“Designers are always very good at responding to the world around them and, if anything, the world around us is probably defined by uncertainty,” says Aric Chen, this year’s curator. “Things that seemed clear in our minds are no longer so.” This questioning of what constitutes normal is dealt with in innovative ways, with many of the 87 nominees applying scientific discoveries to design disciplines.
For example, finding alternatives to plastic is a recurring theme. Atelier Luma in France explores the potential of algae as a replacement for non-biodegradable plastics, harvesting natural materials and then 3D printing them. One of the first things you come across at the show is Cannes Lions winner Trash Isles, right next to a plastic-free shopping aisle designed by London-based studio Made Thought
Continuing the trend of using nature to find new solutions, Studio Zoa create leather using collagen derived from yeast. And Strano Research Group and MIT have found a way to turn plants into nightlights, using the enzyme that gives fireflies their glow.
In the architecture category, Sustainable Construction and Block Group have made the MycoTree building from load-bearing mycelium, a root-like growing fungus. One cosmic idea, from Officina Corpuscoli, is to create a space boot that’s also made from mycelium. They’re working with human sweat to grow things that otherwise couldn’t be taken to Mars (should we ever get there).
Moving on to the digital section. In an interstellar nod to the Trash Isles, the European Space Agency takes on waste in space. Is it any surprise that we’ve moved on from polluting the earth to polluting its orbit? There are an estimated 166 million manmade micrometeoroids circling our planet. They range from 1 mm to 1 cm in size. And 1 cm is enough to damage the International Space Station, as we found out recently.
Another entry in the digital section is DROG’s Bad News, an online game that lets users create a fake news profile and then build a fake news empire. As the game goes on, you learn to identify the tactics used to dispel fake news. So hopefully, you get better at spotting what’s fake in the real world.
Some of the nominees explore identity and gender. Perhaps a little too obviously in the case of Burberry’s Rainbow Check, in support of LGBTQ+ activism. But the Dutch football team’s badge for the Lionesses was quite gracefully executed.
Bjarke Ingels, who designed the Serpentine pavilion in 2016, has a model on show for the Lego visitor centre. It recently opened in Billund, Denmark and it’s made from giant Lego bricks. Naturally. Another witty idea, responding to the more serious issue of rising rent costs, is a table by Paul Cocksedge. It’s part of his new series. After being evicted from his studio to make way for a new development, Cocksedge mined material from the floor to produce a fresh collection of furniture.
There are a few fascinating designs that explore the theme of unity. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics medal uses Hangul, the Korean alphabet, as the root of North and South Korea’s shared culture. Designer Sukwoo Lee extruded the letterforms across the surface to represent stems growing from seeds—suggesting continued growth in the sharing of culture across the border.
Bolder yet is the Aravrit typeface, created by Israeli designer Liron Lavi Turkenich. Designed to promote peace, this experimental writing system combines elements of Hebrew and Arabic scripts—resulting in text that’s understandable by readers of both languages. It builds a common ground for the two conflicting cultures.
Alice Black, director of the Design Museum, says the awards show “…once again that design is not just about shade and colour. It proves that design is about solutions to real world problems. It is also a show about optimism, when we need it ever so much.”
Only time will tell if this vast range of impressive design solutions make an impact. For the sake of our planet, let’s hope they do.