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Design for Our Times

An exhibition exploring material innovation for our contemporary age at the V&A Dundee, curated by Design Exhibition Scotland

Make Works Scotland caught up with Design Exhibition Scotland founder and exhibition curator Susanna Beaumont about Design for Our Times, and the designers, materials and works she is sharing and showing.

Where did the idea for Design for Our Times emerge from and how did it develop into the exhibition currently at the V&A Dundee?

Like many others, I'm very much aware of the current landscape of how everybody is thinking about resources, their use, reuse and repurpose. I wanted to think about ideas that would show and expose the kind of process, thinking and ideas that so many designers, makers and artists are embracing. Having done two exhibitions in 2018 and 2019 that were more wide reaching, I thought it was a time to focus in and raise the visibility of designers that are working on these issues. The idea for the exhibition has been gestating for a while.

Design for Our Times exhibition, Michelin Gallery, V&A Dundee | photographer, Andy McGregor

With the V&A Dundee opening in 2018, the same year Design Exhibition Scotland launched our first exhibition, I've always been very aware of this vast, extraordinary new space on the banks of the River Tay, so it made sense to me, if we, as an initiative without our own space, were to present exhibitions we have to befriend and partner other organisations. Looking northwards from Edinburgh, I thought we have to take something there. As a spectator and visitor, going to the V&A Dundee’s exhibitions since they opened, I felt we could bring something that illuminated the practices and processes of so many designers, some of who live literally within spitting distance of the V&A Dundee. Obviously, there's lots of designers and ideas working internationally, but sometimes it was about amplifying what was happening within Scotland. It was quite a strategic move in that, as someone who works very much grass roots, funded from project to project, often by Creative Scotland, I could look at how I could bring my gathered knowledge and the relationships I've built up with designers over the last few years, and share and show that with the V&A Dundee, and their vast and varied audience.

Could you tell us about the breadth of materials, waste, processes, production and making / manufacturing that the exhibiting designers are exploring and challenging? Where do you and would a visitor find joy, innovation, the wow factor, surprise, serendipity?

Serendipity for me is Catriona Brown’s Shroom mycelium tree shelters. As a recent graduate of Product Design Engineering from The Glasgow School of Art, I encountered her work online at her degree show. I believe Shroom typifies that sense of energy, exploration and ambition – a sense of curiosity to buck the trend. Catriona is thinking afresh about tree shelters, usually always made of plastic, and used in huge numbers across Scotland in tree planting initiatives. It's about showing and sharing that endeavor and process of an individual, whether to a 10-year old school child or a 50 year old visitor, to demonstrate it is possible to change our habits by using materials differently. The mycelium tree shelters can decompose and essentially become part of the fabric of the soil beneath our feet, the earth that we walk on. Again, it's presenting not just the project itself, but evidence of the energy, initiative and innovation to realise it. Shroom is still very much in its infancy.

Shroom tree shelter, Catriona Brown | photographer, Michael McGurk

A project at a different stage of incubation is the K-Briq, a brick that's not made of virgin materials and doesn’t require kiln firing. Dr Gabriela Medero, a Brazilian engineer who moved to Glasgow in 2003 at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh has been developing it for 10 years. Gabriela has long thought, damn it, we've got all this waste from demolition, can we not harness and reuse that as part of the circular economy? She has also been questioning alternative colours for bricks, and it is rewarding to see exhibition visitors really delight in the idea that we can have bricks made from waste that are available in a variety of colours.

K-Briq, Kenoteq | photographer, Michael McGurk

Originally from France, Aymeric Renoud of Draff Studio is now based in Dundee having graduated from the city’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. As a big whisky fan, Aymeric has spent a lot of time visiting distilleries and realised from observation, and perhaps a little bit of tasting, that the distilling process, whether whisky, gin or even brewing, produced a lot of draff, which is spent wet grains that having had all the goodness extracted from them are sometimes given to animals as feed, but are more likely to go to landfill. Aymeric’s curiosity about thinking in a circular fashion, about how to harness materials deemed as waste, rethinking and reimagining them, has started making furniture using draff. After a period of experimentation, trial and error, Aymeric now makes really beautiful furniture from dried spent grain, which has been mashed, compressed and held together with a bio resin. If you look closely, you can see maybe a piece of cinnamon or a clove from the distilling process, particularly from the botanicals used in gin. And that's happening five miles from the V&A Dundee, so amplifying, and showing that these energetic ideas are happening locally.

Table and screen made by Draff Studio | photographer, Michael McGurk

Reflecting on the commonplace and celebrated drinking fountains of the 19th and 20th centuries, important in the provision of free, clean drinking water, after realising cholera and disease can come from contaminated water, Dixon arose. Since the rise of bottled water, and our habit of buying water that we can drink in minutes but is wrapped in plastic that will last thousands of years, we tend to think water out of our tap is not good enough; which is difficult to comprehend here in Scotland where we are fortunate to have brilliant water pouring out of our taps. It seems to me, to counter the obviously huge capitalist push to make us buy water, that if we have the opportunity to fill up our bottles, we can buck the trend of using single use plastics. So, working with Mirrl of Glasgow on the beautiful Dixon fountain, the form of which is very much based on a kitchen tap, makes clear via a visual language what it does. The prototype drinking fountain is clad in Mirrl, a durable polyester resin, is currently in the Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, Germany. We need to have a pragmatic relationship with plastic; we need it, we use it. It's arguably one of the most extraordinary inventions of the 20th century, liberating lots of us to do much more than we could have done previously. But with that comes responsibility, and we need to understand that if we invent, we have to reuse, and think about how we dispose. So, telling the whole story rather than just the starting point.

Dixon drinking fountain, Mirrl of Glasgow | photographer, Michael McGurk

And to finish, Future Practical were commissioned to make the exhibition plinths for the exhibited works. In an exhibition scenario, plinths are typically made of plywood or MDF and are simply binned or skipped after the exhibition because they can’t be stored. For Design for Our Times, Future Practical worked with aluminium, a material we've a familiarity with since the early 19th century, that can be recycled and infinitely reused. In their thinking process and designing Future Practical have created beautiful modular plinths made of perforated aluminium sheet, working with North Sea Coatings in Arbroath, 10 miles north of Dundee, on the how to of fabrication. As quite a small practice, fairly new to Glasgow, the collaboration with a well-established manufacturer, generous with their ideas was extraordinary and nourishing for them. In commissioning the plinths, the Museum has added value to the plinths. Having followed the making journey with the designers, the plinths have become cherished objects in themselves. The V&A Dundee can reuse them until they no longer want them, when they can be recycled; and there's a recycling depot soon to be established near Fort William.

Stools by Chalk Plaster, on plinths designed by Future Practical | photographer, Michael McGurk

Andrew Miller is a Glasgow based artist working across a variety of media including drawing, sculpture, photography and site-specific installations. Through a process of drawing, altering, transforming and making, Miller seeks to gain an understanding of the ambiguity between notions of form and function, often imagining new uses for unwanted everyday objects. His Pend lights – taking their name from the old Scot’s word for a passageway whilst also referencing the ‘pendant’ light - are made of reconfigured glass vessels and vases bought from second-hand shops. I find these light sculptures beautiful and poignant - reimagining and reconfiguring the discarded into something magical - they demonstrate how thoughtful design can breathe new life into unwanted objects.

Pend Lights, Andrew Miller | photographer, Michael McGurk

How is the work of the designers in Scotland in the exhibition contributing to local, national and global discussions about sustainability and design’s role in addressing this? Where does it, or where can it be making that difference?

I always hope it's an act of provocation. Often the individual can be more agile than the large-scale institution. And it is that designer craftsperson that can respond, be more nimble and much more inventive. I'm hoping that tickles the conscience of a wider population, but also businesses that are maybe not considering or find the idea of moving to new ways of working or sourcing materials a challenge. In the instance of K-Briq, they've got to take on a construction industry that is fast and somewhat monolithic; how do you do that? It's about creating an energy, and energy is heat, and heat is power to provoke change. And I think that is happening. If an individual can address it, surely larger scale organisations should be and could be? So, it is an act of provocation, and I think that's what's important to show that is happening at this level. Fife-based Chalk Plaster work with gypsum plaster board, and again, they are thinking about what's close to hand and under foot - a phrase that I keep returning to - so it's both rethinking materials that are more local, which can be used and reused, but also not far afield. So tickling ideas along, I suppose.

What do you believe is the untapped potential of sustainable design and manufacturing in Scotland and how could this be harnessed to tackle some of our biggest environmental and social challenges on our doorstep and further afield?

Again, Scotland is an agile country. It's a fairly small country, with a fascinating relationship to the land, the vast landscape with its huge population centres as well as communities buying land and islands. There is a real rethinking about our relationship to and ownership of the land that we inhabit. And I think it's a case of joining up the dots to realise that the creativity of the nation is vital to its wellbeing. Having recently just put a stamp of James Watt's famed steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution on a letter, I am reminded of recognising and celebrating that creativity. As a nation it’s important to appreciate the need for that sense of adventure and innovation that leads to change. We need somebody to take risks, to think about new ways of working and using materials. It is so vital, and Scotland has to recognise that creative energy. Designers and creatives, often in cold studios, are working and thinking of new ways to take risks that in turn can provoke change. It may take years like the K-Briq, but, it was Gabriela's tenacity to think I can do this differently, which has recently seen them receive a significant amount of support from Zero Waste Scotland. That's been a long journey, and I think it's understanding and supporting that creative endeavor which is vital.

Design for Our Times is at the Michelin Gallery in the V&A Dundee until Sunday 19 June 2022
The exhibition is curated by Design Exhibition Scotland, supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland

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