Design: Any old iron - and tape, lino, projectors ...

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The Independent Culture
Stealing Beauty

Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

If there is a thoughtful look on the faces of visitors to the Institute of Contemporary Arts's show of new British design, it may have something to do with the reading habits of the platonic ICA punter. One can only guess at such things, of course, but it seems a fair bet to assume that circles representing the subset "A" of habitual ICA visitors and the subset "B" of readers of such design journals as Wallpaper* and Blueprint would overlap almost exactly. All of which must make the underlying premise of "" - that design, as it has come to be peddled in the pages of magazines like Blueprint and Wallpaper*, is a tawdry and facile thing - faintly troubling for the cool twentysomethings who inhabit the ICA's bar and bookshop, and, occasionally, its exhibition spaces.

For a quick look at what "" is about, start with the floor in the ICA's lower gallery. One part of this, by the RCA-trained designer Georg Baldele, is covered in a red rubberised material which has been intentionally worn through in places, as if by footsteps, to expose an underlying layer of blue. The point of this, apparently, is that design in Baldele's hands ceases to be the aspirational thing sold in expensive magazines and becomes instead a process in which the buyer takes part - "personal history embedded in the floor," in the words of the show's catalogue. Since the rationale of this floor is that you should never have to buy a new one - ageing being precisely what its aesthetic is about - you may also choose to see the whole thing as a subversion of the aspirational design market: political lino, if you like.

Dangling above this piece of anti-capitalist intrigue are coats by designer Kenneth MacKenzie, aka 6876. (MacKenzie's alias conflates the dates of those long-lost summers of student revolt and the birth of punk.) Subversion in this case takes the form of seams, which appear halfway up the sleeves of 6876's coats to announce the fact that the lining inside them also only goes halfway up. The traditions of British tailoring demand the disguise of the inner workings of clothes, but MacKenzie's jackets subvert the trade through self-revelation: stitched sleeves may seem a touch on the minor side as far as political statements go, but then you have to work with what you are given.

In the ICA's upper galleries, meanwhile, there are installations by a design group called the Light Surgeons (who use tape rescued from rubbish bins and junked Super-8 projectors to create light-shows of the kind used in clubs), a porcelain bench by muf, the all-woman architectural collective, and curious pieces of wooden furniture by Michael Anastassiades et al which conflate the hybrid English taste for drawing rooms and gardens by sprouting cucumbers from their drawers.

If the catalogue to "" is to be believed, then there is some kind of uniformity of voice to be heard in all of this. Roughly speaking, the idea seems to be that designers in New Labour, post-industrial, post- monetarist, Blairite (delete as applicable) Britain have rejected the aspirational mores of Eighties lifestyle magazines in favour of something more tinged with the realities of life as it is lived - according to the catalogue again - in Dalston High Street. The importance is not the finished product, but the process of its making. Rather than denying the role of production in design, the practitioners in "" make a cult of it; rather than finding value in the rare or expensive, they find it in materials which are cheap or, if at all possible, free. (The theft in the exhibition's title alludes to the exhibitors' penchant for liberating their materials from skips. It is an aesthetic which would seem to have caught on, a number of the exhibits in "" having been stolen by an enthusiastic public.)

Readers older than the average ICA habitue may find a faint whiff of the passe in all of this. What might, in other circumstances, be called "grunge design" has a pedigree that dates back to the 1960s; some of the exhibits in "" have a self-consciously Woodstocky feel to them. Presumably anticipating this criticism, the catalogue sternly notes that "it is not relevant that the idea of using the ordinary is not new," although it does not say why. Arguably, I suppose, the rationale of using found objects can be extended to the use of found ideas, although picky critics might feel that this is taking the moral utility of recycling beyond its probable limits.

More problematical is the question of what "" is actually about. It is difficult to see any way in which the works of, say, Anastassiades and Baldele can be spoken of in the same voice other than that both happen to have been produced by young, British-trained designers. Like the sleeves of 6876's coats, the exhibition creaks at the seams. In anticipatory mood again, the show's catalogue notes that there is "no revolution; there is no manifesto, no agenda, [no] design `movement'." If this is meant to imply that the exhibits represent a cross-section of British design at the moment, then it is patently untrue. What, then?

It may be helpful to see "" as a site-specific installation: that is to say, as being not so much about new British design as it is about the ICA. In the great tradition of the Institute's shows, it is intended to shock with its newness. By choosing to exhibit designers who play with rubbish, the gallery rubbishes mainstream design; by selling things which are inherently unsellable - works by many of the exhibitors are available in the ICA shop - "" makes mock of the design market. The only trouble with this is that it is possible to miss the joke. For all the visitors who have half-inched pieces from the ICA walls, many more have bought pieces by Bump and Tord Boontje in the belief that they are buying, well, design. It can not be long before they are featured in Wallpaper*.

`': ICA, SW1 (0171 930 3647) to 23 May.

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