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Aidan Walker musters a few reflections on the upcoming FX Award shortlist

October is FX Awards month, and an unusual slot for me – instead of judging or having to manage the incredibly time consuming and politically fraught process of collating the entries and handling the judging (and the judges!), this month, with the kind permission and indeed encouragement of our esteemed Mrs Ed, I get to ponder the shortlists, consider the entries, speak as I find… and discover how wrong I can be when the winners are announced.

The shortlists are no secret (anyone can see them at http://www.fxdesignawards.co.uk/pages/shortlist.html), so I’m not breaking any confidentiality agreements discussing them. This new transparency is quite a luxury in itself, and makes the Awards a matter for more general consumption over a longer period than previously, which can only be a good thing. This particular scheme has to be one of, if not the most, reliable and accurate means of taking the temperature of the professional design industry in this country and worldwide, figuring out what is important to clients and their designers, getting an idea about which way the big ideas are going and how they are changing.

Let’s have a look at British designers working abroad, or in this particular case Project Orange working in India. It is by no means stretching a point to identify the I-Bar in Bangalore and the Park Hotel in Mumbai, both of them rich in imagination and cultural reference, as the leisure destinations of a newly sophisticated and westernised professional middle class in that restless and turbulent country. Its long imperial history renders India more English than England in some old-fashioned ways (the railway system is still genuinely Victorian, not heritage-retro fake Victorian) but it is now flexing its fast-growing economic muscle so confidently as to be downright threatening. Westernisation, or at least Britishness of some sort, has been part of India’s social, administrative and political fabric for nearly three centuries, and although the received idea of the place is usually one of abject poverty, there has always been wealth a-plenty. So what new factors are driving the demand for the sort of intelligent, multi-faceted leisure design which the Orange people do so well? Information technology must be part of the answer, but one can hardly believe the BT Broadband ‘cyber-coolies’ in the call centres of Bangalore slope off down to the I-Bar for their after-work sherbets. Call centre wages are higher than the Indian average, but there is a cultural, not just a financial, phenomenon at work here.

Retail, leisure and hospitality – traditionally the market sectors where the ideas flow almost as thick and fast as the money – don’t seem to be wowing me nearly as much this year as the public sector, public space work. Perhaps it’s just a good year for one and not for the other, or perhaps it signifies a genuine shift in the public sector client body’s appreciation of good design. Not to say that there isn’t any good work in retail and leisure – of course there is, but I am tempted to mark it down either as rather less than original, or so absurdly, ridiculously extravagant that it boggles the mind. ‘Indulgent’, even ‘decadent’, are words that pop up in the entries’ accompanying text to a worrying degree. Do we really want to flock to ‘decadent’ places of entertainment? Perhaps we do. Check out Australian consultancy Woods Bagot’s work for the Silk Road club in Melbourne if you want a real eye popper; Rome burning springs to mind. As a contrast, pop across to Sacramento California for a lesson in restrained Modernism at the hands of Uxus, whose Ella Dining Room and Bar has the clarity and calm one used to associate with the very best of British.

I’d far rather have the intellectual rigour and clear headed engagement with such pressing issues as health or education, represented here by Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Maggie’s Centre for cancer sufferers, and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Westminster Academy, a school to live for if ever there was one. Such work surely indicates not only a measurable rise in the public sector client body’s commitment to good design, but also the payoff of a great deal of serious thinking about how well designed environments are inextricably entwined with better health and better schooling. More of that please.

For me, FX 2008 is an unusual year mostly because of the products. Reading, digesting and pondering the work, then letting it simmer as I go about my business, the mind keeps coming back to lighting and furniture. It also seems to be coming across Pearson Lloyd more than somewhat – my, how those two gentlemen are at the top of their game. Their characteristic blend of technical virtuosity, elegant aesthetic and deep rooted craftsmanship is coming to fruition in a powerful and persuasive body of work. Their Lox barstool for Walter Knoll and Edge table for Danish company Danerka positively gleam with the results of ‘total design’ – sophisticated technology, seductive simplicity, logical and ultra-clear thinking, a pinsharp-accurate eye for sheer beauty, and what we might call, at the risk of being thought hippies, soul. Pearson Lloyd’s products have untrammelled delight, a quality most products strive for and almost all miss by a mile.

Then have a look at the lighting. Whatever is this? An OMG moment at the hands of Lee Prince of Light and Design Associates, who with German developer and manufacturer Kalmar Gmbh has designed a monumental piece of extravagant illuminated engineering for the Qatar Education City Convention Centre, a room measuring a mere 10,000sq m (the biggest football field you can have in the UK is 8,250). Oh, and the ceiling? Only 16m high. So if your name is Lee Prince you design a light fitting that changes a 4500-seat convention centre into an ‘intimate’ dining space for a much more modest 2000 people – at least, it does when there are 28 of them hanging from that 16m ceiling. Each one weighs 380kg and is 3.8m high when closed, but it is made up of ‘leaves’ which open to a span of more than 5m, rising and falling to effectively bring the ceiling way, way down. They change colour, they operate individually or in sequence, they practically dance with you. Together, the 28 fixtures use 383,600 pieces of Swarovski Strass crystals… enough, you say. This is ‘Islamic style’ gone bonkers. What about energy efficiency? Aha, says Mr Prince. His 28 fittings use 23,688 RGB LED sources, and each fixture uses 280 watts fully lit, making a total of 7840 watts for the room, or only about 3 times more than the biggest dining room I ever had – it was a really large one… about 50 sq m. Say what you like about the aesthetic, this is wildly ambitious but nonetheless very clever design. And that is what the FX Awards, when all is said and done, are about. See you there.

Posted in FX Column - assorted design writings.

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