DESIGN / The soft, the hard and the new: Student designers are rethinking the relation between technology and organic forms, says Jonathan Glancey

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The Independent Culture
'THE New Designers' is the only exhibition of its kind, a representative selection of the work of more than 1,000 students graduating from 50 of Britain's design colleges, art schools and universities. This massive show is a bazaar of fabrics, ceramics, silverware, jewellery, furniture, lighting and industrial design.

It is also a rapid and enjoyably intense introduction to the ways in which British design is likely to develop. With so many colleges and students taking part, is it possible to detect any reliable pointers to the future?

The answer is a qualified yes. Over the past few years, students have begun increasingly to work with ideas, forms and materials from sources spread across the design spectrum and from around the globe. Furniture, for example, is much more affected by trends in fashion, while fabric designers have begun to use industrial materials such as plastic and rubber. There has been a tendency for young designers to look to gentler and more organic forms, even if the materials they use are man-made and industrial.

Daniel Noble, for instance, a textile designer graduating from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, had planned to work his way into car design after training in graphics. Instead, he has transferred his skills into the design and making of fabrics. His rubber fabrics printed in thick oil-based inks are an intriguing meeting of hard and soft-edged design.

Some of Noble's fabrics are moulded, using semi-industrial techniques; all are a very long way from the world of natural fibres, of cottons and chintzes. Noble is bringing something of the toughness of industrial design into fabrics and some of the softness and delight of fabric design into the industrial way of thinking. The fabrics can be used as soft furnishings, as screens or curtains and even for clothes.

Something of the same approach can be seen in the work of Richard Smout, from De Montfort University, Leicester. The electric kettle he has designed for his degree show sidesteps the obvious ways of using injection- moulded plastic. Instead of letting the manufacturing process dictate the form, Smout has made a practical, safe and likeable kettle that draws its form from organic sources (its shape is evocative of sea shells). As with Daniel Noble's rubber textiles, Smout's kettle marks a softer approach to industrial design.

In fact, many of the students represented are working towards reducing the fashionable impact of their original ideas. Claire Norwood, set to make her name as a shoe-maker, wants to use the softest leathers to make her designs, if not timeless, then more traditionally luxurious and less obviously attention-grabbing.

Adam Bottomley has been making fetishistic steel and latex chairs much influenced by fashionable bondage and sado-masochistic imagery (two will be on show). Already, however, he is changing the emphasis of his work, feeling that the imagery is too closely related to one group of people. He is now beginning to use less demanding and less obvious materials, fine silks and lace as well as steel and leather.

What these students have in common is a recognition that adventurous designs can be made attractive and acceptable by slightly changing their focus. In some ways this is a development of a general design trend towards taming the excesses of overt technological

imagery. We are moving into an age of the 'soft machine', in which aggressive buildings and machines that flaunted their technological input are becoming gentler. At the same time, technological imagery and, more interestingly, processes are moving into such traditional design areas as fabrics and jewellery.

While fashion designers of the Sixties, such as Paco Rabanne, made intelligent use of plastic and metal, it was in a coldly direct manner: dresses of chain mail or plastic rings. Whereas designers such as Daniel Noble are celebrating contemporary technology in a visually strong, yet physically soft, way.

The strength of this approach, seen in so many students' work, is that it shows how everyone can come to terms with modern materials, processes and technology. If these students come to shape our material lives, our nostalgic obsession with, for example, kettles decorated with wheatsheaf transfers might wane. At the same time, a more organic approach to product design should produce hi-fis, vacuum cleaners and kitchen gadgetry that are less at odds with the paintings, rugs, fabrics, candles, flowers and books we surround ourselves with.

The postgraduate courses these students attend are usually both practical and a necessary stage in the process of becoming fully-fledged designers. Few postgraduate students receive grants in this country; most have to do part- time jobs that distract them from their work. One way to support the best of Britain's future designers is to buy something at this show - prices range from pounds 5 to pounds 2,500.

'The New Designers', from 15-18 July, entrance pounds 5, concs pounds 3.50, at The Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, London N1 (071-359 3535).


Aged 23, Printed Textiles

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee

'During my final year of study, my inspiration has come from a wide variety of sources that don't normally concern fabric design: technology, TV, trash culture, together with a diary of my personal likes and dislikes. I've been working exclusively with man-made and synthetic fabrics rather than with conventional fabrics and chintzes; I've been experimenting with rubber and neoprene and developing ways of printing on these successfully with both sticky, oil-based inks and photographically reproduced images.

'I found that the best techniques available are in the water-sports industry, where you find logos and other graphics splayed across wet suits and bathing caps. I like the idea of technological transfer, and couldn't see why it was impossible to transfer new and different technologies to textile design. My background is in graphics and I had expected to become a graphic designer and then work my way into the car industry. The college has changed my ideas a lot; it's taught me to become more interested in soft materials and colour. I was too graphic before. Now I can see ways of fusing decorative materials with new technology and even computer processes. I've also been experimenting with moulded fabrics, pouring liquid latex into plasticine moulds. The process is a little crude at the moment, but I hope to refine it on my MA course next year. I'd like to work with a company like Swatch in the future, mixing new materials, technological processes and fashion. All I need now is the sponsorship to complete my education; that's a far harder proposition than designing.'

Daniel Noble, c/o Honley Liberal Club, Cuckoo Lane, Honley, Huddersfield HD7 2BR (0484 661435).


Aged 22, Printed Textiles

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee

'I'm particularly interested in the theatre and would like to work on costumes and sets. But I see myself first and foremost as a textile designer and would be happy to work in any related field. I like the idea that a particular design might have any number of applications from covering a sofa to curtains, a theatrical backdrop or clothes. I'd go anywhere in Britain or abroad to be able to work as a freelance designer. I'm aware that there's no easy way to success and that you need to work hard and fast; many textile designers produce as many as 20 or 30 designs in a day in the hope that at least one will be taken up.

'My inspiration comes from a funny mix of images. I like horticulture and market gardens, fashion accessories from the 17th century to the present day, and I'm very much taken with old maps and diagrams, plans, drawings and engravings. I know this sounds a bit of a jumble, but I like to mix them all up in the same design. There's no particular rhyme or reason to these designs; I just like the way they piece themselves together. The contrasts in my recent fabrics have been further emphasised in my use of materials. I like to mix up basic materials such as jute and scrim with silks, Lycra and plastics. I might take up a postgraduate course a little later on to further research in techniques and materials, but at the moment I'd really like to get out and work.'

Stella Robertson, 13 Ravendean Gardens, Penicuik, Lothian EH26 9HQ (0968 673460).


Aged 29, Footwear

Cordwainers, London

'My first job after leaving Middlesex Polytechnic, where I did a degree in European Business Administration, was as a publicist for the makers of the children's TV programmes Paddington Bear and The Wombles. I worked either in PR or as a sub-editor on magazines for the next few years. My parents were a bit shocked when I threw in a conventional career to become a penniless student with a dream of making shoes. But I love shoes; I've got a bit of an Imelda Marcos complex. I've learnt as much in college as out of college. At Cordwainers I've learnt about industrial production, but the nitty-gritty craft skills essential to a one-off designer-maker, I've learnt from a small workshop in Clapham run by two Greek Cypriot brothers, Andrew and Ken. They've been fantastic; they do outwork for some of the most famous makes of English men's shoes, so I'm learning how to make shoes to a very high standard. I need to, because the materials I like to use and the complexity of the designs means that I could never sell any of my designs for less than about pounds 150. Most women won't consider spending more than pounds 60 or so. I'm beginning to learn that the shoes I've been making are too complicated; I'd like to simplify their design and use very soft and expensive leathers. When you begin designing, there's a tendency to add in everything including the kitchen sink. It takes a while before you learn to simplify.'

Claire Norwood, 8a Union Square, London N1 7DH (071-354 5526).


Aged 22, 3D Design

De Montfort University, Leicester

'I've been working on portable sundials. They're executive toys really, a type of unusual credit-card holder. They do work, but the idea is as much to experiment with a mix of hard and soft, natural and artificial materials as it is to do with a practical, commercial product. I've made one in brass, suede and silk and the other in leather and aluminium. These designs are partly a way of responding to a design course that concentrates almost exclusively on the use of injection-moulded plastic.

'I'm training to be a product designer and hope to work in a consultancy after completing my MA course next year. But it's nice to be able to experiment with a mix of materials and to see how the focus of industrial design can be softened. I've tried to do the same thing with the electric kettle I'm showing at 'The New Designers'. The form and function of the kettle are meant to be very friendly. For example, you can stand this kettle in the sink and fill it up because the plug is set high up in the plastic body. It can also be tilted to pour, rather than having to be lifted; this makes it much easier for people with disabilities and safer for children.

'I try not to think too hard about the limitations of manufacturing processes at this stage in my training; of course, I'm learning as much as I can about them, but I think the designer needs to be able to lead the process rather

than be led by it. I think you can see the latter happening in the design of most kettles on sale in the high street. I'm aiming for a product that combines an organic as well as a strictly technological quality.'

Richard Smout, 3 North Street, Mickleover, Derbyshire DE3 5HY.


Aged 22, Wood, Metal, Ceramics, Plastic

University of Brighton

'I like to work somewhere on the boundaries of fine art and product design. I'm particularly interested in the interaction of the human body with objects and that's why my work is easily seen as very fetishistic. But, although the two bondage chairs I'm showing are hard-edged, my latest pieces are beginning to soften in the images they evoke and the materials I use. I've drawn inspiration from fetish magazines, from the paintings of H R Giger - who designed Ridley Scott's Alien - and the figurative furniture designed by Allen Jones in the Sixties. The chairs are hand-made in sheet steel and latex rubber. They take about six weeks each so are quite expensive. I don't plan to become a designer for S & M fetishists; I suppose this is a phase I'm working through. I agree it seems very blatant at the moment. The latest design is a dressing table I call Mae West. It's in the form of a rather glamorous steel corset, a lot more feminine and romantic - well, I think so. These designs are not to everyone's taste and they're not meant to be, but I do think there's a way of designing in a fetishistic tradition that makes the genre more accessible.'

Adam Bottomley, 81 Shaw Hall Bank Road, Greenfield, Oldham, Lancs OL3 7LE (0457 870908).

(Photographs omitted)