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The Independent Online

I saw something fine the other day at the private view for the 2004 Jerwood Applied Arts Prize.

I saw something fine the other day at the private view for the 2004 Jerwood Applied Arts Prize. It was one of those things that make you glad you live in a city, where you can reliably expect to knock up against living rebukes to your narrow-mindedness. But I doubt that it's still there, because it was a shirt and it was being worn by one of the guests attending the opening of the Crafts Council exhibition of the work of the short-listed designers.

I say "shirt", but it would be more accurate to describe it as a "shirt concept" or - in a phrase often used by designers - as an interrogation of our notions of the shirt. It consisted, and my accuracy may have been undermined by my reluctance to gawp, of the collar, cuffs and button strip and just as much intervening material as was necessary to prevent them falling apart. I suspect that the designer of this garment wanted to question our complacent assumptions about what constitutes "shirtness", including the widespread prejudice that when you're wearing one your entire torso won't be open to inspection.

As it happened, it was a very muggy evening, so it would be possible to advance a functional defence of this sartorial minimalism. It also triumphantly served the function of drawing attention to its wearer, which was probably what it was intended to do in the first place.

But it also served as a seed crystal around which an unspecified discontent about much of the work on show suddenly crystallised. Because what it shared with many of the tables and chairs in the Crafts Council exhibition was an unabashed disdain for the idea of practical daily use. Nothing wrong with that, of course; one likes to be freed from the tyranny of utility now and then. But even so, I suspect that the strongest impression much of this work will leave on the average lay viewer is how wilfully impractical it would be if you employed it as furniture, rather than as a statement of your aesthetic sophistication.

Making an impression is exactly the right phrase in the case of one of the more celebrated pieces by Azumi, a husband-and-wife team whose display includes a chair and footstool made with the same technique used to produce supermarket trolleys. This object has a certain stark appeal on a museum shelf, even if supermarket trolleys aren't exactly redolent of domestic comfort. But you only have to imagine sitting on one to realise its big drawback as an item of furniture. Most people are reluctant to sit on something that will leave their buttocks looking like a blank page in an accountant's ledger.

Across the room, Tom Dixon, creative director for Habitat and a man with an admirable record in bringing cutting-edge design to ordinary consumers, offers an alternative pattern for your posterior with the Fresh Fat Chair. This is made out of toothpaste coils of clear acrylic plastic, roughly moulded into a conventional chair shape. And you don't have to imagine sitting in it, because it's one of a number of pieces in the exhibition that visitors are invited to try. You won't have to queue for long because it offers a powerful incentive to any occupant to stand up again sharpish. Other items, too, appeal to the intellect by their purity of design but turn out to have forgotten the body. I felt a distinct acquisitive pang in front of a beautiful desk by Barber Osgerby, made out of laminated ply. But then I discovered that its minimalist document trays jammed unless you slid them in and out with the precision of a surgeon.

I was getting a little depressed with myself by the end, as the kind of man who would never wear a skeleton shirt to a press launch and retains a deeply bourgeois prejudice against furniture that actively causes me distress. But then I came across an object in which flamboyance of design and utility were ideally combined. It came from the most capricious designers on the shortlist - El Ultimo Grito. It was a prototype for what the team call "furnitoys" - a moulded plastic sculpture that would work as a child's chair, but could stand on any one of three or four surfaces. With each turn, the seating position changed and the protrusions conjured a different metaphor - pilot's seat, saddle, bull's horns or whatever your imagination could conjure. It was virtually indestructible, a delight to look at and as adaptable as a Swiss Army knife.

For all its eccentricity, this was an object that had started with the way people actually behave and live, and concluded with a design. Reversing the priorities, as so many other pieces in this exhibition do, results in highly photogenic and voguish objects, but not ones you'd want to sit on for very long.