The 2014 Graduate Shows Review: Design


9 July 2014

Earlier this summer Disegno commissioned Héloïse Parke, curator of London's The Aram Gallery, to examine the output of the UK's 2014 graduate design shows. The Aram Gallery has a fine tradition as talent scout, proving an early platform for now established designers such as Konstantin Grcic, Thomas Heatherwick and Sebastian Bergne. Parke's report on the graduates of 2014 follows below.

Iona Caitlin Lewis' Keratin garments

Also taking inspiration from the body was another Bath Spa graduate Iona Caitlin Lewis, who studied textile design. Lewis used detailed photography to document skin, hair and nails, with the images then digitally reworked and printed on silk garments. The effect is both alien and familiar.

Alice Holmes' Anthropomorphism project

Alice Holmes turned heads with her display of basically non-functional chairs. A 3D design student at Bath Spa, her Anthropomorphism project began with an involved questionnaire and an IKEA dining chair. As visitors responded to each question, the IKEA chair was altered, with each design modification connected to a personality trait. Contrary to more conventional customisation models there was no refinement here. Holmes states that the idea is not to design more stuff but to offer a design experience where the user is both responsible for and represented by the outcome.

Charles Parford Plant's Re-Writable casing for electronic consumer goods

Also designing objects with the potential for alterations at the core was Charles Parford Plant a graduate of Kingston University’s BA in Product and Furniture tutored by Jon Harrison. Parford Plant intelligently designed casings for electronic consumer goods, which comfortably housed the internal workings. Using no fiddly screws nor a jigsaw of parts, this bespoke bodywork is held together by elastic bands.

Tino Seubert's Regalvanize sunglasses

Perhaps the safest of the material explorers was Tino Seubert a graduate of the Royal College of Art's Design Products MA. Seubert played with the aesthetic qualities of a lacquering process on the surface of galvanised steel. By developing a solution to apply to the raw material Seubert revealed the hidden details in this reliable and often used material. One of the invented substances most important properties being that it does not having any damaging effect on the steel's functionality. As proof, Seubert showed prototypes of a pendant lamp, shelves and sunglasses.

Whilst these material experimenters went full circle in their design and of process and object, another group of graduates were more democratic in their approach, designing participatory or customisable objects with aplomb.

Hannah Blows' Kink typeface

Further south at the University of Brighton graphic designer Hannah Blows successfully designed a typeface for her school graduation show. Called Kink, the typeface achieves a brilliant balance between serious graphic design fit for purpose and experimental typography held together with all the energy of a fresh graduate. Kinks’ first real world test was its use around the University of Brighton as it was incorporated into wayfinding. The strength in Blows’ design was evident from the get go, with the distinct, quirky lettering standing out amongst the hustle of a lively campus.

Kirsi Enkovaara’s The Body

Whereas Blows’ typeface lent itself to a series of varied outputs, other designs in this category responded well to diverse inputs. Back at the Royal College of Art Kirsi Enkovaara’s aptly named The Body aimed to encourage users to free themselves from the conventions of seated experiences.2 A 6m-long fabric tube is filled with rice and stitched closed. The resulting shape is a cross between a mattress and an elastic band, requiring a certain amount of strength by a hopeful sitter to create cocooning contours on which to rest. Judging by the accompanying video Enkovaara wants to promote this piece as fully customisable, its sometimes unpredictable unravelling only adding to her "find your own way” philosophy.

Silver spikes developed by Sofia Winberg

The last of these audience participatory designs is that of Sofia Winberg, graduating in Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery under Hans Stofer at the Royal Collage of Art. Winberg made a series of rings in robust metal and fragile porcelain. Exploiting the inherent properties of each to maximum effect, a metal spike is concealed within a ceramic orb. When threatened, one smashes the orb against a hard surface to reveal a protective spear.

While not a wholly original idea, it is interesting to roundup this group with someone who is able to detach themselves from their finished object, launching it into the world where damage will almost certainly occur and is perhaps even welcomed. Winberg says her motivation is to design objects which arm a wearer for an investigative journey into the unknown. That on smashing the porcelain shell a pointy spike is revealed, suggests Winberg sees exploratory wanderings as risky business.

Whilst the bulk of graduation shows are about showing off new designs, ideas and methodologies, it is always a delight to see creative minds offering commentary on the way we already live and use our existing design objects.

Throughout the summer months up and down the country young designers put the finishing touches to their websites, print the smartest of business cards and put fresh laces in their Nikes all in preparation for the visual highlight of their years of study; their graduation show.

A college graduation show provides students with a one off opportunity to show their new pieces to a mixed audience, to show how their designs function and to make all important connections with industry. For us, their audience, it’s a chance to see student responses to gaps in the design market, exciting approaches to creative problem solving and fresh off the workbench prototypes.

In recent years there has been a reallocation of interests from the design of new "stuff" in favour of designing tools1 for user experiences and material experimentation. This inclination prevailed in 2014 with a number of students concocting material hybrids, combining the properties and therefore capabilities of one with the aesthetic qualities of another. In some cases this was successful, in others less so, with some of the less successful examples leaving one wondering whether if more time had been spent designing rather than inventing, a stronger more relevant finished object would have resulted.

What follows are a few examples of movements in design thinking by the latest cohort of new graduates.

Joe Bradford's PE vessels

New Materials

At Bath Spa, Joe Bradford did a popular double whammy – inventing process (an adaption of slip casting using chipped recycled plastic) and object (a series of vessels and stools). His PE vessels, so called after their material composition polyethylene, were a highlight of Bath Spa’s BA 3D Design: Idea Material Object, a course led by Shai Akram. In his use of recycled plastic bags and chosen process Bradford had little control over the form and allocation of coloured chips in his vessels. The result is a series of objects that slumped during making, instantly softening what might otherwise be a rather average form. Using his ceramics background and a familiar process, Bradford exhibited tight control over the unpredictable fluidity of an urn of molten plastic.

Wael Seaiby's PLAG vessels

Further north Wael Seaiby of Edinburgh College of Art also had fun with plastic. His vessels, called PLAG, were moulded from powdered recycled plastic bags. The tiny particles of his raw material and a controlled mould ensure his objects ended up looking as polished, in form and texture, as blown glass. Both plastic fans chose a curious palette of greens, reds and blues, with a penchant for horizontal stripes.

Gigi Barker's A Body of Skin project

Back in London at Central St Martin’s, Gigi Barker a graduate of the always thought-provoking MA in Design: Furniture, Ceramics, Jewellery headed up by Simon Fraser, took material experimentation to a new level. Casting silicon and moulding leather (in her bath tub no less) she produced a collection of globular anatomical bottom-pleasing lumps whose appearance, texture and absorbency was not dissimilar to that of a distended stomach. It is no surprise Barker cites Ron Mueck and Jenny Saville amongst her sources of inspiration.

A still from Daryl Rainbow's animation How Smart Phones Have Improved Our Lives With Conversation

Daryl Rainbow BA Illustration graduate tutored by Rachel Gannon at Camberwell College of Art, was humorously accurate in his observational animation How Smart Phones Have Improved Our Lives With Conversation. In just a few short frames Rainbow showed not only his ability to document how we use design, but also his aptitude for polite satire. His achievement showed him to be one of the most perceptive and talented graduates of 2014.

The variety in these examples is indicative of the dynamic climate of contemporary design. While it’s always tricky to label a designer as being entirely modest, the designers mentioned in this piece showed an acknowledgement of the consumer and an awareness of the environment into which their new designs will sit. Looking back on previous years graduates, this is a welcome shift away from inward-looking design with personality, towards outward-looking design with purpose.

This year had its fair share of designs playing to the current trends of industrial craft chic, with oiled wood and touches of fluoro paint peppering the monster graduate shows. But these weren’t the pieces that stood out. Objects which were consciously designed, which evidenced experimental thinking and for which intelligent problem solving was the main source of inspiration, were the design highlights of 2014.