ShowRCA 2016: School of Design's Incisive Engagement and Entrepreneurial Energy
Across the six Programmes that constitute the RCA School of Design graduate show, individual and collaborative projects shine with entrepreneurial energy and incisive engagement regarding the breadth of possibilities embedded within contemporary notions of design, in both theory and practice.
The School represents one of the largest student bodies at the Royal College of Art. This year’s Show suitably reflects the diversity of approach and background embraced and encouraged – from conceptual to experimental, industrial to artistic – within the expansive variety of programmes and students alike: an understanding that design strikes an equal and critical balance between the object and the thinking process behind it.
Diversity is key concept throughout the work in Design Interactions, a programme that has invested thinking about the dynamic matrices of encounters that unfold between individual and technologies. Replete with complexity, these everyday experiences are explored on both the micro and the macro level, by students whose work exhibits a critical interest in the ways in which design has the potential to highlight and problematise, as well as to productively alter social, cultural and ethical approaches to technology.
In Oxygen of Terror, Calum Bowden uses multi-player war games as a framework for intervention, staging a series of collaborations in which participants engage with each other, and game imagery as it unfolds live, through headsets and voice channels. Martha McGuinn has built a machine to destroy or to preserve heritage objects, entitled Everything in Slices. The work is based on ideas about how digital preservation might, through multiple images and 3D-printing, reconstruct and/or maintain precious relics that have been destroyed. A film by Céline Park – which includes actors, musicians and choreographers – turns to the socio-cultural phenomenon of incredibly high suicide rates in her home country of South Korea: Placebo Funeral. This was an accomplished version of her previous project which was shown as a scratch performance at the Southbank Centre’s Changing Minds Festival, and speculates a scenario in which suicide and other taboo subjects can be experienced and processed through placebo role-play.
Socio-politically, as well as environmentally engaged work at the forefront of contemporary design practice is a strong presence within Design Products. This year’s graduates – whose programme emphasises a balance between creativity, technical capability and contextual insight – have produced a diverse array of work; many of which consider the relationship between design and real-world challenges. Thomas Leech has pioneered Shoey Shoes, a project that aims to disrupt the unsustainable practices of the shoe industry by replacing it with a circular economy based model: children’s shoes made from material waste, whose object-lives can be further extended by re-usable soles and alternative modes of distribution. Autism Empathy Tools, by Heeju Kim, is a set of learning devices designed to teach people about the world as perceived and experienced by those with autism. Affordably produced apparatus – headset, earpiece and mouth insert – raise awareness and encourage empathy, via personal experience, about autistic experience.
On a more playful note, Axel Bluhme’s XOXX Composer (awarded the Bill Moggridge award) is a sound sample instrument that allows for a lower threshold of access by which those unfamiliar with music can learn about languages of rhythm via physical interaction. Similarly engaging with the immediate senses, Jane Kim’s Humanity in Digital Artefact is a fleshy external hard drive, whose silicon surfaces and patches of hair pulse and undulate as data is stored – a reminder of our human, organic connection to storing memory and intimate personal intelligence.
In Global Innovation Design, one of the School’s newest programmes, creative collaboration is paramount, alongside individual projects. Edward Brial, Gabriel Brückner and John Bertolaso have produced Spring: a compact, controlled growing environment that straddles the chasm between production and consumption in contemporary agricultural practices. In their model, data, knowledge and analysis of research has been harnessed to reproduced specific conditions that can house a variety of environment-specific plants – from regular produce to rare and endangered species. Another group project, Momen, by Lucia Edde, Jieyu Jiang and Eric Heng Gu, also looks at productive intervention within pre-existing systems: the possibility of using a playful squeeze toy to promote chance encounters amongst office colleagues, as a means of re-introducing serendipitous and stress-alleviating communication into the work environment.
Innovation Design Engineering lives up to its titular emphases, and its collaborative relationship with Imperial College – balancing the virtual and the physical, the conceptual and practical, to great ends. Charles Xinyang Tan has engineered a glove to assist those with physical impairments, particularly neuromuscular disease. The prosthetic uses compressed air to stimulate and supplement under-developed muscles in sufferers of cerebral palsy and similar disorders of movement. With an interest in the intersection of biomaterials and acoustics, Luca Alessandrini has used a silk-based composite to make two prototype violins – products that are both elegant and sustainable. Similarly invested in the combination of physical and intellectual sophistication, Sheroy Katila’s FADE is an exploration of guilt-free disposability as it relates to everyday objects that have a short functional but a long material life, used rarely before going on to clog up landfills. Katila uses a food-based composite material made from sugar to design short-lived objects that incorporate an understanding of their own life span and necessary obsolescence.
Practical application of design principles to the world of finance, business and corporate innovation is seen further and to a greater degree within Service Design, where students are keenly aware of the contemporary expansion of the customer base, along with its variety of needs. Andrea Fischer and Mariana Pedrosa consider the circular economy of furniture manufacture. Working with Opendesk, they have produced a model in which designs are not only digitally uploaded and made locally, but personal attachments, alongside awareness of the history of making and ownership, are foregrounded to promote care and responsibility. Klaudia Doerffer tackles the widespread occurrence of poor financial services, capitalising on the figure that 2.2 million UK citizens have no bank account, and further millions are underserved by their extant banking. Her product, Wallet, provides a democratic and accessible alternative for those who require different physical and digital means by which to manage their finances. Kristi Hodak displays a similarly keen understanding of today’s prevalent structures with her project, LIQUID, which attempts to harness and make more effective – for company and worker alike – the prevalence of freelance labour within today’s economy
In Vehicle Design, an understanding of the busy and competitive, as well as creative and innovative nature of design is equally present. Students invest in the possibility of transforming from within industry: the vehicles on display represent a variety of views of the future and its many possible iterations of mobility, access, sustainable design and luxury, among other concerns. Tom Ellis has designed the 60-Minute Car, an autonomous vehicle that is purchased and assembled from a flat-pack model; and, accordingly, disassembled and returned to storage with equal facility. LOOP is a public service vehicle designed by Frederik Vanden Borre – it is an approach to the ‘last mile problem’, using autonomous technology and an understanding of both safe and well-organised traffic flow to address the possibility of efficient stop-and-go urban transportation. In a more concept-based vein of design, James Owen’s project is titled After Autonomy – a vehicle based on projected human needs in a post-autonomous era in which the transhuman must be incorporated into technologies and products. Owen’s vehicle is based on the structure and aesthetics of a prosthetic limb, to effectively express its affinity with the transhuman through both form and function.
Professor Dale Harrow, Dean of the School and Head of Programme for Vehicle Design speaks glowingly of this year’s Show, in particular for its breath and variety, engagement with global issues and evolving notions of materiality. The School anticipates further growth in these areas, while continuing its emphasis on craft and making, as well as new and inter-disciplinary models of entrepreneurship. Design at the RCA is ambitious about the impact of research, both grounded and speculative, future roles for designers, and the influential role design can play within the future of business and policy.