Design: Unexpected joys of recycling

`Old tat' is now cutting-edge design - at London's ICA.
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The Independent Culture
HANGING ALONGSIDE the work of each designer at the ICA's Stealing Beauty exhibition is a completed questionnaire on their influences. The answers are predictably jokey, clever-clever and occasionally bathetic: "Who/what has inspired you?" elicits responses including "Madonna", "Morecambe and Wise", "chaos", "animals" and "tutors". Every so often an answer really hits home: Fat (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) claim that their worst design memory was "a panic attack enduced [sic] by good taste in the kitchenware department of the Conran store".

Tasteful artefacts are not what this show is about. Instead, common materials - clothes, bottles, swearwords - are wittily appropriated and inventively recycled to create a raw and temporary urban aesthetic. This is an old game that designers like to play, but it is one that seems to work afresh - and well - with each new generation.

Surprisingly, perhaps, many jokes and improvisations tried out here transcend their conception to become desirable - and even, dare I say it, tasteful - consumer objects. Mercifully, the ICA understands the base desires provoked by such paraphernalia, and their shop is bristling with affordable versions of the articles on show. Even the sponsors, Perrier-Jouet champagne, have entered into the spirit with a smart glass champagne bucket designed by Azumi (yours for pounds 40).

The 16 young exhibitors are excitingly disparate. They include clothes designers, whose work ranges from 6876's classic raincoats to Ann-Sofie Back's alarming confections of second-hand fake satin, denim, felt pen and lace; almost conventional furniture-makers such as Michael Marriott, with his handsome plywood pieces, and Azumi, whose chairs are made in the same way as shopping trolleys; and the extraordinary Light Surgeons, visual DJs who mix old and new film to create fast-paced light shows in collaboration with musicians and artists.

The ICA's main gallery is divided into a series of allotment-like strips, each devoted to the work of one exhibitor; the strips continue, beyond a wall pierced by a series of portholes, into the corridor. Most offerings are easily contained within their spaces, although Fat's forest of silver birches, to which lights and other diversions are attached, seems to extend beyond the ceiling, thanks to a reflecting strip.

The sanitary-ware manufacturers Armitage Shanks - not best known for their contribution to art - have excelled themselves, not only collaborating on jaunty floral ceramic benches for a rundown street in Stoke-on-Trent, but also donating the white urinal panels that make up the ICA's new bar - their name is cheerfully and cheekily visible.

And very smart it looks, too. The bar, redesigned by 24/7, is literally at the centre of the show, between the main and the upstairs galleries; it houses undyed, transparent versions of Robin Day's classic Polyprop chair (available in other colours from Habitat for pounds 35 each) and deliciously sliced and laminated plywood tables and banisters. Huge posters by British Creative Decay, ironically depicting anti-fly-posting devices, line the staircase of the building to great effect.

Some pieces, though whimsically displayed, are ultimately practical, such as El Ultimo Grito's prizewinning plastic hanging magazine and hat- racks (Good Morning Miss Moneypenny II costs pounds 7.50 in the shop - and there's a prize for the visitor who can throw a bowler hat on to an arm of it from the greatest distance). Other works concentrate on conceit rather than function: Michael Anastassiades', Antony Dunne's and Fiona Raby's almost-furniture mocks the British preoccupation with gardening, in such beautifully made structures as a seat to be shared with flowers; Cucumber Sandwich, a table for containing, growing, straightening and displaying cucumbers; and a grass-coated hump for lovers' tiffs. Most of the work, however, hovers more uncertainly between the decorative, the functional and the conceptual.

Probably the best-known pieces are Tord Boontje's decisively sliced and sand-blasted bottles; his wall of cut and assembled green glass is a glorious spectacle. He has also contributed a range of furniture made of objects found in skips, including a "rough-and-ready chair" consisting of wood, Army blanket and metallic tape - if you feel tempted to make your own, just pull a sheet of instructions off the wall.

But possibly the most intriguing designs in Stealing Beauty are Georg Baldele's glowing Caveman lights, stalagmite growths of coiled paper powered by a 35-watt bulb. Even more improbable is his two-tone floor: a rusty red that wears thin over five years to reveal a singing blue surface beneath.

Indeed the whole show is engaging and playful, working a kind of magic on implausible materials. The beauty comes from the reinvention of familiar, inexpensive things, raw ingredients which even the show's curator, Claire Catterall, calls "essentially, just a load of old tat".

Stealing Beauty: British Design Now runs from 3 April to 23 May, 12noon- 7.30pm daily at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1 5AH (0171-930 3647); admission: ICA members free/day membership pounds 1.50 Mon-Fri, pounds 2.50 Sat & Sun; catalogue pounds 10. There will be a one-day conference on contemporary design (speakers to include Professor Theodore Zeldin) on Sat 10 April, 10am-6pm