Along a backlit wood-and-paper wall of an exhibition space in Milan, the young designers rocked in place, nervously tapping their feet as they awaited the big announcement. The Lexus Design Award 2016, which began last October with 1,232 submissions interpreting this year’s theme of "Anticipation," concluded on April 11 at Milan Design Week. There, a room packed with design aficionados, industry heavyweights, camera crews, and press from around the globe—not to mention the designers themselves—eagerly waited for one team to be crowned Grand Prix winner.
The designers emerged from the largest, most diverse, and ambitious field in the Lexus Design Award’s four-year history. Their projects, intended to not only foresee but also address the future needs of individuals and society, first impressed the jury of six internationally renowned judges in late November, when the 1,232 entries from 73 countries were narrowed to 12 finalists. In January, each finalist was selected by the competition’s mentors, all world-class designers, who then worked closely with the emerging talent to bring their concepts to life. Armed with expert guidance and a production budget of nearly $30,000, the prototype winners spent the next three months refining their concepts with their mentors—expanding their scopes, fine-tuning their focus and sometimes their fabrication—in an effort to realize the full potential of their submissions. The hard work was equal to the high stakes, with the projects’ future commercial success and social impact hinging on their execution. All four projects made an impression on the crowd and jury, demonstrating the transformative power of design.
When the big moment arrived, Lexus International president Tokuo Fukuichi opened the envelope and announced the Grand Prix winner: "AMAM for AGAR PLASTICITY."
In many ways, it was a fairy-tale ending. Only a month before the submission deadline, AMAM’s creators—Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani, and Akira Muraoka, a young design trio from Japan—had struck upon a brilliant idea: Agar, the gelatinous food additive derived from red algae and frequently used in East Asian desserts, could be used for packaging, and in so doing, help end our reliance on fossil-fuel-based plastics. Entirely biodegradable and widely available (especially in Japan), agar could, they realized, be rendered into a variety of packaging applications and potentially reduce harmful pollution. From there, the three friends, who met studying at Tama Art University in Tokyo, embarked on a frenzy of creative material experimentation that left their kitchens a mess and their minds reeling with possibility.
"We were starting from scratch," Araki says. "It was all trial and error." For the softer cushioning structures, they distilled and froze the agar; to produce stiffer filmlike material, they compressed the distilled agar. The process was exacting, but the results reflected the organic nature of their creation. "It’s a natural substance so exact geometric shapes were difficult," Araki says. "But sometimes that distortion gave a certain beauty to the outcome."
Enter Max Lamb, mentor and British design icon, who was attracted to the potential of AGAR PLASTICITY from the moment he saw it. "The greatest weakness and strength was that the possibilities were entirely unknown," he says. "Those question marks were what sold it for me. I knew that this had the potential to be really big." Lamb pushed his mentees to think on a much larger scale, encouraging them to use agar but also to combine it with other substances to expand its manifold applications. The rush of experimentation began again, and eventually, the AMAM trio settled on three variations: the original 100% agar powder for thin paper- and cellophane-like packaging; formulations that mixed agar and red algae fiber for moldable cushioning; and an agar-seashell ash composite that yields an antibacterial hard-plastic alternative.
By the time they brought their prototype to Milan, it contained a broad range of applications, from wine bottle sleeves to clear food wrappers for bowls. In their presentation, AMAM featured a proof of concept: They pulled out a still-sealed FedEx envelope sent to Milan from Japan and opened it onstage to reveal a block of cushioned packaging that contained a glass perfume bottle—unbroken. "It works!" Araki said, triumphantly holding the bottle aloft.
Functionality and real-world concerns figure heavily in the judging, according to Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA in New York, who’s been on the jury to select the Lexus Design Award every year since its inception. "I was amazed by it. It was truly about new functions, materials, and applications," she says of AMAM’s design. "It’s very easy to concoct something that’s perfect in your mind. The tough step is to bring it into the real world. With this winner, the hopes are huge."
And yet none were bigger than those of the AMAM designers themselves. For them, the Lexus Design Award, entitled "Anticipation," created just that. They arrived well aware of the impressive track record of past Grand Prix winners—both in terms of exposure and commercial development. The trio left with the hope that the industry buzz will lead them into meaningful discussions with environmental groups, social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and manufacturers. "The next step is to industrialize the materials," Araki says. "In five years, we want every package shipped to be using agar. Then every plastic bag, plastic pen, maybe even all plastics..."
For an inside look at the finalists’ work, as well as scenes from Lexus Design Award events, explore the Lexus International website; on Instagram, check out @Lexusdesignaward