KELVINGROVE GLASGOW MUSEUM AND GALLERY. Design Machine September 24 to January 9
Julie Morrice sees the line between design and art being beautifully blurred
If the word "design" makes you think of sharp-suited, fast-talking individuals peddling slick items with funny-money price-tags, then this exhibition could make you think again.
Design Machine: Creativity in Action aims to show that design can be about inspiration rather than packaging, about society rather than business, about people rather than price-tags.
"What we wanted to show was the creative process that artists and designers go through, their ideas and inspirations," says Maureen Finn, one of the curators of the main education-led exhibition of Glasgow 1999: UK City of Architecture and Design, which opens next week at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. "The objects you are looking at in the exhibition take you on a path back into the artists' minds," she says.
The designers that Finn and her co-curator Sarah Derrick have chosen for Design Machine work outside the commercial mainstream.
These designs are not about budgets and client briefs and manufacturing processes, but spring from social concerns, environmental issues, ideas about relationships and the way we live.
"Many of them would not like being classified as designers or architects, or artists. They are crossing the boundaries between disciplines," says Finn.
These "makers" have come through an art college education which encourages students to work out what they want to say and then choose the right medium of expression. More traditional institutions concentrate on method, training students as sculptors or textile designers in the expectation that their ideas will then fit their chosen medium.
"We went looking for objects that would stimulate debate," says Finn, who has worked as an artist and as a teacher. "It has to be visually stimulating, able to hold the attention of a child. And the questions the object makes you ask will lead you back to the artist's original idea."
Take the "Economy Bed" by Dominic Wilcox, a bed-base and mattress in the shape of a sleeping human figure. It is not a practical solution to overcrowding, but it expresses the designer's idea in a boldly arresting form. The viewer is impelled to stop and think.
The other designers featured in Design Machine are equally challenging.
Former fashion designer Lucy Orta now works with disadvantaged social groups to create Survival Kits and Refuge Wear, designed to cope with life on the city streets.
Stunning suits in silver and red zip together to make a shelter for four people, commenting on the strength of the homeless community as well as their dislocation within society.
It is difficult to quantify the work of Ilka Schaumberg whose "Hug Me" chair embraces the sitter, and whose "Love You + - Not Chair" adapts to suit the current state of the relationship between the two sitters: back-to-back and separated, face-to-face and enclosed, or something in between.
Whether this is emotional exploration or furniture design is best left up to the individual viewer.
On a similar theme, Charlotte Reid's jewellery expresses and explores relationships.
Her commitment rings, inspired by the symbolic power of the traditional wedding ring, make the bond physical.
With springs, wires and velcro the jewellery can join respective wearers together, or the pieces can wave unattached to advertise availability to a potential mate, rather like a modern version of the old signet ring which signalled publicly the marital status of its wearer.
Dinah Shahar's designs are intended as an antidote to the pace of modern life. Inspired by the traditional communal well which was so central to traditional village life, her "Looking Well" is a place for people to stop and contemplate. Images projected from a TV monitor at the bottom of the well reflect onto the sides of polished steel.
"When I saw this for the first time," says Maureen Finn, "I had been around three degree shows and I couldn't face another exhibit, but leaning on the edge and looking into the well for 10 minutes completely restored me, and sent me off again full of energy."
Finn is clearly delighted to exhibit cutting-edge artists and hopes the exhibition will "raise the profile of imagination, creativity and lateral thinking."
These, she points out, are not in the 5-14 curriculum. Yet they are exactly the areas which employers in industry are currently seeking to develop for their market. "The word 'creativity' seems to be a difficult one to pair with 'education' as it cannot be easily assessed or evaluated. However, as we move into the new millennium we are seeing promotion of all things 'creative' by both government and industry."
Running the length of the exhibition space is the Design Wall, an information panel on a grand scale which is colour-coded to match the various exhibits and which provides background information on all levels, both physical and intellectual.
Lower down the wall there are lots of flaps to lift, textures to feel and pictures to look at; higher up there is more complex text exploring the artists' ideas. The Wall is intended to act as a constant point of reference throughout the visitor's journey round the exhibition.
The exhibition has been designed to appeal to children from age five to upper secondary. Maureen Finn hopes it will achieve three things for children: that it will show learning can be fun, inspire critical thought about the design that surrounds them, and help them to realise we can all have ideas and be creative. She also hopes that something of the creative freedom represented by these designers will inspire pupils and teachers.
She proudly shows me the Design File, a folder to be given to all teachers who bring a school group to the exhibition. The file includes four design case studies, and a fold-out inspiration page for teachers.
For details of education workshops running concurrently with the exhibition, telephone: 0141 287 7346