants are nominated on the basis of work completed during the past year with a team of five worthies (chaired by Rawsthorn) creating a shortlist of four and then (with a little help from the public) deciding which has ‘made the biggest contribution to design’. Some may consider this format brilliantly simple. But I’m not convinced what works for the Turner serves design well. Is it really possible to compare Jonathan Ive’s million-selling iMac with the outrageously expensive one-off extravagance of Solange Azagury-Partridge’s Boucheron jewellery? Do Toord Boontje’s idiosyncratic lights for Swarovski make more of a contribution than Rockstar Games’ dazzlingly lifelike mass-market Vice City video game?

Comparing different designs is all very well if you have been through a rigorous decision-making process, but as I watched the highlights of Crufts last week, I couldn’t help feeling that if the judges of the dog show were were asked to decide on Best of Show, without first establishing which of the dogs was the best of its breed as these judges are, the fur really would start flying at the NEC. Its slackness simply leaves too many vital questions unanswered.

The same might well be said for the inconsistencies in the show’s content. The prize, you remember, is meant to be judged on the designer’s output of 2002. So why does Ive’s display case trace his work, and that of the Apple team, back five years to 1998’s original iMac launch. Why does Tord Boontje get to include some of his current furniture and glass as well as the lights for which he was nominated? Perhaps the curators felt this (admittedly brilliant) work was too good to miss.

If they did then they forgot this is an award first and an exhibition a distant second. Bearing in mind visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to join in the voting and Rockstar Games really do only have this year’s work on show, it’s hard to see the approach as anything but misleading and unfair.

Don’t get me wrong. I really think that now design has made it from the margins to the mainstream there is scope for an award that confirms industry’s place at the heart of the cultural agenda. But if this prize is to succeed where last year’s Perrier Jouët failed, it needs to be reshaped in a form that offers fair competition, proper categories, visible shortlists and real transparency. If Rawsthorn needs some tips she could do worse than visit Crufts next spring.

Not that any rule changes would have altered the identity of the top dog for 2003. Ive’s brilliant new iPod and iMac have made him many designers’ favourite designer of the moment. In fact, if Ive doesn’t win the inaugural Designer of the Year in June I promise to eat this copy of Design Week.

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