Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards: Designs for life

It's light but flexible, non-magnetic and just right for that fin de siecle look. Jessica Cargill Thompson on the `wonder metal' of design

Aluminium has become to the Nineties what polyurethane foam and injection-moulded plastics were to the Sixties. Just as developments in plastics technologies in the Fifties and Sixties allowed Verner Panton, Joe Colombo and other seminal designers of the decade to create sculptural pieces that have come to represent the excitement of the era, so aluminium has been crucial to the emergence of a more restrained elegance favoured at the end of the century.

Aluminium has been instrumental in creating the fin de siecle look, be it the minimalist aesthetic of Belgian designer Maarten van Severen, the anthropomorphic furniture of Philippe Starck, or the high-tech tables around which so many dinner parties and production meetings are held. It has also created the century's most ubiquitous and revolutionary piece of product design, the "tin" can: simple, functional, taken for granted by the shopper, and ironically plagiarised by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Aluminium has been called "the wonder metal" for its impressive list of properties: it is lightweight, corrosion-resistant and non-magnetic; it has good conductivity and high reflectivity; it is malleable, cryogenic (the colder it gets, the stronger it gets) and 100 per cent recyclable. But what really appeals to the mind of the designer is its versatility.

It can be cast to create sculptural forms such as the Philippe Starck Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, or the tactile door handles of the FSB range; rolled into sheets for shelves such as Dieter Rams's 606 system for Vitsoe; or pressed with patterns for rigidity and decor, as in Rodney Kinsman's quilted Trax seating for OMK.

There are just as many possibilities for finishing the surface. For example, it can be left bare to display its natural silvery-white tones, as van Severen does. The surface can also be anodised, then lacquered for a chrome- like finish, popular in Seventies-style lamps. Alternatively, if brushed with wire, it can create a rough, industrial feel, as used in Winfried Schauer's "Anywhere" up-and-down-lighters, designed last year for Aero.

"The beauty of aluminium is its formability," says furniture designer Rodney Kinsman of OMK. "There's nothing that replicates what extruded aluminium can do. It has enormous potential. To me it's a very sculptural material. It allows great freedom, design-wise."

While steel involves pressings, fabrications and foldings to manipulate it into a desired shape, aluminium can be melted down and extruded through a die or cast in a mould. From fresh food to air travel, aluminium has come to symbolise modernity and convenience, themselves by-words for 21st- century living.

Lean bar, by LUL's Jubilee Line Extension Project Team

A NEW lean bar, designed by the JLE project team, and made of grey powder-coated extruded aluminium bolted to the station wall, has been approved by the London Transport disability unit, as it takes into account people of impaired mobility, who find it hard to get up from low seats. The lean bar, along with a new escalator safety barrier called the Newel Box, also designed by the JLE Project team, received a commendation at the 1999 Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards.

The Boeing 777

THE BOEING 777 is considered the most advanced airliner ever built and is the largest twin-engine plane ever to fly.

As with all modern commercial jets, the 777 takes advantage of two key properties of aluminium: its lightness and the fact that it gets stronger at low temperatures, ideal for cruising at a speed of Mach 0.84 above the clouds at temperatures well below zero.

Toledo chair, by Jorge Pensi for Amat-3

BARCELONA-BASED designer Jorge Pensi's Toledo chair, designed in 1988, has been used ubiquitously throughout Western cafe society. Manufactured by Barcelona's Amat-3, it won numerous awards and is currently included in the collections of several of the world's leading design museums.

Manufactured in polished anodised cast and tube aluminium, like any cafe chair it is light and stackable, perfect for the loose arrangement of the pavement cafe. Available pounds 395 from Coexistence, 0171-354 8817

Door knob, by Jasper Morrison for FSB

THE FSB "name designs" range of door handles features pieces by the cream of Europe's design talent. Most tactile are those by Britain's leading product designer, Jasper Morrison. For his knob handle, he has borrowed the form of a light bulb, creating a spherical bulb that feels smooth and solid.

Available from Allgood, tel 0171-387 9951

Large Kast cabinets, by Maarten van Severen

BELGIAN DESIGNER Maarten van Severen has turned his architectural training to the production of stark, minimalist furniture which he makes by hand in his atelier in Ghent.

Van Severen's "Large Kast" aluminium cabinet, designed in 1997, is pared down to its essential form. A long, low box, it is as much a piece of art as a functional object. Rather than anodising or polishing the surface, van Severen leaves it bare and lovingly buffs it with wax resulting in a soft matt finish. No wonder even the shortest cabinet costs pounds 4,147.

Available from Viaduct, tel 0171-278 8456

Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, by Philippe Stark for Alessi

ITALIAN MANUFACTURER Alessi brought architecture onto the kitchen counter, commissioning star names such as Michael Graves, Ettore Sottsass, and Aldo Rossi to create homewares that are both functional and exciting.

Philippe Starck's Juicy Salif lemon squeezer was designed in 1990 and was snapped up as an affordable icon by a new style-conscious generation eager to buy into the designer lifestyle. The tripod concept is a complete digression from standard juicers, which is why it is probably still one of the designer's best-known pieces.

Casting the squeezer in aluminium has allowed it to be mass-produced, making it a staple of any self-respecting design store, where it retails for around pounds 30.

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