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Architecture and Design

Asian innovation to the fore in show of year’s best designs

An astronaut’s boot grown from fungus and human sweat, urban micro parks, earthquake-resistant homes – the Design Museum of London highlights the best new innovations, many from Asia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 7:03pm

David Bowie’s space boot? What else could it be?

This was, after all, the final frontier: the last room in the Design Museum of London accommodating the “Beazley Designs of the Year 2018” exhibition. And the undoubted star of this section was a boot, created with Mars in mind; and rather than being manufactured, it was grown. From fungus. And human sweat.

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“How does that sound?” asks design critic and guest curator Aric Chen, eyebrow raised, as he conducts an individual tour. “Here the designers [OurOwnSkin, with Officina Corpuscoli] are exploring the boundless possibilities of mushrooms and how we might grow what’s needed on a long journey to Mars … just by being gross.”

The idea underpinning the “Growing a MarsBoot” project is that if any of humanity’s much mooted missions to Mars were launched, room for essential supplies would be extremely limited. Enter mycelium – which also stars elsewhere in the exhibition as a load-bearing building block – the vegetative part of a fungus that develops tough, branchlike networks. The same method used to grow a MarsBoot could allow astronauts to produce all manner of provisions from only a few original spores.

All the exhibits are competing for prizes, and there’s much more to the 11th iteration of the Beazley awards than just mushrooms, magic or otherwise. They have been nominated, Chen says, by “invited editors, curators, journalists, critics, designers and manufacturers – meaning design experts – from around the world”.

“In consultation with the museum, I whittled down the hundreds of entrants to 87; the six judges will choose the winner in each category, plus an overall winner, to be announced on November 15. There’s no cash prize – just a trophy and oodles of recognition,” he says. The categories are graphics, digital, fashion, architecture, product, and transport.

Chen, a Chicago native of Taiwanese descent, is a co-founder of Hong Kong’s visual culture museum M+, opening in West Kowloon in 2020. He recently left his position as lead curator to become the M+ curator-at-large, which allows him to tackle outside projects.

“The Design Museum started inviting guest curators last year,” he says. “So I’m the second. And M+ had no problem with it.”

What criteria does he use to select items for such an exhibition. “It’s the same as whenever I was asked about criteria for collecting for M+,” says Chen. “Does it – whatever it is – do what it was meant to do, and does it do it well?”

Curiously, Beazley items are not presented by category – meaning, for example, an office building in the architecture category appears next to a robot companion dog from the digital category (Sony’s rebooted Aibo). Nevertheless, one conspicuous theme, particularly in architecture, is Asian ingenuity.

The exhibition features some of the most promising and interesting designs of the last year, but we’ve also tried to show how designers are responding to uncertainty, acknowledging that we live in an increasingly uncertain world
Aric Chen, guest curator

For a rebuilt village in an earthquake zone, or a reading room inspired by ice-cream, or an office complex that resembles water reaching for the sky – or rocks protruding from the ground, depending on your vantage point – look east.

Prominent too among Asian nominations is the Hong Kong project “Small is Meaningful”, from the Design Trust Futures Studio. Four teams from the public and private sectors confronted the crippling lack of Hong Kong community space by repurposing the hardware – a skip, the back of a truck and portable furniture – required to realise a series of micro parks.

China hosts a range of Beazley-worthy projects. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake left almost 90,000 people dead or missing, according to official figures, and inflicted profound socio-economic losses on an extensive area. Entire mountain settlements were destroyed, among them Jintai Village – which became the focus of an initiative to rebuild such disaster-hit outposts.

“The reconstruction was by architectural studio Rural Urban Framework, based at Hong Kong University, where both partners teach,” says Chen. “They’ve helped rebuild the village in as resilient and self-sufficient a way as possible: the houses and community centre use concrete frames with locally sourced brick infill and residents now grow food on their roofs, on which they also collect water.”

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Community consultation was essential in Jintai, as it was in Beijing, which has seen some unlikely public areas emerge under the auspices of the Digua Community social design outfit. “As the public realm becomes increasingly privatised and shrinks, we’re seeing grass roots efforts to reclaim unexpected spaces,” says Chen.

“Beijing architect and Digua founder Zhou Zishu, working with residents and the local government, is turning abandoned, Mao-era bomb shelters into community settings, to make a library, a gallery, a children’s play area or an exhibition space. These are the sort of places you used to see on underground Beijing tours.”

Decidedly above the Beijing ground and thrusting skywards are the 10 buildings of the Chaoyang Park Plaza retail-office development. MAD Architects’ wondrous liquid rock vision, reveals Chen, “was inspired by brush-and-ink landscape painting. The buildings’ highest ribs stimulate airflow and a pond below helps cool the interiors”.

A literal landscape inspired the Fuyang Cultural Complex near Hangzhou. Comprising a history museum, archive and gallery, the building supports an undulating, wavelike roof that mirrors the rise and fall of distant hills. And in hills farther afield – the Himalayan foothills – can be found the Ganga Maki Textile Studio.

Run by Japanese designer Chiaki Maki, a courtyard is flanked by weaving and dyeing workshops built by Indian craftsmen from local materials, including stone, brick, lime and bamboo.

And when life gives you ice-cream, what do you make? A library, obviously. Using the materials they had to hand – thousands of plastic ice-cream buckets – designers Shau Bandung created a micro-library in Taman Bima, Indonesia, to target the country’s illiteracy problem. The tubs are fixed to a steel frame and provide ventilation and light, and rebuff rain. They are arranged to spell out a subtle, pro-reading message and will appear around the country.

Tenuous but logical connections between seemingly unrelated Beazley exhibits emerge. Pop star Rihanna’s affordable make-up range, Fenty Beauty (bearing her surname), uses easily recycled glass bottles, not plastic.

Elsewhere, the plastic-free supermarket aisle created by Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza is exactly as advertised, offering goods exclusively in biodegradable or recyclable metal, cardboard or glass packaging.

The Plastic Oceans Foundation’s “Trash Isles” campaign aims to have the giant “Pacific Ocean garbage patch” declared an independent country. The foundation has created Trash Isles passports, stamps and currency to publicise efforts to enforce an international clean-up.

“Some exhibits are practical and functional, some conceptual and speculative,” says Chen. “It has to do with the intention behind the design. The exhibition features some of the most promising and interesting designs of the last year, but we’ve also tried to show how designers are responding to uncertainty, acknowledging that we live in an increasingly uncertain world.

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“What was taken for granted, like hard truth, can’t be any more, whether it’s real versus fake or notions of gender, as in the Palomo unisex fashion line. Even the concept of the nation state is being contested. We show how designers are either resisting uncertainty when it makes sense to, or embracing it when they need to.”

In the resistance are the Bad News online game, which teaches players to create fake news as a way to better prepare them to spot it on the internet, and the Mexican crowdsourced platform for disseminating public information in emergencies. That was set up after an earthquake last year because the designers, journalists and activists behind it didn’t trust what the government was telling them.

“Designers embracing uncertainty could be those changing their responses to a world that’s shifting politically and environmentally. Those speculating about a world in which plastic and other waste products are the new raw materials. And one in which garbage forms a new country in the ocean,” says Chen.

Beazley Designs of the Year 2018 is at the Design Museum, Holland Park, London, until Jan 6, 2019 (designmuseum.org)