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Next week in London, the New Designers show rounds up the best of the design graduates from Britain's art colleges as yet another generation of designers and makers hits the streets. And this year there's a strong sense of something which has been missing for quite a while - optimism. These young designers are lucky: contemporary design is fashionable again, and retailers have woken up to the fact. If they stock it, they have discovered, then the public will buy it, right across the price range. And not just in Britain. Our homegrown blend of quirky, irreverent design is in demand world-wide. (Remember, London swings.)

But does the Class of 97, which is about a decade younger than our current crop of stars (names familiar to the readers of interiors and style magazine alike, such as Tom Dixon, Michael Young and Inflate), have anything new to offer? On the evidence of a selection of work from degree shows around the country, cynical gen x slackers are yesterday's story, and today's college leavers are self-motivated, inquisitive and innovative. They take their work seriously, but they like a joke too. They show a preference for organic forms, sensual textures and saturated colours - a rose-tinted reworking of current retro fads and the influence of their childhood toys. The favoured material seems to be rubber, with its combination of natural and synthetic qualities, and the aesthetic is "comic book". But this isn't just about kids having fun. Many young designers have realised that, whatever their age, people like the things they need to use to be things they can play with, too.

! New Designers is at the Business Design Centre, London N1. Part 1: 10-13 July; Part 2 17-20 July. Call 0171 359 3535 for details.


Alessandro Conialonieri's surreal, biomorphic kitchen appliances (above) - Alessi-like, but without the genital undertones - are concerned with the pleasure of "doing" rather than button-pushing in the kitchen, and try to add a touch of humour to life's more mundane tasks. An industrial design student, Conialonieri has combined flexible rubber and inter-changeable parts with micro-chip technology, enabling each multi-coloured gadget to respond to how it is used. For instance, to squeeze an orange you pull a flexible, extending grip and the casing contracts to squash the whole fruit. His chopper operates when the arms are pushed together and will run at different speeds depending on how tightly they're closed. Battery- operated for extra manoeuvrability, these strange creatures sleep hung over a wall-mounted recharging-bar.


Phoebe Hembold isn't a smoker herself, but doesn't want to discourage others from the habit. Asking for a light, she reckons, is often just a painless way of sparking conversation. As more offices become smoke- free zones, with workers huddling under can-opies during cigarette breaks, al fresco smoking areas may even become a reality. With this in mind, Helmbold has designed an item of street furniture which functions as a gathering place to chat (while participating in the shared activity of smoking), and incorporates an eye-catching, weather-proof cigarette lighter (right). The palm-sized lighter is warm to the touch, "like a mug of tea", but completely enclosed and safe. And its futuristic Starship Enterprise styling could certainly get people talking.


It's the tool for the new lad - the one who does DIY anyway - and it's called the King Pin (right). Andy Cole, a product design student, has designed something that is "a cross between an electric stapler and an industrial nail gun, and you actually need a licence to use it because it could be dangerous. The King Pin shoots, but several designed-in features make it safe." Risk factors apart, what the lads will really like is the showy white colour scheme and curvy but bulbous streamlining - pure "Buck Rogers". Who could resist waving this one about in front of a mirror, minus the ammunition, and in private, of course.


Dangerous sports can produce thrills and panic in equal measure, a factor which product design student Ben Atkinson took into account for his mountain rescue beacon, the RS/Q. Derived from one of the over-blown wheels of a fantasy motorcycle that Atkinson dreamt up for the re-styled, street- savvy Action Man (above), the RS/Q is intended to appeal to grown-up lads who enjoy "extreme" sports. As increasing numbers take to the hills armed with mobile phones, rescuers are being called out over minor mishaps. The RS/Q addresses this: it communicates directly with rescue stations via satellite, but the owner is made to think twice about activating it as, unlike your average Motorola, the RS/Q has to be returned to the manufacturer for resetting after use.


"I was already interested in lightweight materials and origami and the idea of a flat surface becoming a three-dimensional object. All those applied perfectly to this project," says Digby Vaughan of his Origami Table. Sturdy enough to hold all the usual coffee table debris, his table is in fact a pre-scored, square sheet of polypropylene (available in a myriad of colours) with an optional light-fitting which clips underneath. To store, simply fold the Origami Table back into its box, or open it flat and hang it on the wall.


Chris Roach's degree show projects span the divide between product and furniture design, the fundamental difference between the two being in the methods of production - Roach's pieces can be made in small batches or by large-scale production. His nursing chair (above) is a rare modern alternative to the Victorian classic. The arms unbolt to simplify the upholstery process and give the chair a further function as reception seating. Roach says it's "based on the form of a teat ... subliminally comforting".


Possibly taking recycling to extremes, jeweller Zoey Ricketts has come up with a new use for punctured balloons. "I had made a wire structure while working on a contemporary locket form, and just pulled a balloon over it to see what the shape would be like when it was closed. Then I realised that balloons and wire could make cheap, infinitely variable jewellery, and started playing around." Ricketts has made rings, brooches which bunch and sculpt fabric to fit the body, bangles and elbow pieces (right and below). The pieces are flexible and "de-form" as the balloon is pulled over them, so the wearer can change the shape, as well as the colour. Ricketts is already gearing up to go into production with her interactive balloon accessories.


Andrew Tanner made a trip to the library at University of Brighton to look-up an image of a "padded cell" for a project which asked the Wood, Metal, Ceramic, Plastics students to look into the facts behind visual cliches. Discovering that the furniture in such places is recessed into the floor, he combined his liking for clinical environments and disparate materials to create what he calls a "padded-dwell". Tanner's white ceramic tiles (right) look like they are soft, but are actually hard under foot. The sunken recliner , however, is intended as "the ultimate place of recovery".


Making table lamps from rubber could be construed as wilfully eccentric, but when it comes to researching materials, Dawn Frazer, a graduate of Brighton Univer-sity's Wood, Metal, Ceramic, Plastics course, has done her homework. Her cone lamp (above) is moulded from heat-resistant, synthetic silicon and the power source is an energy-saving Philips' bulb which gives off very little heat, so it is doubly safe. Frazer, who is fascinated with organic forms and colours, took close-up photographs of plants and fruit, and inten-sified the prints on a colour photocopier. "I then mixed dyes and coloured the silicon to match, and sculpted the cone shape to make one seamless mould. I like the cone's geometric simplicity, but casting it in rubber softens the edges."


"Furniture for the next millennium", was the title of a project which prompted William Cameron to resist the obvious sci-fi solution and to go for humour instead. "I thought that no matter what type of furniture you have, you'll always have a best friend in your dog," Cameron explains. So he designed a set of tables (above), based on breeds of various heights, which sit/fit together. "I drew lots of different breeds and 'personalities', but I think the Dalmatian, Pit Bull Terrier and Dachshund are a good combination and perform a full range of functions." Dotted about a living-room, they share one important quality with real animals - they're definitely conversation starters; but, made from mdf, they probably offer rather less warmth and affection.