Point of origin

The Royal College of Art is one of the world’s great sources of design. Students who have studied at the London college wield great influence over our culture, from the cars we drive to the products that surround us.

The RCA is not alone in the world: other postgraduate courses, such as those at the Arts Center in Los Angeles, produce stars for corporate America’s creative teams, from Nike to Hewlett Packard. The Domus Academy in Milan boasts the stars of Italian design as professors, but for breadth of design activity it is the RCA that is the jewel of both the UK and Europe.

Every year the agenda is reset, a new generation is born and budding stars become the real thing overnight. The RCA Show is here again, brace yourself to be visually stimulated and intellectually challenged.

The show

The show is no longer a place where sculptors, ceramicists, and jewellers rub shoulders with car, furniture and product designers. Stories of heads of car design studios accidentally wandering into other shows and ending up recruiting textile designers can’t happen anymore. Limited space has meant splitting the shows into chunks. The Design, Communications and Humanities show opens this week; I experienced a chaotic and nervous atmosphere a week before, as students at the RCA prepared to expose their work to the design community.

Breaking out of the paradigm

Barriers between design disciplines are rapidly being removed. Design in the outside world has become a mosaic of laterally connected specialisms, and at the RCA disciplines have merged: furniture and product blended in the exploration of objects and materials, our cognitive processes in Computer-related Design are moving from the computer screen into product, automotive and architecture. The class of 1999 have broken through the barriers of their undergraduate education and now have a unity of intent within their personal visions.

Then you look outside, and try to find joy in the mundane everyday world. How does the jangling, dancing RCA converse with the outside world? In a world of cell phone, PC, work and play, does the college’s vision even figure, and how will the class of 1999 work into our real lives?

Computer-related Design

You would expect a course with such a literal name to be about graphics, screens and software, but this year Computer-related Design has continued to break new ground in addressing the cognitive, emotional and philosophical issues surrounding our relationship with technology. Interaction, information, animation, cognitive research, and the meaning of time and space are all encompassed in this vast breadth of study. In a world driven so dominantly from the West Coast of the US, the RCA CRD course has etched an international reputation for its visionary work. The course continues its record of 100 per cent employment in this area and appeals to students with a vast range of backgrounds, which this year includes information designers, PR consultants, film animators and theatre designers, as well as graphic and product designers.

The way we relate to methods of communication, work and entertainment has become more important to us than the physical form of objects. To this extent, CRD is one of the most important areas of art and design activity. Our interaction with products dictates their exterior form. There are only vague barriers between product design, architecture, automotive design and product interaction.

My first sight on entering the CRD studio was not a computer screen, but a wall of sequins, dancing in front of fans programmed to copy movements that pass in front of it. Sarah Morris and Alexis Darlington’s Everyday Disco creates a stunning kinetic sculpture intended for public places which crosses into architecture and entertainment at the same time. There are plenty of projectors and screens, but also inflatable balls, umbrellas and lots of radical ideas about how we work and how we control the physical with the virtual world.

How we navigate and memorise our routes through information in more interesting and relevant ways is a core part of CRD. Boris Mueller, with a background in information graphics with MetaDesign in the US and Europe, is trying to give depth as well as breadth to how we browse. He describes his computer interface as being able to look out of the side window while driving. But he also makes the point that 3D doesn’t mean dropped shadows and deep graphics.

Stephanie Hankey has come from a background in history of art to develop another computer-based application, this one within the specific context of journalists covering war situations. Her theme, developed around current experience in Kosovo, addresses how to combine limited power with portable computing and telecommunication technology to spread the truth of war to as many as possible.

The incomplete nature of information as cold and factual as the weather has led Helen Evans to use computers to present a deeper, more poetic sense of environment of places other than your own. Her virtual flowers, projected on to the ceiling, wilt, bend and grow in relation to the weather in other parts of the world, in her case a part of Southern France. A graphic, theatrical and evocative image explores an emotional side to computer interface and again embraces architecture and fine art.

The pushing of interface out from the screen into the physical and interactive drove Tim Brookes and Ben Gruyer to develop games using an interactive table where the design of the table is as important as the design on the screen. Forcing people off their bums to interact physically and intellectually addresses the introversion and isolation associated with computer use and tries to find an alternative that is a little less anti-social.

Pushing types of interaction further is Alex Wilkie’s remarkable exploration of sound and nature: his sound umbrella is triggered by falling rain and your walking movement. These rhythms and sounds are then amplified for the person under the umbrella. I like the sound of the rain myself, but this piece shows that this course is not just about mice and menus, it’s about a constant exploration of the symbiosis between the physical and the technological.

Industry has become increasingly involved with the CRD course at the RCA and there is no shortage of interest and support for the course. Students and tutors know there are many people in industry searching for the next interactive Golden Goose. They also know that the RCA is a good place to find it.

Automotive Design

The Automotive Show is a world class event. Everyone involved in car design is at the show and the car companies of the world are fed by this unique, but perhaps misunderstood course.

Car design is a very specific area of activity with its output the closest to industry. Students have the best chance of a job at the end of the course and we get a real chance to see the types of vehicles we will be driving in the future.

Our cars are the most advanced and purest form of design most of us experience. Cars are ultra modern and express personality and emotion in a coherent way. You could probably put a Sony badge on a number of modern TVs and be unable to tell that it was a different make, but put a Renault badge on a BMW, or a Ford badge on a Porsche and you’d know it was wrong. For all the success on the outside, most of us face a field of plastic on the inside with blanks where the buttons for features we can’t afford go, and none of the detail, care and tactile feedback we might get from a microwave or audio product in our homes. So do these students fit in the mould or break out of it?

This year graduates show less of the marker techniques and streamlined forms and more of a deeper consideration of what we drive, the emotions we look for and the very nature of transport. User interface, architecture, product design and virtual reality have an impact on the projects. Bregt Ectors’ Virtual Reality Vehicle turns the Alias software so many cars are designed on to the user’s benefit, developing a tool where both customer and designer can experience in detail driving a vehicle and make design choices in real time.

Justin Scully employs conventional drawing techniques, but uses architectural rather than conventional automotive themes to define the structure and space of a car with renderings that are so good they hurt, oozing material beauty and abstract emotional effect.

Clive Hartley’s award-winning work for Audi takes the theme of ultimate luxury in an austere and powerful direction with his series of concepts where you are driven rather than drive. Here automotive design becomes abstract sculpture, crafting visual metaphor and emotional messages. It’s a funny thing to do, car design, but it is our modern sculpture, the most beautiful output of our industrial culture, each one a personal statement.

For those who don’t drive, Peter Kukorelli moves the street itself, like a moving grandstand. This is not just a tram, it’s a radical concept for moving people in an urban cityscape that blends and enhances the environment.

In connecting with the real world, the automotive course will continue to drive the shapes of tomorrow’s cars, but also address wider issues of the environment and our crowded cities – things car designers don’t normally like to face up to.

Industrial Design Engineering

Cars, computers, chairs, buildings: are they so different? It might not seem obvious why Industrial Design Engineering is separated from Industrial Design. Strange or not, the IDE course has retained a distinctive character complementary to the softer and more philosophical explorations of the partner Industrial Design course. IDE attracts a more defined intake, mostly of mechanical designers who want to use their knowledge of material and mechanism in the context of a postgraduate arts course rather than an engineering environment. The results are always interesting and innovative.

Perhaps only Stanford University in California competes directly with this course. Consultancies like Foster Associates, Pentagram, and Dyson Appliances all take IDE students for their ability to be innovative in an engineering and manufacturing reality. Here the student models on show actually work, but the influence of user interaction from CRD and the explorations of object from ID is strong. Cross-fertilisation, whether accidental or intentional, must be one of the great opportunities of the RCA.

This year students have concerned themselves less with pure invention and more with improving the products that are already around us. Alasdair McPhail has unified TVs, PCs and hi-fi systems with a piece of combined technology that stands like a robotic manservant ready to supply our every technological need. The combination of radical, but functional thinking and mechanical mechanisms creates a completely new type of object with great power.

Products which physically protect and monitor health use new materials and electronics in Dan Plant’s body armour and Kursty Groves’ alarm bra. Normal everyday objects, public seating, bathrooms, tents, take on radical new forms through advanced materials and mechanisms, such Graham Hughes’ bike that you ride as if running. Art here is in the movement and action as much as the surface.

Industrial Design and Furniture

This is the first year of the combined Industrial Design and Furniture course that has come together under the professorship of Ron Arad. When looking for a product designer of suitable vision and fame who might be available to this course, the RCA looked to its own and the international reputation of existing Professor of Furniture Ron Arad to give new direction.

The RCA vision of product design has had a strong connection to furniture since Daniel Weil became professor in the early Nineties. For a number of years after Weil, the course worked without a high-profile professor and developed, noticeably through its work with Italian manufacturer Alessi, a passion for ritual and high quality materials.

In appointing Arad, the RCA is looking to revitalise the course and address the criticisms from some that students were designing trinkets for the wealthy rather than everyday products. As the students graduating this year had already studied a year before the course was combined, we will not know fully the results of the new direction for one or two years. But the RCA’s decision to combine product design and furniture is a brave decision and must have influenced this year’s students.

From what’s on show the students remain deeply concerned about meaning and metaphor in the object as artefact. They are mostly interested in shifting perceptions of what an object might be, how we can be engaged and challenged by the objects around us.

It’s clear that philosophical debate about the nature of the object is in progress. You can see it in the work of Andrew Woolnough, where what you buy is the means to make a product, not the product itself. His lemon squeezer is an ice mould, the formed ice is the lemon squeezer. Arash Kaynama’s hanging paper clips make new objects by changing scale, as do Rainer Spehl’s gigantic plastic coffee cups which become seats for the Tate Gallery, making vague, or subtle, (depending on your point of view) comments about the commercialism of the arts along the way.

The physical properties of materials are constantly redirected to give structure where you expect weakness, to make beautiful texture from crumple and damage, to redirect your expectation and engage you with the object. Lotta Vaananen uses the natural flexing of synthetic materials to create a simple peg that opens with great beauty. Andrea de Benedetto redefines with elegance the classic espresso- maker in ceramic, and Freddy Zappata, the overall winner of last years D&AD Student awards, makes something as simple as the kitchen tile an elegant and inventive storage solution for kitchen tools.

So furniture and product merge as objects of our living environment. Andy Law is one of the few to embrace technology in the home and links hi-fi and TV through a digital shag pile carpet. The impact of all the work is an energetic and explosive mix of materials and ideas about the meaning of objects and the messages they send to us, confusing or otherwise.

What you will not find here is the type of mass-produced technological product that crams our world. You will not find the road sweepers or toasters or fridges, computers or telephones or many other objects we have around us. This course is firmly centred in the European tradition of artefact-based, object-centred, furniture and architectural approach. In other parts of the world, notably the US, product design is centred on users and emotions, exploring how to give a wider, less technically specialist public audience access to services and technology.

This side of product design is not present in the RCA course and this raises questions of how balanced the course is and what students will be doing once they leave.

Treating technological products like computers with some wit and humanity has made the world respond to products like Apple Computer’s iMac. There are great opportunities in every sense for our product designers in the real world, so we must hope that the course will not just move towards furniture, but also to inventive interpretations of the new objects we will use and interact with. For animation and human interaction, look to the dancing sequinned walls in Computer-related Design, for pure sex and adoration of form look in Automotive. Industrial Design is a colourful, challenging, but static display of philosophies that only occasionally connects to the technical, environmental, social or emotional world.

The RCA Show remains an inspiration and a vision. The purpose of the RCA is to explore and provoke or, as a student commented: “What’s the point of going there?” We all need to ensure that in exchange for this opportunity to challenge and explore, the world is open and willing to take in the ideas and visions. Graduates then have the chance to engage and embrace the world when reality bites.

The Design, Communications and Humanities show is at Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 until 4 July

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