In London, Designers Play With the Future
Robots, creating rainbows and sacred chants in pidgin are among the products of a residence program at the Design Museum.
LONDON — Anyone who thinks the future looks grim should go immediately to the Design Museum here, where five young designers in residence have worked for the past seven months on ways to make life better.
The program’s theme this year was “Support,” and the designers’ ideas on the subject have ranged from creating robots to establishing permanent addresses for the homeless. In turn, the program helps the designers.
“We work with designers at the start of their careers, supporting them and providing a platform for them and helping forge their careers,” said Margaret Cubbage, a museum curator who has been responsible for the program for the last seven of its 10 years. To qualify for it, designers had to have left school within the last five years and been working for at least one year.
The five selected designers have been using a 710-square-foot studio at the museum — the first time it was available, thanks to the museum’s move a year ago from south of the Thames to larger quarters in the Kensington neighborhood.
They received advice from lawyers, business people and other designers. Through the Arts Council of England, they each received 6,000 pounds ($8,000) for their projects’ production costs and an additional £8,000 for future use.
And, with no bosses to please or formal deadlines to meet, they have been calling the shots.
Their final projects, which range from products to concepts, are on display through March 31 — although all five say they hope their efforts will continue to grow. The next group of designers in residence is to move into the studio in April.
Soomi Park, 36, has created a robot — but not just any robot, an “embarrassed robot,” she said.
Ms. Park has a master’s degree in digital media design and is working on her doctorate in media and arts technology at Queen Mary, University of London, an institution that has been researching robots. She has seen that the emphasis is on making robots move and look like humans, “but not on how they behave, on complex emotional reactions like embarrassment.”
Throughout her residence, Ms. Park has invited museum visitors to stop peering through the studio’s floor-to-ceiling windows, step inside and participate. She has been asking: “What does an embarrassed robot look like?”
And then, helping themselves from a box of colored pens, masking tape, feathers, balloons, Play-Doh, scissors and glue, the visitors have created robots of their own, reflecting their ideas about embarrassment and what causes it (unzipped pants, being late and so on).
Ms. Park’s own creation was considerably more sophisticated, with a dome-like head of silicone that turns pink with embarrassment, and generates heat. A fan circling the head then engages to cool the robot, or turns outward to cool embarrassed onlookers.
“I want to support robots, to help them fit into society,” she said. “And I want to support humans as well, helping them live with robots.”
Not every project is as tactile. Research by Chris Hildrey, 33, has shown that it is almost impossible to qualify for governmental or organizational services once a person is homeless. At the root of the problem: the lack of a permanent address.
“Without an address,” Mr. Hildrey said, “a person cannot access any social security benefits, including housing, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit, income support, et cetera. Nor can they open a bank account, get a driver’s license or join a library — the latter also providing public internet access. With no address history, there is also no financial history, preventing any future access to credit.
“As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar says: ‘Without an address, you live outside the law. You might as well not exist.’ ” However, Mr. Hildrey said, there actually are thousands of unused addresses in London, or in any large city — for example, those of abandoned buildings or empty stores. A proxy address could be permanent, and have “no stigma attached to it,” he said, “unlike using the address of a homeless shelter.”
Mr. Hildrey’s day job involves a more traditional version of what an architect can produce. After earning his architectural degree at University College London and working with Foster and Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects and OMA, the Rem Koolhaas studio in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, he now is project architect for the new grounds at the Natural History Museum in London.
But his showcase piece is conceptual: photographs of approximately 50 of the people he interviewed for the proxy project, from Members of Parliament to the homeless (although none are identified, to avoid the stigma of labels). He intends to try to test the system during the showcase, and provide updates as it progresses.
Yinka Danmole, 26, decided to explore the pidgin language, the mix of Nigerian languages and English, that he heard around him while growing up in London.
At St. Columba’s Catholic Boys School, he was one of only 15 to 20 black students in a class of 120. Their attempts to blend into the larger group included changing names (“Antoine became Charles”) and speaking standard English. “Anyone who spoke pidgin was mocked,” he said.
As he grew up, though, Mr. Danmole came to believe that pidgin should be respected. “Our culture is beautiful and brilliant, we should appreciate our heritage,” he said. “My mind frame now as a designer is how can I add value to and change the perceptions of African culture?”
To that end, Mr. Danmole, who has a degree in architecture from the Birmingham City School of Architecture and Design and is creative director of Studio Danmole, is working with collaborators to create a sacred chant in pidgin.
The final designers are the twins Begum and Bike Ayaskan, 28, of Ayaskan Studio. Born in Istanbul, they came to Britain to study and have been wrestling ever since with questions of the conceptual versus the practical and art versus architecture.
They chose to study architecture at the University of Nottingham because, Begum said, “it was not structural. We didn’t draw any toilets.” Instead, they examined concepts, often involving nature and its cycles.
During their time at the museum they have been exploring what Bike called “the sweet moment. It’s the rainbow that forms between rain and sun.”
Working with hot ice — the active substance in hand warmers — that is enclosed in specially designed glass containers, they used light to melt and freeze the substance “like the cycles of the earth,” Begum said.
The process and the prisms that are created in the containers trigger that magical moment when the space around them develops layers of color, not unlike the green flash at sunset, or, as Bike called it, “an optical rainbow.”
“We study how nature changes over time, the cycles, the order in chaos,” Bike added, “and then create objects that change over time.”
Their modus operandi can have surprising results: the women previously designed an origami planter that uses polypropylene hinges which increase in size to accommodate the plant’s growth.
For the showcase they have created, Begum said, a hot ice “light piece that brings a sense of time and an element of nature into the surrounding urban environment.”
So, robots, rainbows, a chant and possibly even a new postal system — as Ms. Cubbage said, “Designers in Residence is all about shaping the future practice of design.”