Cheap but not tacky

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
If you think pound;10 doesn't go far these days, the latest exhibition at the Design Museum in London will make you think again. For "Under a Tenner - What is Good Design?", the museum invited design experts from around the world each to choose 10 examples of what they see as good design, the only restriction being price.

The result is a fascinating, often quirky, collection of objects, ranging from beautiful to functional, from innovative to socially useful, from witty to erotic.

The international cast of contributors includes J Mays, head of design at the Ford Motor Company; celebrated London furniture designer Ron Arad; Murray Moss, owner of New York's most chic design store; Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, which designs emergency housing for disaster zones; Oscar Pena, the creative director of Philips; the UK designer Wayne Hemingway; and other big hitters from Brazil, Holland and Japan.

"It's a fun concept with a serious sub-text," says museum director Alice Rawsthorn. "Design is often seen as elitist, as being for the wealthy and privileged. These exhibits, all of which have an impact on our daily lives, show how diverse and powerful design can be, whether it's a question of aesthetics, functionality, advances in technology, or sustainable products."

Several of the more practical items could well have a crucial place in any teacher's life. To start the day there's a Japanese earplug alarm clock, much in favour with stressed Tokyo commuters sleeping on the train. For sporting enthusiasts there's the "all-in-one footy socks and shin pads"; for the participants in the school play there's a 100 per cent human-hair moustache; for the school office there's the classic Bic ballpoint pen and a staple-free stapler; and for the security conscious there's the iconic Master Lock padlock.

The exhibition has a strong interactive element, giving you a chance to comment on the designers' explanations of their choices. Is an Enzo Mari cheese grater "a perfect example of economy of means in design", as Ron Arad suggests? Does Geoff Kirk's magnet game really "stimulate the creativity of young minds"? Is the sleek spoon chosen by Murray Moss a "truly Utopian object"? You decide.

Several items - a Bialetti coffee-maker, a lamp, a solar ball, an oil and vinegar drizzler - have been chosen for their inherent beauty. Others, including a funky recyclable biodegradable cardboard toilet called "UnBathroom", get the nod for their environmental respectability.

Perhaps the most humanly valuable is the insecticide-treated bednet chosen by Cameron Sinclair: by killing mosquitoes it has helped to reduce malaria in Africa, and also created 100 jobs in a very poor community.

Among my particular favourites are a Blues Harp harmonica of the kind played by Bob Dylan, a handmade Cuban cigar circled by a beautiful red band, a Muji cooking steamer made out of bamboo, and a pair of Versatile Gloves, which enable wildlife photographers to keep warm while removing just the top flap at the critical moment.

You are also given the chance to suggest examples that could be added to the collection.

"I think this exhibition shows how design can be a very accessible subject," says Alice Rawsthorne. "It represents the voice of the designers, not of the museum, and we're keen to encourage people to air their opinions."

Resources for school groups include teacher's notes with classroom activities, pupil worksheets for gallery-based work, and other resources for downloading from the museum's website.

Jonathan Croall

* Under a Tenner runs until February 27. pound;5 for adults and pound;3.50 for students (groups of 12 or more).

Tel: 020 7940 8782

Email: education@

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