Design award shortlist mixes beauty and humour

The wallpaper adorned with pink Japanese orchids in the style of William Morris seems to represent the epitome of Victorian chic. But on closer inspection an extra layer of varnish within the dainty pattern reveals an image of two naked women, limbs entangled.

The subversive print by the Glaswegian company Timorous Beasties has been described as "William Morris on acid". It is showcased at the Design Museum in London alongside three other short-listed contenders for the Designer of the Year award. The works range from a kettle and toaster to Penguin classics costing £3.99 and the redesign of an inner-city school in south London.

Jasper Morrison, one of the most influential designers in the UK, is among the nominees for his Rowenta kitchen appliances as well as furniture for Cappellini and Vitra, which includes a blue sofa that can incorporate a metallic table within it to economise on space.

The Timorous Beasties collection, by Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, also includes "Glasgow Toile", which imitates the traditional design of the 18th-century "Toile de Jouy" wallpaper, but reveals a gritty vision of contemporary Glasgow including crack addicts, single mothers and homeless people against a backdrop of housing estates and cut-price supermarkets.

Also among the nominations are the designs of Hilary Cottam, who is promoting a more inspiring approach to buildings in the public sector, including hospitals and prisons. Her projects included a £10m government-funded project in which Kingsdale School in south London was transformed with the aim of cutting down truancy and improving school standards.

The work of the design team at Penguin books responsible for reviving its original 1930s typography for its Great Ideas series, is on display. The type faces in the collection were chosen to evoke the historical period from which each comes, such as the stark, industrial lettering on the cover of The Communist Manifesto or the front of Jonathan Swift's A Tale of the Tub, which resembles a Victorian playbill.

While the shortlist was picked by a jury that included the design consultant Ilse Crawford and the novelist Hari Kunzru, the public can contribute to the jury vote for the winner of the £25,000 award, which is regarded as the design world's answer to the Turner Prize. The winner will be announced in June.

The prize was set up three years ago by the Design Museum to honour British designers and to highlight the potential impact of good design.

Libby Sellers, the curator of the Design of the Year exhibition, which opens today, said that the diversity of the short-listed works illustrated the various uses of design. "These works include all the things we want design to be - functional, beautiful and the ability to make us laugh. And there is a democracy with some of the designs here that are very affordable by the general public," she said.

"Opening up the voting process to the public will encourage a discussion on the nature of design. The voter is being asked to compare a roll of wallpaper with a sofa and a Penguin paperback. That will get all of us to think what design is about."

Alice Rawsthorn, the director of the museum, is the chairwoman of the prize's jury. She said 2004 had been a particularly strong year and that the committee members had been "spoilt for choice".

"From a beautifully designed toaster and £3.99 paperbacks to ingenious textiles and a campaigner for better designed schools and hospitals, this year's shortlist illustrates how intelligent and inspiring design can enhance all our lives," she said.

The exhibition continues until 19 June.

INSPIRATIONAL IDEAS

¿ Hilary Cottam, 39, champions an inspiring approach to public-sector design by demonstrating how it can be used to tackle social problems. She transformed Kingsdale School in Dulwich, south London, and has also worked on prisons and hospitals.

¿ Timorous Beasties is a textile and wallpaper company founded by Alistair McAuley, 37, and Paul Simmons, 37. The former students of Glasgow School of Art use seemingly traditional textile imagery and subvert it with contemporary images inspired by Glaswegian estates.

¿ Penguin books' design team has revived the company's 1930s principle of strict colour coding and distinctive typography in the Great Ideas series of social, political and philosophical paperbacks. David Pearson, a Penguin junior designer, and the art director, Jim Stoddart, developed the series.

¿ Jasper Morrison, 45, is known for his deceptively simple designs for household objects. His work ranges from a set of knives and forks that took three years to design to a Rowenta toaster, kettle and coffee machine. His furniture includes a sofa incorporating a coffee table.

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