Red Dot Award winners' show is proof good design can make life easier
Exhibition shows that the best designs can make everyday life more beautiful and simple
It's small, but it's still significant. In the often wacky world of design, a little coloured globe can denote the difference between a transparent gimmick and a thoughtful contribution to modern life.
That's because, since 1992, a Red Dot Award has been a globally recognised hallmark of good design. In 1954, the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany, a major European institution in design promotion, began acting as a go-between for designers, industry and business.
The following year a jury was assembled to evaluate the most promising product designs and award honours, after which the inaugural exhibition of Elegant Industrial Products was held at Villa Hügel in Essen.
In 1992, Design Zentrum president Peter Zec took what had been considered a largely German competition international, expanding the concept still further in 2000 by creating new award categories to reflect a growing diversity of products and participants.
Since 1997, all Red Dot winning designs have been presented at the organisation's permanent home at the former Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen.
Today, Design Zentrum and the Red Dot Design Museum headquarters occupy what was the shaft 12 boiler house. Bauhaus in origin, and remodelled by Norman Foster, it's now a Unesco world heritage site.
The Red Dot Design Museum hosts the world's largest exhibition of items of contemporary design. All 1,000 of them, from around the globe, are Red Dot winners.
Such is the growing importance of Asia to the organisation's quality assurance standard, that Singapore and Taipei have their own Red Dot museums. Singapore's was established in 2005, and Taipei's in 2013.
Which brings us to Tseung Kwan O and the Hong Kong Design Institute's latest collaboration with Essen, "Every Product Tells a Story - Untold Matters of Red Dot award-winning designs".
"This is the third time we've worked with the Red Dot Design Museum," says Queenie Lau, the institute's curator, external affairs office, "and we'd like to make such partnerships a regular thing. We want to build long-term relationships with design organisations and museums."
That ambition translates into an exhibition of domestic, industrial and medical inventions that have recently made the Red Dot grade.
Oddly for a show that values aesthetics as well as function, one of its stars is potentially its most disconcerting, at least when glimpsed across a gallery full of products trying their utmost to show a friendly face.
The LBR iiwa lightweight robot is a disembodied arm that looks like a refugee from an alien spacecraft, or an outtake from an early 20th-century Futurist sculpture. It's also a muscular beast, with the meaty aspect of a Greek marble statue, which must come in handy in its line of work.
"This is a car factory robot, used on assembly lines," says Lau, "which means workers don't suffer from repetitive strain injury caused by monotonous, repeated tasks."
But there's more: iiwa stands for "intelligent industrial work assistant".
It's a tag that also suits a machine capable of precise manoeuvres executed with the type of flowing movements described by human limbs - rather than, say, the twitchy motions of C-3PO in Star Wars.
As Zec explains in the exhibition's eponymous book: "Smart functions and technologies combine in a shape inspired by the human body. Thanks to sensitive sensors the robot can react quickly to its environment - it is able to 'feel' its way towards objects, avoid obstacles and withdraw when gently pushed away by a human worker to interrupt its work."
Arnold Schwarzenegger would no doubt fall also for the charms of the Hilti TE 70 combihammer. Imagine an electric drill on steroids crossed with the prodigious issue of a hand-held grenade launcher that had taken up weightlifting and you'd be halfway there.
But although it may look like a brawny brute, the TE 70 is a perfectly balanced machine that's deft in its operation - even though that consists of hammer-drilling and chiselling concrete and stone. Here, strenuousness, tedium and bad vibrations fall victim to refined ergonomics.
Naturally, the exhibition's 21 selected products encompass much more than obvious boys' toys. Take Lau's favourite, the Stockholm II aluminium folding stool.
"The average time spent by a viewer at an exhibit in a museum is 11 seconds. But I like to sit and appreciate a work and not be distracted by tiredness," she says.
"This stool weighs only 1.5kg, making it easy to carry, and you can find it in museums all over the world. The designer thought through the viewer's experience and realised that galleries and museums are places for contemplation."
Lau is also proud of the X Mark II pocket calculator, designed by Hong Kong Design Institute alumni Chak Yun-hei and Rex Hung Hoi.
"Minimalism and elegance are characteristics of the X Mark II. It reveals a careful study of form and uses recycled materials and solar power," she says.
Adds Zec: "Calculators force people to move away from other screens and focus when using them."
The tactile appeal of the X Mark II, he says, suggests a certain solidity and reliability in this most unexpected of status symbols.
The exhibition celebrates those products that make the home more welcoming, ecologically sound, and even safer. Philips' 55-inch DesignLine LED TV is a svelte, stripped back, single glass panel that can be propped against a wall and fool you into thinking it is wholly innocuous - until it projects images from three of its sides, making the screen seem enormous.
The padded Lucky chair, which is a design based on a smiling human face, puts you in a good mood before you even sit on it, and the Nest stewpot, designed to do its job while sitting atop what looks like a bird's nest of metal twigs, was created with the aim of bringing people together to eat.
Philippe Starck's Axor Starck Organic bathroom tap functions on a flow rate of only 3.5 litres of water a minute - half the usual figure. It requires 33 per cent less brass to manufacture than a conventional tap, and looks like an ingeniously sculpted tree branch.
There's even a simple shield with an N-shaped cut-out to place over the arms of patients who are terrified of hypodermic needles. Good design, the exhibition suggests, is for everyone.
That includes mentally disabled people, who, in sheltered workshops in Hong Kong, manufacture the Can-Watch and matching shoulder bags, designed by Alchemist Creations and upcycled from drinks cans and leather scraps.
If you're socially inclusive and ecologically responsible, even time is on your side.
"Every Product Tells a Story - Untold Matters of Red Dot award-winning designs", HKDI Gallery, 3 King Ling Rd, Tseung Kwan O, free. Tel: 3928 2566. Ends May 31