Exhibition: The future is 'Blue Peter' models

Designing in the Digital Age V&A, London

Being given the chance to design your own toothbrush on a computer is hardly up there with extreme sports for providing an adrenalin rush. But in 1989 this was the Design Museum's opening gambit in attempting to explain the power of computer-aided design (CAD). Free rein over filament length, head angle, handle style; it was heady stuff.

A decade later, the V&A is using a fridge, a phone and a vacuum cleaner to attract thrill seekers. "Designing in the Digital Age" aims to show how CAD technology has transformed the way products are designed and produced. Out with the sketch and pencil, in with the screen and mouse. Except the three objects on display demonstrate quite the opposite.

Zanussi's OZ fridge, Dyson's latest cyclonic cleaner and BT's Synergy cordless phone certainly look the part. Their curvaceous, organic forms and spacey lines suggest that they could have only emerged from a computer chrysalis, with Tefal-headed boffins as midwives, when in fact they represent a way of working that has not changed markedly for half a century.

These objects are the result of "reverse engineering". Designers sketch and make models of the end-product and then computers scan their assemblage to form supremely accurate two- and three-dimensional drawings on screen from which engineers can actually make the things. Which means that the Dyson cleaner, for example, started life as the endearingly Blue Peter- like cardboard and sticky-tape models on display.

Of course, it is not as simple as that. CAD is used at every stage to refine and explore the product, and the use of CAD makes the complex curvy surfaces a hell of a lot easier to get your head around as a designer. CAD linked to computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM) also makes these products cheaper and quicker to produce. The new BT phone took only 14 months from conception to production with drawings sent down the telephone line to a manufacturer in China. But drawings on the wall demonstrate that designers still sketch modifications to their computer printouts in pencil.

This exhibition is trying to show the process of what is now possible, but given this it is still a curiously static display of drawings and models. Yes, there are computer screens where you can press a few buttons and give a three-dimensional image a twirl, but it hardly counts as hands- on - you can't shape anything yourself.

It is left to the organic futuristic shapes of fridge, phone and vacuum cleaner to intimate that they are the product of a computer's digital dreams, whereas in many ways they represent a nostalgia for the bulbous forms of the early space race as represented in Fifties and Sixties comic- strips. Repackaged for the touchy-feely 1990s, these retro images have spread from clubland to fashion, advertising and design: cartoon space babes are advertising Coca-Cola and VW have updated their Beetle. Excitement about the digital age - actually working with computers - has engendered this passion for the plastic form and space imagery, but CAD remains a tool and the products which emerge are only as future-thinking as a design-er's grey matter will allow. BT's Synergy phone says a great deal less about the future than the pod-like Ericofon designed by Ralph Lysell in 1941. Things will get really exciting when computers throw up shapes we haven't yet conceived of. It is starting to happen, but you won't find the evidence at the V&A.

This exhibition is, according to the V&A, their "first step towards addressing the question of collecting 'virtually'." They need to make a giant leap curatorially if they are going to engage information-age short attention spans.

'Design in the Digital Age': V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8500) to 3 January 2000

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup