The British/Ghanaian architect David Adjaye – indeed, Sir David Adjaye – is rarely in one place for long. A couple of weeks ago, he was in Ghana, checking in on his expanding studio in Lagos, and the designs for a cathedral there. “More a place of gathering and celebration than a denominational kind of church,” he explained.
After that, it was back to London to commence work on the restructuring of the Grenfell Tower site. But by Monday this week he was in Milan just as the Salone – the annual furniture fair – was kicking off. He was visiting in his capacity as the newest member of the jury that oversees the Lexus Design Prize, which is now in its sixth year.
“I’m never too busy to do something that gives me different optics on problems,” he said. “When I’m looking at submissions, I seek out something I just couldn’t have imagined myself. A younger generation has a different view – it broadens my own thinking to be exposed to it.” This year that included a new fibre made from cork and an ink that tells you how fresh your eggs are.
Lexus takes its prize seriously. Of course it’s all in the service of the brand – look at us, and our non-stop, enquiring design minds! – but the company certainly goes through the process with conviction. There’s the jury for a start, which apart from Adjaye includes Paola Antonelli, the senior design curator at New York’s MOMA, the writer and all-round cultural savant Alice Rawsthorn and the Japanese superstar architect Shigeru Ban. “We have massive debates and discussions and arguments,” said Antonelli. “This prize is not given lightly!”
This year the 12 finalists were selected from over 1300 international entries. “All unpublished projects,” said Adjaye with amazement. The young designers are then introduced to mentors, industry experts who coach them towards the final delivery of their projects which become part of big Lexus-led design event.
Among the mentors was the outstanding New York lighting designer Linsday Edelman, who worked with those Portuguese cork people, Ana Trindade Fonseca and Brimet Fernandes da Silva. “I told them to get their story straight and make their presentation completely legible. Milan’s tough. People take 15 seconds to look, then move on,” she said. (Elsewhere in Milan, Edelman herself was showing her new Drop lighting design where blown glass bubbles clung to patinated brass rods, like white currants on a branch.)
These days, design is less about products and more about alternative solutions and systems, intelligent ways to use technology, and the creation of experience rather than objects. The Japanese textile designer Eriko Yokoi had created a system of interconnected holders in soft grey recycled fiber in which plants could grow. It was suspended in a vitrine, like a horticultural chandelier. The Honest Egg project, by young Malaysians Paul Yong Rit Fui and Jihar Jailani bin Ismail, centred on a new ink to be applied in a pattern directly onto the eggshell; the ink changes colour as the egg ages.
The winners, though, were an enthusiastic German-American duo based in Brooklyn who work under the name of The Extrapolation Factory. They had devised a community-based project in Queens, asking locals what were the issues in their day to day lives, and how they could be improved. “It is about people curating their own futures,” said one of the Factory workers. Solutions included growing plants in subway trains and having storytelling boxes in public places, like Punch and Judy booths, in which anyone could stand to recount a tale.
It was all wonderfully utopian. Adjaye said that he hoped the winners would provoke some surprise. “There is a fatigue around products. Designers need to become more interested in creating emotional experience, and this goes in the right direction.”
The exhibition of these thoughtful young designers quite rightly pulls in a crowd, and the brand had parked a box fresh, sunny yellow Lexus LF-1 parked out front, in case they forget who was running this show.
A little more Milan
David Adjaye wasn’t the lone architect in Milan. Elsewhere, the Brooklyn-based Snarkitecture displayed the virtues of quartz worktop material, Cesarstone, by building a dramatic amphitheatre; Carmody Groarke showed off a new vodka brand; and John Pawson was at his perfectionist best, with new tables and benches at Salviati.
When Pawson designs furniture it is, like his architecture, devoid of extraneous details and a celebration of perfectly worked materials. In this case, he had chosen marble, limestone and cherry for a series that included crisply rectangular, low-lying coffee tables, and slinkily curved outdoor benches of marble and rough limestone. Investment pieces, of a very subtle stripe.
By day, you could have missed the installation by Kevin Carmody and Andrew Groarke at Wallpaper Handmade – the exhibition that pairs designers with brands and manufacturers for a brief flirtation. In this case, the brand was Elit, a new high-end Russian vodka, and the brief was to design a bar with a nod to the king of Constructivism, El Lissitzky.
The architects came up with a cluster of aluminium blocks, that came alive at night when doused with light and a hundred twinkling vodka bottles. “It’s more a model than anything else,” said Kevin Carmody, “and an homage to the Russian avant-garde movement that embraced everything from art to architecture to design.”
Recently, Carmody has been preoccupied with a project on a rather different scale – the Windermere Jetty Museum in Cumbria. There, full-size steamboats and yachts will be on display in the new building and visitors will get glimpses of a full restoration workshop. If Milan is fleeting fun, the Cumbria museum will show designs that have more than stood the test of time.