The future of design

Over the next five pages, we are showcasing the world's most brilliant curators, product designers, architects and graphic artists. Each of them has a unique and radical take on the question: 'What is good design?'
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Alasdhair Willis: The New Establishment

The design world, or what the design world calls the design world and everyone else calls extremely expensive contemporary furniture, is dominated by a handful of northern Italian companies. Still mostly family-run since the 1960s, they have attracted the world's leading designers, promising enlightened patronage and the finest local craftsmen to realise their designs.

Two years ago Alasdhair Willis, the 36-year-old former publishing director of design magazine Wallpaper and Mr Stella McCartney, set out to upset the established order and build a heavy-hitting, top-end operation to promote and manufacture the best British design. And the best of British right now means pretty much the best anywhere. Crucially, it seems that the designers - Jasper Morrison, Barber Osgerby and Michael Marriot among them - have rallied behind Established & Sons.

Willis was also quick to spot a still-nascent trend in the design world. "I think we understood that the lines between art and design are increasingly blurred. And that there is this growing number of collectors who want to collect design in the same way that they might collect art."

This has meant the production of limited-edition pieces by the likes of Zaha Hadid and fellow Brit architect Amanda Levete of Future Systems. A prototype of Hadid's Aqua table sold at auction in New York last year for $296,000. Nevertheless, Willis sees Established & Sons' USP as an ability to produce designs for both the auction house and the high street.

The company's most controversial piece to date is Crate, pictured left, a Douglas fir wine crate "by" Jasper Morrison that retails for a reasonable £90 - if you think that £90 for a splinter-free wine crate is reasonable. It is, at once, a deluxe take on a multi-purpose "found object", a theoretical provocation and a rather handy bedside table. "It really created a conversation about what design is and should be," says Willis. "And that makes it good design."

Patricia Urquiola: The Force of Nature

In the multi-partner world of Italian design, Patricia Urquiola partners up more prolifically and promiscuously than any other designer. She is very in-demand and very busy. She turns out for the Serie A of Italian design, working for B&B Italia, Driade and Moroso, for whom she seems to do her best work. She is particularly close to Moroso's director, Patrizia Moroso. At the 2005 edition of the Milan furniture fair, the industry's major showcase, there were six Urquiola-designed chairs, five tables, four sofas, two beds, one lamp, a hammock and a watch. This is an unprecedented output in an industry where a designer is happy to get two or three things into production in a year.

Urquiola's designs have a warmth and wit (not the self-conscious wackiness of Marcel Wanders though). They are designed with the domestic space in mind, to look good and work in the home rather than in cold white cubes.

It is hard not to come up with womanly metaphors when talking about Urquiola - a handsome half-Basque, half-Austrian, 45-year-old, long resident in Milan - and her work. But there are often curves and a sexy fleshiness, especially those she produces for Moroso. The Smock chair, introduced this year, looks like a pair of red knickers stretched on a wire coat hanger. Which is probably how the idea started out. Antibodi, also for Moroso, pictured top right, is almost obscenely labial. (She can also do manly though. Fjord for Moroso is a baseball glove for sitting in).

In many ways, Urquiola is the anti-Arad. No grand concepts, no limited-edition art pieces. "If my product is very contemporary, very trendy, very communicative, but not useful, I will be an idiot," she has insisted. Fortunately, her work is way more than useful. (omega)

Naoto Fukasawa: The Electronics Wizard

Jonathan Ive CBE, the young Brit who designed the iPod and revived the once-ailing Apple computer brand, is the best-known product designer in the world. And possibly the most admired. But, among aficionados at least, he is run close by the unassuming 50-year-old Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa; and this despite the fact that Fukasawa's best designs are unavailable outside his home country.

Fukasawa shares with Ive a mission to make electronics and appliances not just beautiful but with a functional clarity of purpose, a spare elegance where an intuitive ease of use rather than design showmanship or geek machismo is paramount. He is a design consultant for Muji. The iconic wall-mounted CD player, the one that looks and operates like a kitchen fan, is his. But he is better served by Plusminuszero, a company he set up in 2003, whose portfolio - including a cordless telephone and a so-called "chewing gum" tape measure - is full of goodies you really wished Muji produced. And until Plusminuszero goes international, you'll have to keep on wishing.

Fukasawa's strength is in giving technology shapes we could only have dreamed of. While Ive has been able to make very new technology very accessible to a large number of people very quickly, Fukasawa needs to let technology settle in for a while before he sets to working out how it could be used a whole lot better. As he has it: "The way I work is letting the products hatch in the way they should be."

Londoners will be able to get an insight into Fukasawa's way of thinking when Super Normal, a show he co-curated with the British designer Jasper Morrison, pulls into town this month. As Fukasawa explains, the exhibition is about revealing great design in familiar products that we might not even think of as "designed", from the paperclip up. However, it is an office chair, the EA 106, pictured left, by the 20th-century's most famous designers, husband-and-wife team, Charles and Ray Eames, that best represents good design for Fukasawa. "After a lot of deliberation, people often end up buying the same thing because they share the same mind and feel the design is a safe bet. When a product makes people feel this way it is evidence of good design. This chair does that." Super Normal is at Twentytwentyone, 18c River Street, London EC1 from 20-27 September

Ambra Medda: Design's New Diva

Last year, Christie's of New York sold a 1949 table by Carlo Mollino. The Italian designer and architect is very much in vogue; in this case, in vogue to the tune of £2m (against an estimate of £100,000 at best). It was a remarkable moment in the design world and confirmed in the most spectacular way possible that 20th-century and contemporary design was now being collected by the same big spenders who make the contemporary-art market kerching.

It certainly did not escape the attention of Ambra Medda, the 25-year-old polylingual daughter of a London design dealer, and her partner Craig Robbins, a Miami property developer and leading art and design collector. It was over bellinis in Venice, for the Biennale, that, together with Sam Keller, the (now out-going) director of Art Basel, the largest contemporary-art fair in the world, they hatched a plan to bring the art and design communities even closer together. Last December, Medda persuaded the world's leading design galleries to pitch up at Art Miami Basel with a choice selection of work and see what happened.

It worked a treat. The 15 galleries asked to participate did £3.7m of sales over the four days. The fashion designer Donna Karan parted with £185,000 for a Pierre Szekely screen. One New York gallerist sold 35 Ron Arad tables for £20,000 to £30,000 a go.

"To be honest, we couldn't believe no one else had done it," admits Medda. "It was a great opportunity: to collect the world's best design galleries in a show attached to the world's biggest art fairs. And the timing was perfect. The auction houses have been achieving incredible prices, reassuring people in the market place that prices are high and staying high."

It worked so well, they repeated the trick at this summer's Art Basel. And will repeat it again in Miami this December and perhaps in the Far East in the near future (when we speak, Medda, a Chinese graduate from London University, is at Miami airport on her way to Shanghai).

Almost inevitably, it is Zaha Hadid's Aqua Table for Established & Sons, pictured left, that Medda picks out as a particular favourite. It is a piece that has become emblematic of the "design as art" movement and moment. "It has that liquid shape that you see in contemporary design, in Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove," she says. "It will become an iconic piece." (omega)

M/M: The Artists of Noise

Graphic artists work in a space defined by others. They have clients and briefs. They provide a service. It is what they do in and around this space, how they work with the message, that marks out the great ones. Michael Amzalag, 37, and Mathias Augustynia, 38, known collectively as M/M since they set up operations in Paris in 1992, are among the rare sort of graphic designers to have made a name and a distinct reputation for themselves. They have done a lot with the space allowed them.

The pair began work on record sleeves but have since built a client list that includes the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Madonna and French Vogue. The M/M style, though, is anything but corporate. It can be seen as a reaction - if nowhere near the first - to the clean lines, legibility and graphic muscle of the International style; the paradigm for modern commercial communications. They use decoration, swirls and complex doodlings; fonts, words and pictures disappear or become dreamy and indistinct.

"The problem with the International style is that people just don't see it," says Augustynia. "It's too familiar. Maybe companies like Apple or Nike manage to use it and come up with something more intimate. But it also means that the graphic designer has to say that they are no one, they are not there. Well, we have a personality and we want to talk to people. It's like the whole question of legibility. When the doctor writes you a prescription, you don't understand what he's written but the pharmacist does. You can talk to and communicate with the people you want to talk to."

Augustynia refuses to be pinned down on a specific example of good design but he does express a preference for the raw and undercooked. "I like ready-made design that is under-thought. And I don't like design that is a dead end, that says nothing can happen after me. I like things that you can carry on."

Max Fraser: The Preternatural

In a very short time and at a very young age, Max Fraser has established himself as a sort of patron saint of British design. Author, curator, positive force and preternaturally wise head, at 26, he has in buckets what British design has often lacked: PR savvy and entrepreneurial drive.

It began when Fraser sold the concept of a guide to the UK's leading design stores to the marketing consultant Alexei Orlov, while serving him champagne at a posh party. His guide was eventually published as Design UK in 2001 - hitting an exploding audience for domestic design. But the book alone was not enough to make Fraser the force that he is. He had to work it. The books became a series of exhibitions, here and abroad. He has written about design for magazines and newspapers and is a first-call design consultant for all manner of public and private clients. Oh, and there have been more books. Lots more books. All the while, Fraser keeps in mind the larger mission of promoting British design and British designers.

"I try to provide a platform for designers to expose their work to larger audiences through books, magazines, events, and exhibitions," he says. He dismisses the business grounding offered by UK design schools. "They have a lot to answer for in half-heartedly preparing young designers for the challenges outside of actually designing ... things like marketing, PR, price points, identification of a buyer, distribution, production and delivery."

Ironically, when it comes to picking out one piece that sums up great design, Fraser isn't buying British. "Good design means an honest use of materials and clarity of construction. And the designer's ego must not overtake the product. I think the PK22 chair, pictured above, by Danish designer Poul Kjaerholm in 1955, embodies all of this."

Fraser's latest project is organizing a series of "Pecha Kucha Nights" - these are kind of speed slide-shows for and by top creatives, a concept devised by Tokyo-based British architect Mark Dytham - at the ICA. Meanwhile his latest Design UK exhibition opens at the central London department store Liberty on 20 September.

We Not I: The Anonymous Auteurs

Modern architecture, like film-making, is built on the idea of the auteur. From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, the thinking and writing about and the selling of architecture has used the idea of the architect as author-hero. And never more so than now.

Developers, museums and ambitious city authorities the world over seem desperate for a signed piece of Zaha Hadid, Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano or Jean Nouvel (Lord Foster can claim the title as the world's busiest architect but he lacks the radical chic of a Hadid or Koolhaas). Never mind that such architects are running huge offices, working on dozens of projects all over the world at the same time and that any project is always a collaboration between many parties - not least the engineers who make sure the thing stands up. But the myth of the single hand persists because it sells.

A revolutionary architectural practice, We Not I, is hoping to debunk this myth. The core members of the collective met while working for other practices in the late-1990s and formed We Not I in 2002. The company has no office, just a server in a room somewhere in London. The company's five architects, two in London, two in Osaka and one in Stockholm, remain anonymous. Even We Not I's impressive business cards, created by London graphic designer William Hall, are blank; details are filled in by hand. "The workplace is surplus to our requirements," they say, "and we conduct our relationships with all the freedom that technology permits."

The company website offers nothing useful: no bios, list of projects, fancy walk-through videos or even contact details. They are the first to admit that much of this flies against commercial logic; developers demand a signature these days, an above-the-titles star. What We Not I has is a conviction that this star system will soon collapse and that good work begets good work. "The singular-author myth is just that, a myth in which both architects and media are complicit, purely market driven and unsustainable." And they are making things: a family apartment in Milan, a house in Long Island, New York, and a gallery in London are among the current project list. If you build it... and all that.