Electric violins, bioreactors, stethoscopes, and chairs that weigh less than a chihuahua … just some of the designs winning gold at this year’s iF Design Awards.
Design, what it is and who does it? Is a designer an artist, architect, engineer, technologist, psychologist, or avant-garde stylist…? Is the point of design to make things look pretty or to provide solutions that improve our lives?
That was the topic fuelling discussions all over Munich when more than 2000 designers and their clients converged on the Bavarian capital to see the creations that had impressed the 58-member jury determining the 2017 iF Design Awards.
The iF (originally Industrie Forum) Design Awards were instituted in 1953 to encourage the design and engineering efforts of German companies as they pushed to recover from the war. It acknowledged those companies and individuals who pursued excellence in form and function. Much of Germany’s reputation for ergonomic, efficient and coolly-engineered products began here.
At the gleaming white headquarters of the German design consultancy, designaffairs, the urbane general manager, Professor Michael Lanz, explains why the definition of “design” appears to have become so elusive.
Design, he says, is so highly complex these days. “A product has to have a meaning. It has to be user-centred, it has to help you in your everyday life. It shouldn’t be just a gadget. So engineering is paramount.
“Technology, too, is becoming more and more complex. You have to make sure that the technology is accessible. You have to think about software, the services around a product, optimisation. Today you are designing an ecosystem.”
But if anything can save the world from its myriad problems, says Lanz – who is also professor of product and transportation design at the Joanneum University in Graz, Austria – that thing will be technology.
“We are now far away from being part of nature. We have built our own world, an artificial world. If we want to survive as mankind we have a lot of work to do.” Most likely in cahoots with digitisation. Robots and artificial intelligence, says Lanz, whose company has picked up around 300 iF Design Awards over time, are already challenging the world we live and work in.
“As we approach Industry 4.0 [the fourth, highly digitised, industrial revolution], designers can help lower the barrier to resistance. This is where design comes into play, where it can make things understandable, accessible, usable.
“It’s up to designers to get the most positive aspects out of existing technologies.”
How health is shaping design
At the 2017 iF Design Awards, presented in the glamorous, cavernous BMW Welt – itself a beacon of voluptuous design – 75 of the 5,575 entries from 59 countries received gold awards. Many display an overt 21st century functionality – people counters, biodata innovations and a remote medical examination device that does away with face-to-face visits, and a more ergonomic stethoscope, for example.
Health, observes iF International Forum Design CEO Ralph Wiegmann, is one of the most important fields for design in 2017, part of “the push and pull to take care of our bodies and minds … whether it be software, hardware, apps, sports cloths or different kinds of [monitoring] machines.”
Among more lifestyle-oriented winners are an electric violin, a precision (commercial) paintbrush, and a clever “chariot” that allows sporty types to go jogging, cycling, strolling or cross-country skiing with a child in tow.
More familiar consumerables to win gold include the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, a MacBook Pro, and Ferrari’s GTC4Lusso.
Ferrari’s Senior Vice-President of Design, Flavio Manzoni, epitomises today’s multi-disciplinary designer. He has a degree in architecture with a major in industrial design. He is inspired by art, architecture, linguistics, nature and music (Manzoni is an accomplished pianist) and has a fascination for 3D printing.
If he wasn’t designing cars, he has said, “I would like to use my creativity or imagination for meaningful products, something that doesn’t exist yet and can improve the quality of this world.”
A seat at the table
British designer Michael Young also searches for meaning in his designs. “Unless you are doing it for real reasons it’s just a waste of time. You’re just doing it for egotism,” he says.
“Deciding on the number and colours of stripes on your shoes doesn’t make a designer,” concurs Ralph Wiegmann. “But the options for personalisation are enormous and serve those longing for differentiation.”
Michael Young interprets the “evening” dress code of the iF Design Awards the way only a cheeky creative could. He turns up in a loose, tartan-check Commes des Garçon shirt that looks like a dressing gown, drawstring parachute silk “pyjama” pants, and a fetching navy felt hat with red, white and green flowers embroidered on it. Fur-lined slippers are on standby. Young looks like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Which in fact he does, picking up a gold award for two entries: the LessThanFive Chair (designed with the Coalesse Design Group) and the Master Series Michael Young Watch (for Shenzhen CIGA Design).
The chair, named for the fact it weighs less than 5 pounds (2.2 kilos), grew out of Young’s work with Giant Bicycles in Taiwan.
“People think carbon fibre is a science but it is actually a very craft-based process. In the bicycle industry you can get any colour, any pattern. And it’s UV resistant. This chair has replaced aluminium in many ways. It’s lightweight, flexible. The chair is 2.2 kilos so you can stack four in a box. That’s very sustainable.”
Young sees himself as more of a designer than an artist. “I’m not into concepts,” he says. “I’m into creating commodities to sell. I tend to focus on innovation because that appeals to me. I have a curious mind. But not everything has to solve a problem. Some things can be straightforward and commercial and find gaps in the market.”
Young’s award-winning watch design, with its Milanese mesh band, was inspired, he says, by the strong outlines of the automatic movement: the goal was the visibility of every component.
“For me, watch design has lost its integrity. It’s the Roman Empire, baroque and rococo, speedboats and racing cars all mixed into one bizarre thing … so I like to simplify everything.”
Also supremely elegant is the Yamaha Electric Violin, designed by Keizo Tatsumi, whose speciality is band and orchestra instruments. His previous award-winning designs include the DTX electronic drum kit and the very sociable Silent Brass, whereby the sounds of trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone or French horn can be heard only through headphones or delivered straight to a recording studio.
Ironically, Tatsumi doesn’t play a musical instrument himself.
Reflecting his love of simple and rational shapes, the YEV is strong and lightweight, and stands out on stage for having no apparent rear surface, regardless of the angle from which it is viewed.
Says Tatsumi: “What I did differently was to eliminate the instrument’s resonating body and remodel the violin, while maintaining its playability and practicality.”
The violins, offered in two models, are inspired by the ribbon-like Möbius strip (a two-dimensional surface with only one side and one edge). They have a rich-wood sound and achieve the tactile resonance of an acoustic violin – not to mention having the appeal to bridge genres, from classical, to jazz, to rock.
An analogue dialogue
Over at the two-storey Paternoster Hall in Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne art gallery, on the morning of the awards, product designer Werner Aisslinger offers a more subversive take on the way technology can dictate design. His House of Wonders installation calls its bluff.
“I explore people’s awe of technology and the digital world,” Aisslinger says. “We can’t stop its progress, but we could integrate it into our everyday lives in a far more unpretentious way.”
Aisslinger’s installation includes a suspended mould of a car with a “clothing” of textile panels, his playful suggestion being that maybe you consider buying your car a new dress every now and again rather than junking it for a new one. Elsewhere there’s a robot in a knitted jumper weeding a garden and a drone hanging out the washing.
Aisslinger explores the idea of a chair farm, where bamboo is engineered to grow inside a mould in the shape of a chair. They’re quirky eco design ideas, not altogether serious, but food for thought.
“The point of the exhibition,” says Aisslinger, “is that designers don’t have to be in awe of technology. If it’s there and it’s usable, we use it. If it’s not, we don’t. We shouldn’t give too much importance to technology or the digital world, because we [humans] are analogic and I think our lives will continue to be more analogic.
“It is always nice to touch things. We are a generation of swipers. It’s been 10 years since the iPhone came out, and we’ve been touching glass all day long ever since. In 10 years, people will be using another interface altogether.”
Later, touring the new permanent exhibition space, iF Design Exhibition Hamburg, in the HafenCity design precinct, we ask Ralph Wiegmann to nominate three designs among the gold winners that left the biggest impression on him personally.
Reluctantly, for reasons of diplomacy, he plumps for the TetraPOT, a sea defence system of growing trees and roots; the Veraview X800, a dental 3D X-ray machine that offers CT, panoramic and cephalometric scans in the one unit; and Sweden’s Precision Paintbrush, for big jobs yet with the control of an artist’s brush.
“The quality and application of design has possibly reached its peak,” Wiegmann muses. “We are surrounded by super products and services – luckily not only for the wealthy people. Design, its quality and availability, should never be exclusive and selective.”
This article first appeared in Robb Report Australia. Photos Susan Skelly and courtesy iF Design Awards