Food: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A

How design is democratising the food of tomorrow

The V&A’s new exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate illustrates the way design influences the way food is perceived – and how it’s making the food industry fairer than ever before

Design is arguably as important to the art of eating as the food itself. After all, we eat with our eyes first, and nowadays branding is usually the first thing we see. Even dressing a plate is in itself a form of design.

The powerful relationship between food and design is of course well established. During the 20th century, design was a vital tool in communicating the importance of agriculture, seen in artists like Haydn Mackie, whose 1931 print The Land Worker spotlights the significant role of the farmer. Elsewhere, prominent wartime graphic artist Abram Games used design to encourage people to work in agriculture in order to support soldiers and citizens alike, notably with his Use Spades Not Ships poster.

Food: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A
Use Spades Not Ships poster by Abram Games, 1941-45; © Estate of Abram Games

However, if the V&A’s new exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate demonstrates anything, it’s that the role of design in the future of food is morphing into new forms – and accessibility is a crucial outcome, thanks in no small part to innovative technologies cropping up all the time. Technology has played a substantial role in changing the course of the food industry. From the Agricultural Revolution that began in 18th century Europe to the myriad ways in which the food trade is globalised today, it has literally altered the landscape of food.

After years of facilitating the exploitation of land, communities and markets around the world, technology is showing its potential to help level the agricultural playing field again through clever product design. One such initiative is the Personal Food Computer, an open-source platform developed by OpenAg – MIT Media Lab’s agricultural research division – which is designed to allow people to generate the conditions necessary to cultivate all kinds of crops at home. “An open-source technology like the Food Computer brings the barrier down,” Open Ag’s John de la Parra previously told CR. “It is that much easier for people to grow their own food, experiment with cutting edge technology, and be a part of the necessary change – rather than be subject to it.”

Open-source design is also central to the Aggrozouk, formerly known as the Bicitractor, developed by Farming Soul in partnership with Atelier Paysan. The pedal-powered contraption is intended to facilitate agricultural activities on smaller plots of land, as opposed to the high-cost, mass-scale operations that many typically envision when it comes to farming. Elsewhere, blockchain is being adopted as a tool for achieving a fairer, more open trade. Provenance is harnessing the technology to trace the origins of food, striving for greater transparency when it comes to its journey and life cycle. The aim behind the digital platform is for people – consumers, businesses and farmers alike – to have a better idea of the history behind where food products come from, which should allow individuals to make informed choices about what products they’re buying and, crucially, understand their impact.

Food: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A
Oyster mushrooms. Installation image at Food: Bigger than the Plate at V&A

Design is becoming integral to demonstrating that cultivation can involve anyone, regardless of constraints like budget or locale. Urban farming has been enjoying a surge in popularity in recent years, with products like GroCycle’s Urban Mushroom Farm illustrating how crops can be cultivated by anyone, anywhere. Meanwhile, brands like Company Drinks are opening up the whole process to the public, from growing and picking the ingredients that go into the drinks right through to trading and investing. Reviving the old tradition of East Londoners ‘hop picking’ in Kent, the community project is not only making the production of the drinks accessible to all, but even the product design and branding, too.

Beyond the cultivation and packaging of food, design is of course an intrinsic part of the dining experience – which, for people with various conditions and impairments, can become a difficult process to endure multiple times daily. Brands like Eatwell have built their product range around ‘assistive tableware’ which comes in bright colour schemes intended to assist those with dementia, and non-slip materials to aid those with cognitive impairments. Of course, sight also enhances what we’re about to eat so, upon realising the limitations that visually impaired people can face when it comes to experiencing food, a group of researchers in Peru created Kullay. The concept behind the project involves integrating varying shapes and surfaces into the design of the food product, which then serve as sensory signals as to what kind of taste or texture to expect, reinstating an additional dimension in the dining experience.

Food: Bigger than the Plate at the V&A
Totomoxtle by Fernando Laposse

However, the elephant in the room remains. What about the people around the world whose ground and communities have been irreversibly impacted by the onslaught of a globalised food trade? Designer Fernando Laposse is striving to draw eyes and ears to the politics of food and the fallout of the world’s patterns of consumption through Totomoxtle, a striking new material constructed from corn husks native to Mexico. “Totomoxtle focuses on regenerating traditional agricultural practices in Mexico, and creating a new craft that generates income for impoverished farmers while conserving biodiversity for future food security,” says Laposse.

For Catherine Flood, co-curator of the exhibition, Laposse’s efforts are one of the finest examples of how design can play a positive role in determining the future of food and agriculture the world over. The Totomoxtle project allows local people “to move away from industrial monoculture models of farming and recover the horribly eroded but once fertile soil of their land, whilst still making good money,” Flood tells CR. “At the same time, jobs are created where there were very few (and especially for young women), the biodiversity of the region prospers, and the world gets to keep the amazing native corns that might otherwise be lost. The diversity, deliciousness and cultural symbolism of these varieties are then available to Mexican chefs who are both celebrating and developing regional cuisines. It’s a really special project, and one which gives a good example of the interdisciplinary collaborations that I think are one of the most exciting aspects of current work happening with food at the moment.”

Food: Bigger than the Plate runs from 18 May – 20 October 2019; advance tickets are £17, concessions from £13;