The Exhibitionists

The Royal College of Art degree show is obviously an exercise in self-promotion for its graduates, but sometimes it’s hard for visitors to get beyond the visual. Liz Farelly explores a few of the projects in depth

The degree show season is upon us again, producing another generation of eager young hopefuls with the unnerving consistency of a conveyor belt. It’s a decade since I completed my BA and, as memory ebbs, my ability to identify with and understand the obsessions of graduates similarly wanes. With the highest of expectations, students stage their degree shows oblivious to the fact that the majority of design professionals cruising the galleries will be judging them en masse, attempting to define whether it’s “a good year”, probably more concerned about the reputation of their old colleges and the credibility of the teaching staff than about getting excited over particular pieces of work.

The problem with degree shows is that it’s all about showing off, pure and simple, and most visitors can make only superficial judgements about the projects and talents on display gleaned from minimal information. The overpowering size of the space and drama of the installation can work to the detriment of individual participants.

This year I’ve been treated to a preview of the Royal College of Art’s design and communication show by having a number of the students talk me through their projects. While I can’t make an overall value judgement on the show based on my partial viewing, I can say that the enthusiasm and positivity exhibited by the students – about the college and their experience of it – was unexpectedly refreshing.

The college is undergoing change. The rector Anthony Jones is departing at the end of this academic year and the current pro-rector Christopher Frayling will be taking over. Big names from the design world have come and gone – Nigel Coates in, Daniel Weil out – but the spirit of experimentation seems to be alive and thriving at the RCA.

Students on the industrial design and industrial design engineering courses have been exploring functional, playful and metaphorical dimensions of design, while the graphic designers have tackled a wide range of two- and three-dimensional, print, architectural, and time- based problems. A number of furniture designers addressed the problem of spacially challenged urban living with transforming products able to perform multiple tasks.

This is just a taster. I could have included projects from twice as many students, but in the space of one review I can’t do justice to the sheer volume of good stuff on offer. Judging from this privileged, sneak preview I’d recommend you visit the show. Take time to look closely and you’ll be rewarded by discovering a depth of thought and a level of innovation, commitment and sheer effort that is both satisfying and encouraging. As the RCA celebrates its centenary, the quality of this year’s crop bodes well for the future.

Royal College of Art Degree Show, part two. From 27 June to 7 July (closed 5 July). Open Monday to Friday 10am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 6pm at the Royal College of Art, Darwin Building, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU.

Graphic design graduate Akemi Takagi communicates punchy ideas with a witty set of postcards intended for the London Card Guide. She counteracts certain drawbacks of socialising in public with handy visual tools, speech bubbles for noisy bars, fake glasses for anonymity, an excuse watch for latecomers (pictured) and a stick-on smile for tired agony aunts trying to stifle their yawns

Furniture graduate Thomas Hall’s glass-top café table (pictured) folds flat, by way of bicycle levers, to hang on the wall as a picture frame. The top of his dining table sandwiches a number of hinged layers into a neat square but extends up to seat guests. And his sturdy ply chair uncurls to become a coffee table or bench

Graphic design graduate Marc Shillum investigated various editing processes through reconfiguring found documents, ranging from The Guardian and Vogue to facias above empty shops and the screen play of the film Breathless. His homage to Jean-Luc Godard involved asking The Herald Tribune to print a series of blank editions, retaining only the masthead. He then reprinted the screenplay increasing the pace and drama by degrees, mutating the facsimile through editing out punctuation, word spaces and finally text. Teamed with photocopies enlarged to abstraction, images become patterns of dots and the narrative is lost beneath the materiality of the medium

Furniture graduate Athanassios Babalis domesticates the ubiquitous florescence tube with his redesign of the standard lamp. Christened ‘Napoleon’ because of its upright manner, the tube becomes a glowing stem wrapped in white laminated card, topped by a variation on the traditional lampshade theme to create a familiar visual pun. For another project Babalis uses an existing structural form, a concertina frame made in aluminium, around which he stretched a viscose fabric to create an inventive, flexible room divider

Industrial design graduate Thomas Krause analysed the domestic dining scene and brought banished cooks back to a communal table-top cook-and-eat session. Enamel heating elements which change colour as the temperature increases, used in conjunction with plates and bowls made of wood, metal and ceramic, cook by induction on a rubber mat containing a copper coil. Krause has redefined the process of dining to improve the quality of a basic social situation

Graphic design graduate Kam Tang’s obsessional illustrations of stacked architectural and structural elements are eerie and convincing. Translated into three dimensions, these precarious and spiky forms could function as everyday objects such as hat stands and storage units. His experiments with printing strips in different three-colour combinations also reveal the overlooked variety hidden within the simplest forms and processes. Tang also creates a visual identity, capable of finite permutation, using a series of interlocking coloured shapes inspired by musical notation

Industrial design engineering student Sabine Frank has considered how to reduce water consumption in the bathroom. Her ‘greywater’ recycling system pumps used bath water into a UV-lit storage tank behind the toilet. The disinfected and aerated water can then be used for flushing

Architect students Robin Clark, Craig Riley and Tom Whitehead formed The London Architect Design Studio, or The LADS for short, and transformed a redundant office building into a multi-functional work and leisure centre for the growing league of office nomads. Their accompanying promo video features themselves and fellow student Janek Schaefer wheeling around town on office chairs tapping away on computer keyboards in a simulation of the freedom afforded by hot-desking

A site in Southwark close to the proposed Tate Gallery and Jubilee Line extension has been given a distinct treatment by architecture student Alex Ely. Misused spaces such as bomb sites, spoil pits and demolition sites were identified to make non-design interventions creating much- needed amenities in a densely populated but under-developed part of the city. A corner lot accommodates a football pitch, a swimming pool is inserted alongside a railway viaduct and an end-gable becomes a climbing wall

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