Michael Clarke finds this year's New Designers show reflecting an upbeat mood
Now in its second decade, this year's New Designers show at the Business Design Centre, north London, took place in a justifiably optimistic mood. British universities and colleges are internationally acknowledged to be the best breeding grounds of young design talent, and with a more buoyant economy, higher levels of design investment and greater high street spending, many graduating designers are looking to the future with some hope.
One of the central aims of the New Designers shows has always been to persuade business and industry to employ young British designers, but this has rightly involved encouraging universities and colleges to achieve the same high standards in the presentation of their students' work as they do in its design. The careless, even slip-shod, displays that sometimes marred the early shows are no longer acceptable. However severe the financial constraints or modest the ambition, every exhibiting institution now manages to arrange a decent stand.
Among these, Central St Martin's College, Brunel and De Montfort universities are outstanding. This year, all three abandoned the standard white screening for groups of spot-lit, properly-labelled display cases backed up with video screens, packs and brochures detailing course programmes, design projects and each student's contribution. And while the now ubiquitous information desks had tutors at the ready to deal with general enquiries, all the graduates were comfortably articulate about their work. The range and depth of analysis revealed in Lisa Thurlow's (De Montfort) design research and development would have been formidable were it not for a clarity of presentation equally evident in both her conversation and her spread sheets.
Another De Montfort student, Matthew McCombe, realised that his "fluid gym" cardio-vascular work-out system could meet the needs of many disabled people, but responding to their preference for non-group-specific equipment, he went ahead with the design for a general use, aquatic cycling machine, complete with estimates of capital investment, potential market and price so that the Haberdasher's Company gave him their award for product design.
Perhaps the interest of manufacturers in Neal Silverwood's (Brunel) "Vigil" man-overboard detection system with its ability to monitor each sailing crew member without their conscious participation contributed something to his quiet confidence, but an ability to utilise technology in compact designs must have added conviction to his persuasive presentation.
Even where the presentation and promotion were less commercially minded there is ample evidence that some courses are encouraging research and design experiment with the needs and interests of industry well to the fore. With the help of a number of manufacturers, Genevieve O'Brien (Glasgow) has developed a viscous, polymer material that can be formed into sheets with every colour impression from the most subtly textured to the highest relief. At Brighton, Georgina Naish discovered that through the use of certain additives, traditional clays could have their flexible working states extended right up to the firing stage, enabling her to mould, sew and even knit with them (patent pending).
What is equally noticeable is the relative displacement of hand craftsmanship as the measure of good, well-executed design. Very fine items in this category can easily be found but the shift is readily recognisable in the contrast between the functional elegance and economy that characterised the work of students on the BA furniture and design course at Buckinghamshire College, epitomised in Rhys Knight's four chairs and table cut from plywood, with that of students at the same place on the BA furniture design and craftsmanship course. This was epitomised by John Haskins' extravagant upholstered stool with free-standing, veneered screen surround.
Yet should anyone infer that the decorative arts are being eclipsed by a wave of puritanical functionalism they would be mistaken. The textiles alone would contradict such a reading. After the photocopier and photo screen allowed in a flood of ready-made images, the computer, both as a generator and producer of designs, has revolutionised the possibilities. Constructed and printed textiles, once prohibitively expensive, are now within the department store's price range, and just a few minutes spent examining the incorporation of most of these new developments into the work by students from Edinburgh should provide reassurance that even the widely abused floral motif can be given a refreshingly new interpretation.