Design & Shopping: High design at bargain prices

The Christmas design fairs provide excellent opportunities to buy unique pieces, for a song.
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If the furniture fair 100% Design figures as large in the calendar of design groupies as Ascot does for lords and ladies who lunch, the annual selling exhibition Design Resolutions doesn't lag far behind.

The show, at London's Royal Festival Hall, which displays the work of 64 of Britain's most innovative designers, is organised by Design-Nation. Its director is Peta Levi, the design promoter and fairy godmother to countless designers. It was she who founded New Designers In Business, the organisation that gave designers a career leg-up. Levi's charges later mutinied against the name; "New Designers", they said, implied they were novices, yet many of them became established in no time - hence the new monicker, Design-Nation.

This year's Design Resolutions exhibition, says Levi, promises to be more important than ever. Previously picked by an internal panel, exhibitors are now selected by an independent group of design gurus - this year's includes the furniture design wonder boy Jasper Morrison. New, too, is the Networking Designer and Manufacturing Project. "Our business development manager has written to over 400 companies, targeting four sectors - furniture, textiles, ceramics and glass - to say, `We can help.' We've got this great resource," explains Levi. "And, for the first time, a commissioning service has been set up so that visitors to the show can put in orders for whatever goods they need - anything from a wedding-ring to a dining-table."

The exhibitor Marianne Buus is impressed with the formula. She's a glassware designer, whose handblown vases and free-formed bowls look deceptively soft, their fluid forms still resembling molten glass. "It gives us good exposure to the general public, industry, galleries and interior designers. And the work is affordable." This last is one of the show's main selling- points. Prices are low, although you'll find big names here. Buus aside, there's Ou Baholyodhin, whose dark, simple furniture helped spark the current vogue for Far Eastern minimalism, and Jane Atfield, the Azumis, Jam and El Ultimo Grito. "Baholyodhin's stainless steel vases start at pounds 24, his ceramic tableware at pounds 12, while El Ultimo Grito's coat rack costs pounds 9.50," says Levi.

These bargain prices, he says, are due to "a shift in design since the Seventies... Many of the pieces here are mass-produced. But there's craftsier work too, due to the design education system which is mostly craft-based in this country."

Hub, however, a design team set up by Andrew Tanner and Anna Thomson, ceramics graduates of Brighton University, wittily bridges the gap between craftsy and mass-produced styles. Its Fruit Bowl, for example, on sale for pounds 29, is an elegant bone-china replica of the polystyrene trays used to store apples. Meanwhile, its Capillate Light (pounds 59) features a shade made of irregular- looking, hand-made ceramic tubes which nevertheless bring to mind fluorescent strips.

Tanner puts this quirky cross-fertilisation of the organic and synthetic down to the fact that his college work was influenced by sculpture, while Thomson's was biased towards product design.

Ceramics that marry a gently craftsy look with chic minimalism may be the height of fashion, but overblown ornamentation is still a no-go zone. But design never evolves by cravenly conforming to prevailing trends, and, while the flamboyant work of Rebecca Newnham is achingly unhip, it's refreshing to see ideas that fly in the face of conventional taste. Newnham is showing a huge fountain made of mirror fragments in the shape of a goblet; inside it sits another goblet overflowing with water. Newnham, whose Baroque work is similar to that of Gaud and Andrew Logan, recently made two huge serpent-shaped glass handrails for an ocean liner.

Idiosyncratic perhaps, but Newnham isn't the only truly experimental designer here. For example, Bullen: Pijja, brainchild of the design duo James Bullen and Rhona Nampijja, produces startlingly fresh furnishing fabrics printed with geometric computer-generated imagery inspired by modern architecture.

Some of the work, for instance El Ultimo Grito's award-winning magazine rack, Mind The Gap, has been exhibited to death. Blase design groupies will swan past such over-exposed pieces without giving them a glance. But, like the rest of us, they will rub their hands with glee at the sight of the fresher work - and their cheap and cheerful prices.

Design Resolutions 1999 is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, 13- 21 Nov (0171-960 4242)

Selling exhibitions elsewhere:

Christmas Craft Exhibition, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield, West Yorks (01924 830125), until 30 Jan 2000. Showcases the work of 20 designers specialising in ceramics, stoneware, jewellery, rugs, wall-hangings and jewellery. Prices start at pounds 25.

Festive Oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf and Gabriel's Wharf, London SE1 (0171-401 2255), 12-14 Nov. Cutting-edge goodies by Oxo Tower designers (eg Salt, Bodo Sperlein). Craftsier work available from Gabriel's Wharf.

Stigma: A Crafty Look at Club Culture, Cleveland Craft Centre, Middlesbrough (01642 262376), until 27 Nov. Clever ideas for clubbers - such as "drink pods" to strap to your wrist while dancing.

40th Anniversary Exhibition, The Bluecoat Display Centre, School Lane, Liverpool (0151-709 4014), until 27 Nov. Work by 10 potters, curated by ceramicist Emmanuel Cooper.