Cheap thrills

They say you get what you pay for. So can you buy classic objects for less than a tenner? The Design Museum thinks so

Why is the Design Museum, in London, exhibiting six Raspberry Rock Meringues, costing £1.55 each? The designer Oscar Pena, creative director of Philips, describes them as "beautiful, white, bleeding sculptures, bold and fragile, a new direction to the traditional meringue, an upgrade in flavour, colour and feeling". He also maintains that they will last about three months before deteriorating in the display cabinet.

Why is the Design Museum, in London, exhibiting six Raspberry Rock Meringues, costing £1.55 each? The designer Oscar Pena, creative director of Philips, describes them as "beautiful, white, bleeding sculptures, bold and fragile, a new direction to the traditional meringue, an upgrade in flavour, colour and feeling". He also maintains that they will last about three months before deteriorating in the display cabinet.

Pena, originally from Colombia, is one of the 18 designers invited by the Design Museum to select 10 good designs that cost less than £10. There is the Brazilian flip-flop, chosen by the Brazilian furniture designers Fernando and Humberto Campana; a biogradable cardboard toilet, one of the selections of Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, which designs emergency housing for disaster zones; even a copy of National Geographic, chosen by Experimental Jetset of the Netherlands.

What's the big idea? "It is an interesting way to provoke debate," says Sophie McKinlay, curator of Under A Tenner. "A lot of museums spend their time looking at the high end of design, at design classics - a term I loathe, but which people are very hung up on. There is nothing wrong with the chaise longue by Le Corbusier, but design affects every aspect of our lives. It is also about the pencil and the paper clip, both beautifully designed but not terribly expensive."

Stefan Sagmeister, the graphic designer based in New York who designed the Rolling Stones' 1997 Bridges to Babylon album cover, has chosen the iconic 1971 Sticky Fingers Rolling Stones cover, with its bulging trousers and original real zipper, by Andy Warhol and Craig Brown. "I bought the record second-hand for $8 two years ago," says Sagmeister. "I was touched by the commitment of the designer and the record label to go through such a production nightmare. It is fine example of mass production being used creatively."

Another gem of Sagmeister's is the designer Chip Kidd's all-typographic orange book cover for Katherine Dunn's hit novel, Geek Love. "The oddness of the book's dysfunctional family is mirrored in the strange shaped typography of the book cover," he says. "Chip Kidd is single-handedly responsible for a revolution in book covers in the US, proving you can create good designs for the mass market without reverting to cheesy designs."

So what does exemplify a "good design"? For Wayne Hemingway, the co-founder of Red or Dead who later set up Hemingway Design, specialising in affordable design from housing estates to furniture, it is indispensable items in his own home. This includes a chrome Breville toastie machine from the Seventies, a tin opener, a chisel (to weed the lawn), a traditional bike spanner, cotton buds, superglue pump action, an orange hand-fishing line, and a pack of six mini Tabasco bottles. It took him only 10 minutes to collect the objects together.

"Within my list of 10 items, I have come up with some products that people will not consider to be design because are just utilitarian objects," he explains. "But a good design is functional and something that makes people happy in more than a superficial way."

Hemmingway also selected all-in-one football socks and shin pads - "very rare" - and Peter Saville's iconic cover for Joy Division's first album, Unknown Pleasures. "It was pre-computer art, radical at the time with white lines on a black background with a shape of a mountain. It will probably remain stylish forever."

Part of the Under A Tenner exhibition is to encourage the public to contribute to the debate as to what constitutes a good design. "There are labels next to each exhibit, explaining why the designer has chosen an object. And there's also an interaction space - rather like the Tuner Prize - where the public will be able to attach their written comments to the wall," explains curator, McKinlay.

Pena, the man behind the meringues, describes his main driving force as a desire to "link design with play and pleasure".

"Sometimes people don't make that connection," he says. "They think that design is only about functionality. I am really more interested in the sensory quality of products."

His romantic list also includes bangles "for their sound"; a Colombian Cigar , Partagas series D, No4 ring gauge, length 4 7/8in, "for its smell"; as well as 500 sheets of 100- gram, A4 digital-colour printing paper - "It's always fresh, available, precise, and I love the purity of the whiteness. It can become anything you want," Pena says.

But his greatest find was the "Dancing Mary" ballerina, a "magic, everyday toy" which cost £5.37, or rather €7.95. "I had one 10 years ago at home. A friend helped me track this one down in Holland. It is the power of proximity that I find so beautiful. The mirror has a magnet and the ballerina has a magnet, and so when you move them closer together, the ballerina starts rotating and dancing and she looks at herself in the mirror. It is the fascination of creating a dance with you as a ringmaster."

Under A Tenner, Design Museum, London, SE1 (0870 833 9955; www.designmuseum.org) from 3 December to 27 February 2005

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