The best designers accomplish a neat trick: They combine insights about what humans need with physical material and their own wild imagination, building bridges between what is and what will be. Which makes it especially appropriate that the theme for this year’s Lexus Design Award is "Anticipation."
When the Lexus Design Award’s all-star panel of judges and mentors met in Tokyo last fall, they sifted through hundreds of ingenious, incredibly diverse entries from around the globe that illuminated possibilities for tomorrow. Their goal: to find 12 standout projects. One of the most exciting aspects of the Lexus Design Award program is that four out of 12 winning projects will be prototyped for display in April at the prestigious Milan Design Week 2016, with their designers receiving hands-on mentoring from luminaries in the field. And it is in Milan that the esteemed judges will ultimately select a single Grand Prix winner.
At a time when many designers reflexively reach for technology-based solutions, proposals that focused on human touch particularly appealed to the judges. DADA, a fresh take on traditional children’s blocks, was created by Korean designer Myungsik Jang, who is being mentored by the Shanghai-based husband-and-wife design team Neri & Hu. His new version isn’t actually blocky at all. DADA has components made of different natural materials—wood, rubber, stone—which children reconfigure as they play, connecting them with various bands, holes, and pegs. Jang sees the toy as channeling children’s "invisible imagination through real objects" and as a way to physically embody their questions: What can I make with this? How can I build something different?
Even DADA’s name is playful and multilayered: It’s a contraction of a Korean sentence that means "everything is different." But it’s also meant to evoke Dadaism, the 20th-century art movement that "used daily objects in a more artistic way," as Jang explains it. "I want children’s work to look like sculpture."
The creative possibilities opened up by DADA intrigued Neri & Hu. "It was only presented to us at 10 percent of capacity; there’s a whole 90 percent it could be developed into, and that’s why we were drawn to it," says Rossana Hu. "This is much more than just simple playing." During their first mentoring session, Neri & Hu encouraged Jang to do more research—not only into not how children play but also how art is created. DADA’s simple materials also compelled Neri & Hu. "We’re so used to having technology around us that we’ve become lazy," Neri says. "We often take for granted the ordinary, the everyday."
Transforming the ordinary was also the philosophical springboard for another prototype winner, Agar Plasticity. According to Kosuke Araki of Amam, the Japanese design trio behind Agar Plasticity, they were in the supermarket when they were struck by the physical beauty of agar, a gelatinous algae-derived product traditionally used in Asian desserts. As they studied its molecular structure, they hypothesized that it might work as packing material or food packaging. As they began to experiment, they found agar surprisingly moldable. "Every product designed from now on should consider sustainability," Araki says. "And we started to feel a possibility that agar could be a substitute for oil-based plastics."
That sense of possibility is what most appealed to Amam’s mentor, the British designer Max Lamb. "Rather than answering questions in their proposal, they actually asked a question," he says. "The most interesting part of it is the unknown." He believes the possibilities for Amam’s agar packaging could be even greater than the designers realize, which he conveyed to them during his mentoring session. But he also pushed them to think practically about the market—something idealistic young designers often forget to do. "It's absolutely fine to challenge perceptions and preconceived ideas of how a material must perform, but ultimately it has to be desirable to the consumer," Lamb says. "If it's more expensive or more labor-intensive or not as functional than an oil-based derivative, how is it ever going to compete?"
The other two winning projects that will be prototyped with the help of Lexus Design Award mentors: Canadian-Italian designer Angelene Fenuta is developing a special, modular textile called Shape Shifters with her mentor, Venice, Italy-based architect Elena Manferdini. The idea is to allow the wearer the ability to refashion one piece of clothing into many configurations. And London-based Studio Ayaskan is developing TRACE, a clock that uses UV-sensitive liquid to mark the passage of time, under the mentorship of the New York-based designers Snarkitecture. It’s simple, but visually stunning.
The judges chose eight additional projects as panel finalists:
• aniknown, a line of clothing for animals by Ayami Marugata of Japan
• Bio-Vide, a table incorporating fallen leaves, by Japan’s Takuma Yamazaki
• Drop Box, a distribution system that allows humanitarian shipments to be airdropped without a parachute, from the Chinese designers Ding Dong, Jincai Ma, Junxi Huang, and Peter Luo
• Hexagon, a magnetized umbrella from the Australia-based Chinese designer Chulin Yang
• Plants-Skin, a planter using special ink and mortar to provide visual reminders of when to water the plants, by Hiroto Yoshizoe of Japan
• Project Play, a magnet-enabled rubber lamp, by Britain’s Oliver Staiano
• Resolution of Sound Location, a new, multidirectional personal-speaker system created by the Japanese duo Owls
• Slow Door, a new form of entryway by India’s Deepak Jawahar and Romania’s Irina Bogdan
All of the winning projects take elements of the familiar—everyday household objects like the planter or even doorways—and reimagine them in a manner that makes us rethink the previous solutions. All embody the theme of this year’s Lexus Design Award: Anticipation. And all compel us to ask a question that can have a million different answers: What will the future look like?