OPINION

A Better Shelter

London

27 January 2017

At London’s Design Museum, the Better Shelter – a packable temporary home for refugees – has been announced as Design of the Year, beating a 70-strong shortlist and five other category winners.

Designed in Sweden by a team working with the Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the shelter aims to provide clean and secure accommodation for those displaced by conflict or environmental disasters. By borrowing the flat-pack mode of assembly from Ikea furniture, it is easy to transport, erect and disassemble. Within, a photovoltaic wall generates enough electricity to power the provided light or charge a phone.

That the Better Shelter – which recently forms the centrepiece of Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – is a worthy winner should not be in doubt: it has almost certainly had a more beneficial effect in the world than the other 69 shortlisted items combined. It is interesting that its jury citation comes from Jana Scholze, an academic and curator, as its victory chimes with the rise within curational thought of rapid response collecting, in which items are acquired because of their relevance to contemporary events.

More interesting, though, is the Better Shelter’s lack of concession to aesthetic concerns. When the nominees were announced this August, Disegno noted the dominance of a new type of functionalism, predicated not on aesthetic astringency but rather the improvements to quality of life the design gives. Form doesn’t so much follow function as become incidental to it. Better Shelter’s victory seems to bear this out. Every single aspect, from the panel-based construction to the sustainable energy source, is wired to help the shelter best achieve its purpose.

Projects that could be broadly categorised as social design have won the prize before. 2015’s Human Organs-on-Chips, for instance, was a Harvard-based research project that sought to create micro-devices that can replicate the attributes of organic tissue. This year, with the exception of the Product category winner Space Cup – an ingenious container that tackles the contentious dilemma of drinking espresso while in space – each of the awarded items posits some level of improvement. Open Surgery, from the Technology category, posits that complete basic medical operations can take place inside the home. Fashion vs. Children, which takes the medium of film, shows eight-year old Madrileños reacting to the depictions of models in fashion adverts. Better Shelter differs from all these speculative projects in that it has already been implemented. 30,000 Better Shelters are currently in use around the world, and the social enterprise of the same name hopes to continue refining them.

Each of these projects is a far cry from the sort of thing once associated with the Design Museum. When Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley opened the Boilerhouse in 1982, they envisaged a design focused around products and furniture, a focus that continued at the Design Museum through the 90s. During the directorship of Alice Rawsthorn from 2001-06, this idea broadened out into other forms like technology, graphics and flower arranging; under Deyan Sudjic in the past decade, the emphasis has shifted to a more holistic view of design. Last year, the Design of the Year competition quietly dropped Furniture as an award category, an acknowledgement of this continuing shift.

When the Design Museum moved into the former Commonwealth Institute last year, it instantly gained a vastly increased space, a more prominent location and the facilities befitting a major institution. What did not come with the lease was a pre-existing audience to support this greater capacity, nor the guarantee that the museum will acquire the reputation to elevate it into a first-rank player in London's cultural landscape. By focusing on socially-motivated design – as Fear and Love and New Old, the institution’s first two thematic exhibitions, do – the museum both makes a claim for to-the-minute relevance and makes itself more attractive to a wider swath of visitors. Awarding an innovative plug or light bulb, to take the Designs of the Year winners from 2010 and 2011, gives the impression of an inward-looking discipline. Awarding a refugee shelter, at a time when population displacement is one of the dominant news stories, should reach out beyond typical design audiences. As well as the right winner for the world, the Better Shelter is the right winner for the Design Museum.