We need to be a whole lot more industrious

Just when you think you’re getting somewhere in making industry interested in design, something tells you just how much still remains to be done. That happened to me last week, judging the 1997 Daily Mail Ideal Home Awards of Excellence.

Though the shortlist featured a few bright ideas, there was little there that you’d really call design. Even the winner, a hand-held rubber wrench called the Boa Constrictor, is best described as a useful invention. The concept, developed by the New Zealand boat boys, is sound enough – a strip of industrial-strength rubber slots into a robust plastic handle and you tighten the strap around the jar lid, plumbing fitting or whatever you’re trying to unscrew. But while the look of the thing might be great for the DIY market, it could be better styled for use in the home. Then there’s the packaging, the horror of which almost defies description.

No doubt the Boa Constrictor will sell: a handy gadget for under a tenner should have few problems. But it is hardly a triumph for design.

The Boa Constrictor wasn’t the only Ideal Home product that had these shortfalls – in design industry terms. But that’s not going to stop them selling or doing a good job. Nor was it the only clever invention imported from overseas – a cat litter tray from California was an unlikely star, while another contender was a water-based domestic fire extinguisher from the US.

However much we believe that British is best, most notably in invention, we can’t ignore the competition from abroad, particularly with domestic gadgets. And however much we think design’s future lies with UK manufacturers, we’d be daft to ignore the rest.

Design’s official ambassadors could usefully target importers to get their products better styled before they go to market. It may not be product design at its purest, but there’d be good work in it for designers and better products in our homes. It might even encourage some erstwhile importers to produce their own, UK-designed goods.

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