When is a kettle not a kettle but a style accessory? Marion Hancock watches pupils compare products and their applications at the Design Museum.
Ask leading advisers which schools are switched on to the new focus on products and applications in the curriculum and you will draw a blank. Ask where they can go to draw inspiration and an obvious answer is the Design Museum.
Overlooking Tower Bridge on the Thames, the museum is modest in size. One floor is currently devoted to an exhibition of the work of fashion designer Paul Smith and a review of exciting concepts, prototypes and products. But for design and technology classes, the top floor offers the ideal starting point for exploring why and how products have changed over time, with showcase displays of kettles, chairs, televisions, telephones, radios, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and car designs.
More than 15,000 pupils and students visit the museum each year and as well as providing training and resource material for teachers, the museum offers "handling sessions" in which schoolchildren in smallish groups are asked to take a critical look at the kind of mass-produced products they are likely to have at home, or at least to have seen in John Lewis.
Sessions can be booked (and made subject-specific) to order. Last week it was the turn of 35 Year 10 girls from Our Lady's Convent High School in Stamford Hill, north London, to cluster round a table on the museum's top floor. Lesley Butterworth, the museum's education officer, kicked off with a brief discussion of a classic kettle from Russell Hobbs, whose functional advantages and mid-range price have made it a best seller since 1952. So far, so what? said the girls' expression when invited to comment.
Interest perked up, however, when Lesley Butterworth moved into the realms of more image-conscious products - the kettles designed for Alessi by Richard Sapper and Philippe Starck. While scrupulously maintaining the museum's policy of not making value judgments about "good" or "bad" design, she went on to point out these products' functional disadvantages.
The Sapper model lacks a lid (making descaling difficult) and automatic switch-off device, among other difficulties. The Starck kettle, most expensive and stylistically most rarified of the lot, comes with a safety warning in the UK - the handle gets too hot to hold. As Lesley Butterworth says: "You have to forgive this kettle an awful lot." After weighing up the pros and cons, and thinking about their priorities on leaving school, most of the girls said they'd buy the Russell Hobbs (though teachers hankered after the Sapper).
Next up were lemon squeezers, in basic glass, Fifties plastic and Pyrex, stainless steel and chrome. The girls remained pragmatic. Although Starck again drew gasps of surprise with his Juicy Salif squeezer, styled in homage to science fiction (as someone said, it would "make a good weapon"), it was a functional chrome juicer, solidly catering for such practical considerations as catching pips, that got the vote.
Then toasters - and why the black version ("for men") of Russell Hobbs' best-selling, floral-patterned model failed to sell at all. The final object of consideration was an innovative child's night light, which sells well in Japan but failed to reach the UK market on (debatable) safety grounds. In all, the session lasted about 20 minutes, after which the pupils were let loose to wander the museum.
The curriculum demands that children be taught to "investigate, disassemble and evaluate a wide range of products and applications, as well as learn how to distinguish between quality of design and quality of manufacture". A session like this is a good start, focusing attention on the consumer buying criteria that tend to determine any designer's brief: looks, function, and price. Heather Wilson, head of design and technology at Our Lady's Convent High School, was favourably impressed, observing that although the girls "couldn't have understood some of the terms used - such as 'market-driven' - and would probably tend just to like the wacky things, it's nevertheless very interesting and very useful for them, as is the museum as a whole".
The brevity of the session meant that some clearly relevant issues were not raised. There was no mention, for example, of how any of the products were made, nor of whether there was any relationship between the cost of manufacture and the selling price. And "handling" proved a slight misnomer. Although the products were passed briefly from hand to hand, there was no itemised consideration of features, and certainly no disassembly. But nevertheless it was clear that the girls had been made to see ordinary household appliances in a new light.
o Details from the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London, SE1 2YD. Tel: 0171 403 6540.