Uncertainty and Ambiguity


13 September 2018

Beazley Designs of the Year is a “funny kind of animal,” notes this year’s guest curator, Aric Chen of Hong Kong’s M+ Museum. Encompassing an exhibition, an award and a kind of annual review, it offers an insight into the design world’s most immediate concerns.

As ever, the scope of nominations for the 11th edition of Beazley Designs of the Year is so broad as to render the notion of meaningful comparison between exhibits largely redundant. A line of foundations that were launched by Rihanna and developed for a large range of skin tones and has been nominated for the exhibition’s Product award, and is up against a strain of biologically engineered glow-in-the-dark plants developed by the Strano Research Group. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is contesting the Transport award with, for instance, City Brain, a big data and cloud computing system that optimises traffic, as well as a lightweight bicycle for bike-sharing platform Mobike. Established brands G Star Raw and Nike compete against emerging designers Palomo Spain and Matty Bovan in the fashion category. The categories are rounded out by Digital, Graphic and Architecture, with an overall winner later chosen from amongst the total of 87 nominees.

Such an exhibition is inevitably straggly, but Chen has attempted to ameliorate this by grouping the entries under 12 topics in an effort to editorialise the different themes that emerged during the shortlisting process. “One of the threads that might be running through the show is uncertainty,” says Chen. “We’re living in a time where a lot of the things we took for granted – a lot of truths that we took for granted – are no longer as reliable and definitions aren’t as clear as they use to be, whether its the difference between the artificial and the natural, the real or the fake, gender fluidity, or the notion of the nation state, which is falling apart at the same time as it’s being reasserted[…] These designers are all really responding to that ambiguity in two different ways: you see projects that are resisting it, when it makes sense to do so, but also embracing it when it offers new opportunities in a constructive way.”

Chen’s approach of grouping the entires under current sociological themes follows last year’s exhibition, which was curated by Glenn Adamson. Widely critically acclaimed, Adamson’s iteration of the exhibition managed to walk the difficult tightrope of providing a showcase for a year’s worth of design projects, while also deftly anchoring those projects to the sociopolitical circumstances to which they responded. “I think there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t sit in conventional categories you would expect to see in a design museum in, for instance, the 1970s,” noted Adamson. “You know, it’s not about teapots and textiles, necessarily.”

With 25 more entries in the display than the previous year, topicality continues to be central within Chen’s version of the show. Environmental concerns, questions around identity (national and personal), access, and the concept of fake and real are noted throughout – as can be detected from the 12 exhibition topics: Resources; Biomaterials; Place; Decentralised; Community; Gender; Play; Supernormal; Nation States; Real/Fake; Future Visions; and Space. There seems to have been a shift in the Beazley Designs of the Year nominations: from an exhibition that once demonstrated and celebrated the past year in the design world, the display seems to be becoming one of design manifesting the past year.