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Idealog—in the ideas business

Alt Group predictions for the year ahead

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As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” and , co-founders of Alt Group, would agree: on a European jaunt to pick up a coveted Grand Prix prize at the Red Dot Design Awards, they kept a detailed travelogue. Here are their top five observations, notations and predictions for the year ahead, compiled on the long-haul flight back home

Pop-up culture

“A nation of shopkeepers” Napoleon allegedly scoffed when dismissing the threat of the British in wartime. Today, the high street is one of the most fought-over battlegrounds in the retail environment: from the onslaught of local and international chain stores to the fierce independents and the plain idiosyncratic, catering to every imaginable facet of commodity fetishism.

Of particular note is Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing chain that remains true to its parent company’s name, Fast Retailing. With hundreds of stores in Japan and expansion into the UK and elsewhere, Uniqlo stock moves at a rate more akin to a grocery store than a traditional clothing shop. And Jamie Oliver is opening high street restaurants with equal speed. Nine have opened to date, with another two due in the coming months.

Super Normal is like an aesthetic aspirin in an ocean of consumer choice. It takes away everything that’s not wanted and reinforces what’s needed

Store closures created by casualties of the recession have quickly been filled with opportunistic popup stores—temporary retail manifestations that appear unannounced, then disappear or morph into something else. This has been prevalent in the art and fashion sectors for some time but the concept is now being extended into consumer goods.

So what is the purpose of a Marmite popup shop in the middle of Regent Street? Well, it’s just there—an opportunistic strategy in a downturn. It’s inevitable that stores like this will keep popping up as long as there is cheap rent.

Normalism

How long does something need to be around for it to be considered normal?

As consumers, we are curious creatures and novelty has been used as simple strategy to make us take notice. But does a teapot or an ironing board really need redesigning to gain our attention? Some think not.

Product designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s concept of Super Normal is an object that can be defined not by being remarkable, but by being virtually invisible and archetypal—the chair you think of when you hear the word ‘chair’.

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Super Normal objects at Jasper Morrison.

Super Normal is like an aesthetic aspirin in an ocean of consumer choice. It takes away everything that’s not wanted and reinforces what’s needed.

As Morrison says, “There are better ways to design than putting effort into making something look special. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence.”

The Super Normal manifesto is embodied in a book, an exhibition and a shop housed in part of Morrison’s Hoxton studio.

“The shop was opened because we had some extra space in our new office, and after the Super Normal exhibition I wanted a continuation of the contact that it provided me, with everyday, useful things,” Morrison has said. “My feeling is that design which follows the current ‘entertainment’ model which attaches more importance to media exposure than to the real-life performance of an object has run its course, and that it’s time for designers to shape up and design things which have built-in long-term performance. The shop is an idealistic showroom for those things, rather than a commercial venture—though you may leave with less money than you arrived.”

A similar strategy can be found in the collection of objects at London East End design store Labour and Wait. It seeks out specialist makers from around the world that manufacture goods in the traditional way using the original design. These are the everyday classics that will not date but instead improve with age—from an enamel mug to a ‘monkey fist’ doorstop made by a knotting enthusiast in Suffolk.

Sometimes what’s next is what’s already been.

Comboism

Shove anything together and it will be good: this is a strategy that has been around since the surrealists. Who could forget Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone?

Complementary or conflicting, it doesn’t seem to matter, but the old adage of opposites attracting is being played out in numerous combinations.

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Fergus Henderson of St John Restaurant and Rough Luxe room and reception.

Rough Luxe Hotel is exactly that: half rough, half luxury. A little bit of luxury in a rough part of London or a little bit of rough in luxurious London, whichever way you want to look at it. A choice of nine unique rooms offers everything from peeling plaster alongside contemporary artworks, including Gilbert and George.

Rough Luxe is about the experience, the intrinsic value of objects, art, culture and people, and the concept extends around the world into other hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and even into seminars.

Dover Street Market, the brainchild of Comme Des Garcons founder Rei Kawakubo, plays a similar hand.

“I want to create a kind of market where various creators from various fields gather together,” Kawakubo has said, “and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos.”

Dover Street Market is a heady mix of everything desirable, including stuffed animals, gothic Ann Demeulemeester fashions and Sarah Jessica Parker shopping with her bodyguard.

The Wapping Project is another example of a great collision: a restaurant and art gallery located in the abandoned Wapping Hydraulic Power Station building. It is a white-linen dining experience housed within an industrial setting, including the mechanical detritus of the old plant. They were between shows when we were there, but outside there is a great bookshop within a glasshouse. If it’s built to last, it’s bound to work.

The reincarnation of craft

How better to while away a recession than reacquainting oneself with craft in any one of its myriad forms, from hand-darning socks to throwing pots?

Artist Damien Hirst’s production of spot paintings and medicine cabinets has ceased and he has turned his hand back to the brush. One thing that hasn’t stopped, however, is the sheer volume of work he produces. His simultaneous solo shows at The Wallace Collection and White Cube’s two London sites were packed to the rafters.

Each of the shows featured large-scale Bacon-inspired paintings. Hirst seems to be reliving that adolescent discovery of Francis Bacon in a very public way, to the disdain of the critics.

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Labour and Wait store and Labour and Wait’s Monkey Fist door stop.

St John Restaurant in Clerkenwell, which was opened in 1994 by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, has revived a menu of tried and true offal favourites: trotters, tripe, kidneys and chitterlings. Henderson and Gulliver’s book, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, simply sums up their philosophy that nothing should be wasted and everything is delicious. Signature dishes include Roast Bone Marrow with Parsley Salad and Pig’s Head and Potato Pie.

Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver are now working on their Manzi’s hotel and restaurant project, due to open later in 2010.

The current Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Decode, is another take on craft in a digital sense. Artist Karsten Schmidt has been commissioned to design a digital identity for the show by providing it as open-source code. The application enables the public to interact with the generative identity, which is being projected onto London Underground screens to promote the exhibition.

If the virtual world all gets too much, macramé will always be the great antidote.

Design is everything

Design is not art but sometimes art can be design.

Under the curatorship of Konstantin Grcic—one of the world’s leading industrial designers—Design Real is the Serpentine Gallery’s first design-related exhibition.

Grcic has selected mass-produced objects that have been created during the past decade and have a practical function in everyday life, from furniture and household products to technical and industrial innovations. The show provides insights into the products themselves and reinforces the prominence of design in everything that surrounds us.

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Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner 2008-2009 at The Royal Academy of Arts, Braun SK-61 and 620 Chair Programme Vitsoe.

Dieter Rams at the Design Museum offers another perspective: “Less but better.” Rams is one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, having worked for global giant Braun for more than 40 years. The show includes many of the 500 products he designed over this period and provides a fascinating overview of his legacy and profound influence on another generation of designers, including Jonathan Ive of Apple and Naoto Fukasawa.

The recent Anish Kapoor exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts delivers nothing less than an immersive and mesmerising show. Kapoor has joyously ruined the Royal Academy’s pristine walls and ornamental ceilings with a giant cannon that is loaded every 20 minutes to fire a charge of red wax into a corner of the gallery.

The spectacle is still alive and well in the design of experiences. With each of these shows there is nothing more pleasurable than seeing crowds of people enjoying art and design with the same clamour and enthusiasm as they would a Saturday football match.

Originally published in Idealog #26, page 90

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