Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2019 and it may well feel like a different lifetime in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It is against this backdrop that London’s Design Museum is hosting the 13th edition of its annual Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition.
To bring the show to life during lockdown, this year’s team of curators and judges not only had to navigate the challenge of enforced remote working, but also putting together a display that succeeds in celebrating the biggest design moments of last year without ignoring the Covid-shaped elephant in the room.
As usual, the awards’ 70-odd nominations are split across six categories: Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Graphics, Product and Transport. In light of the pandemic, however, guest curator Emily King took the decision to divide up the exhibits chronologically rather than by category for the first time.
Creative director Veronica Ditting was commissioned to lead this year’s exhibition design and approached the look and feel of the space as though walking through a life-sized version of a magazine, tracing 2019’s design story from the beginning of the year right up until January 2020 – when news of the pandemic first began to make waves across the globe.
In a similar vein to recent years, politics and protest play a big part throughout the show. Stormzy’s Union Jack-adorned stab-proof vest, created by Banksy to mark the rapper becoming the first Black British artist to headline Glastonbury, is marked out as a defining moment of the year. Cold War Steve’s satirical collages, a series of brick arches designed by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to act as roadblocks for police vehicles, and a virtual open library created in Minecraft to bypass censorship in oppressive regimes, are also spotlighted.
Dovetailing with the exhibition’s focus on social justice is a whole raft of sustainable and eco-friendly designs. These include a variety of products and projects with real-world impact, such as plant-based brand Impossible Foods’ follow up to its viral Impossible Burger; carbon-conscious credit card Do Black, which allows users to monitor the environmental impact of their transactions; and fashion designs such as the vegan leather, gender-neutral Telfar bag – dubbed ‘the accessory of the decade’ by Dazed.
Other eco-minded designs in the show are more speculative in nature. Commissioned for an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ouroboros Steak’s starter kit to culture your own cells into mini steaks is actually intended as a critical commentary on the eco-credentials of the burgeoning lab-grown meat industry, while Bleached Coral is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Pantone choosing Living Coral as its colour of the year at a time when much of the oceans’ coral reefs are being killed off.
Beyond activism and the environment, this year’s judging panel has broadened its scope to include designs that in turn have become part of the wider pop culture conversation. The haunting sound design for drama series Chernobyl; Lee Ha Jun’s set design for this year’s Oscar-winner Parasite; and The Irishman’s much debated de-ageing technology are all hailed as shining examples of design in the film and TV world.
Meanwhile, the industry’s impact on the realm of social media is illustrated via the clout of virtual influencer Miquela, who has racked up five million followers across various social platforms, along with 15-year-old Jalaiah Harmon’s Renegade dance routine, which went viral on TikTok last September. These broader definitions of what design means mark a distinct change from the show’s typical focus on social design projects – a fair chunk of which never make it much beyond the confines of the studio they were created in, further perpetuating the criticism that the design industry is guilty of talking to itself.
Despite providing a welcome break from the onslaught of coronavirus related news that we’re now forced to digest on a daily basis, the show doesn’t ignore the impact of the pandemic entirely. Designs such a self-sanitising door handle, initially unveiled in September 2019, will likely take on much more significance than even its creators could have imagined in the coming months and years.
Then there are the early examples of how the design world has responded to the pandemic, with Wuhan’s Leishenshan Hospital, which was brought to life in just 12 days by 10,000 construction workers, included. Also featured is the original 3D rendering of the virus – complete with its distinctive red spikes – created by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help raise public awareness of the oncoming pandemic, and subsequently replicated on news programmes and magazine covers around the globe.
The show’s curators are keen to point out that it is still too early to assess the real-world impact of much of the design work surrounding the pandemic. While next year’s Designs of the Year will likely focus on a crisis of epic proportions that is still very much unfolding, for now visitors can take a brief respite from it and be transported back in time to a pre-pandemic world – even if it’s just for a moment.
Beazley Designs of the Year 2020 is on display at the Design Museum until March 28. Individual category winners and one overall winner will be announced on November 26; designmuseum.org