There are few exhibitions where a cutting-edge iPad keyboard vies for space with examples of quirky couture, the redesigned Norwegian banknotes and a portable toilet facilitating better hygiene in areas without adequate plumbing. But that’s Designs of the Year, a contest over six categories that celebrates projects as much for their aesthetic quality and forward-thinking spirit as for their utility and ingenuity.
Featuring 76 projects in all, the now-annual competition for Designs of the Year is a veritable feast for the imagination; full of baffling, brilliant and bizarre creations and concepts. Judged this year by Anish Kapoor, it has been going for eight years and covers architectural, digital and graphics work, along with product design, transport ideas and, of course, fashion.
So the visitor is treated to a scattergun exhibition, where inspired uses of material, texture and cut, including a glorious Dynasty-esque leatherette ensemble matched with an oversized floppy hat (from the JW Anderson SS15 women’s catwalk show), share space with a stand showcasing the potential uses of data via an interactive map for the Refugee Project.
In part, it’s an homage to beauty and to the way that skilled design work can transform and transfix. You can peruse the imaginative, asymmetric textile work of Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back, or enjoy the minimalist designs of Riposte Magazine, a calculated experiment in attracting readers using graphics rather than eye-catching photography.
One entry is a series of illustrated blogs commissioned for the Kenzo website, with a different letter of the alphabet and a relevant area of fashion woven seamlessly into it. Another, a book designed by Irma Boom for Chanel, where the pages are embossed so that the images on them appear as ephemeral as scent itself, is a masterclass in conveying so much with so seemingly simple a concept.
Other parts of the exhibition applaud the power of design in advertising; a whimsical, fun campaign in France to encourage consumers not to discard misshapen fruit and vegetable depicts ‘deformed’ lemons and aubergines as things of beauty, challenging the viewer’s every expectation. A poster for an art exhibition in Chicago is a scratch card of a spade, encouraging people to dig beneath the surface only for a vibrant self-portrait to be revealed.
And given that this is on show in the Design Museum – founded by Sir Terence Conran – it is fitting that the competition celebrates pioneering product design and the revolutionary use of raw materials, from a confounding chair based on the anatomy of a dragonfly so that all legs are at the front and the seat appears unsupported, to a table that is in reality a solar panel powering whatever is plugged into a USB slot at its side.
There is something for everybody; an exploration of Google’s self-driving car, several examples of forward-thinking and appealing architecture. You’re struck by how innovative the designs are; such as House for Trees – buildings constructed with foliage built into their rooftops – a southeast Asian solution to the problem of declining urban greenery. Some of the simplest designs are the most mesmerising; Endgrain, a new way of permanently dyeing wooden furniture from Tel Aviv-based duo Yael Mer and Shay Alkaly, perfectly unites vibrant colour with organic material.
The combination of the six distinct design categories makes for an unusual exhibition, but also one that is constantly challenging and thought-provoking.
Designs of the Year, The Design Museum, until 23rd August. Tickets, £13