How do you compare the design of a concrete and canvas emergency shelter to that of an iPad? Is it possible to rank a Lanvin dress against the Barclays Cycle Hire program that was introduced by the mayor of London? Although it may seem a challenge too fat, this is exactly what the Design Museum in London is attempting with its current exhibition, the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, which runs through Aug. 7. Now in its fourth year, the multidisciplinary award program encompasses designs from around the world, across seven categories: architecture, fashion, furniture, graphics, interactive, product and transport. About a dozen designs made it into each category, from which winners were announced today.
To make its selection, the museum invited a number of design insiders, from Paola Antonelli, the senior curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, to Will Hudson, the founder of the blog It’s Nice That, to put forward nominations. A jury then selected winners in each category as well as an overall Brit Insurance Design of the Year (to be announced on March 15). The architecture nominees include Thomas Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 and dramatic tape installations by the Croatian/Austrian collective Numen/For Use. The category winner is a well-considered, community-oriented open-air library in Magdeburg, Germany, by Karo Architekten.
The winner in the product category is the Plumen 001 low-energy light bulb, which beat out the ubiquitous iPad, Dyson’s blade-free fan and many others that can be seen in the exhibition. The other winners include Jil Sander for Uniqlo (fashion), Industrial Facility’s Branca chair (furniture), the “Homemade Is Best” cookbook, designed by Forsman and Bodenfors for Ikea (graphics), the Flipboard iPad app (interactive) and the Barclays Cycle Hire (transport).
While it is possible to argue over the winners as one would at the Oscars, it makes more sense to see them in the context of the wider long list of nominees at the exhibition, where one can more easily see design trends emerge. The objects in the exhibition are not separated into their categories, as one might expect, but around themes. So in “City,” a Lanvin dress from spring/summer 2011 stands proudly next to a Fiat 500 TwinAir. In “Home,” Nendo’s Thin Black Lines furniture is exhibited next to a model of MVRDV’s Balancing Barn. Design, as it is displayed here, encompasses a lot. The one product shown that has had the greatest impact over the past year is undoubtedly the iPad – and many iPad applications have also made it into the exhibition. That said, books are also well represented, by the likes of the Four Corners Familiar Series of classic novels reimagined by John Morgan Studio and collaborators. Dorian Gray never looked so good.
While there are gaps in the exhibition and some inclusions could be challenged, it is definitely better that an award like this one exists. If nothing else, it gets people asking questions about what design is, what good design is and how you go about judging it.