I recently visited the Design Museum in Southwark for the Design Awards of 2012 finalist exhibition. It vaguely reminded me of a cabinet of curiosities but not exactly due to the nature of its exhibits (a cabinet of curiosities is a collection of peculiar artefacts and fake stuffed animals that look as if they came out of a Jules Verne novel). The similarity was rather related to the visitors’ childlike fascination around the products on display and the general excitement in the room. It was also somehow similar to the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal palace where visitors came from all over the world to look at breakthrough inventions and objects brought from distant lands.
The diversity of the exhibits combined with the enthusiasm of the visitors got me thinking about what exactly it is to be a designer nowadays. Is the designer someone with knowledge of materials and structure, that solves problems in order to make certain functions easier? Or is he/she an inventor who is expected to dazzle people with gadgets that have not been thought of before? I do not believe that these two definitions are mutually exclusive. No one said that a designer cannot be a craftsman on the exterior and a contemporary homo universalis at heart.
Still, regardless of the fact that there is nothing wrong with the excitement that innovation evokes, I do object to some of the criteria according to which the jurors and curators chose the exhibits.
Design traditionally is about functionality and craft. Style and fashion have also been largely implicated into the concept of design, especially the last few decades. The fact that design-products are considered to be fashionable renders them quite marketable and more often than not their marketability is of most importance. Functionality and craft are often only sought after in order to make the product more fashionable which would of course increase its sales. Anyone who is involved in design professions knows that. Fashion wins over function and if they manage to go hand in hand, it is an unspoken law that ‘looks’ are somehow always more important. Even if no one admits it. This is an occupational hazard of all design profession and it cannot be avoided. However I was rather surprised after watching Ria Hawthorn’s (curator of Design Museum) being interviewed on bbc.co.uk (watch here) when she explained that this year’s award nominees where chosen along the axis of how humanitarian their entries were.
I admit that a few of the entries are truly humanitarian. For example the Butaro Hospital by MASS Design Group which offered a lot to its community before it was even built, by educating the inhabitants on building methods developed especially for their environment and materials.
Massoud Hassani‘s Mine Kafon is also in essence philanthropic as it was designed to locate landmines that cost the lives of many in ex-war zones.
However, the Xbox 360, Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, the Olympic flame torch, Alexander McQueen’s window display, Issey Miyake’s recyclable designer gowns and most other entries are definitely not humanitarian designs. Except if it is considered humanitarian to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a dress that that can be recycled if needed to. Being humanitarian, especially since poverty increases world wide by the minute, is being used as an advertising trick that increases marketability of a product and this is by definition disturbing.
Design Museum website here
Butaro Hospital info and photographs found here