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Bright ideas

A lamp that tackles aggression, a film about North Korea's lack of pizza: the Royal College of Art's graduation show shows young designers thinking creatively about global problems

July is showtime for thousands of design students across the nation: the month when they reveal the fruit of their experimental labours to the public. And for a glimpse of what preoccupies the designers of the future, there is nowhere better than the Royal College of Art's graduation show, which I caught last week just before it closed.

Graduates of the country's most famous design school have been known to launch entire careers from their student projects. Last year's star pupil even walked away with the UK's most prestigious design prize, the Design Museum's Brit Insurance Designs of the Year award, for an ingenious folding plug. And yet that plug was an anomaly. It would be wrong to think that RCA students spend two years of postgraduate study building up to the perfect, production-ready consumer object. That is not just an erroneous notion of what education is for; it's also an outdated concept of the role that design plays in the 21st century.

Take one of the most arresting objects in this year's exhibition: a standard lamp with a garrotte for a switch. To turn the light off, you have to strangle it for the same amount of time (about 20 seconds) that it takes to kill a person. After what seems like a morbidly slow and strenuous process, the bulb is snuffed. Named the Strangle Poise Lamp – a play on the iconic Anglepoise, designed by George Carwardine in 1932 – it is the young designer James Chambers's response to research suggesting that films and computer games are leading to a more aggressive society. Other so-called Red Goods, including the Twister Knife Block (as you twist the knife in, the block emits a groan), Chambers is proposing that we can enact our violent fantasies and channel some of our pent-up aggression.

Are these useful products? Do they work? I think such questions miss the point. Design objects don't just have to fulfil a servile function to be useful; they can be tools to help us look at ourselves and our society, to ask questions, to raise ethical dilemmas. This is the kind of thing that the RCA's Design Interactions department specialises in. An off-shoot of the computer and software design industry, interaction design isn't so much about designing objects, it's more about designing our relationships with them. And it consistently produces some of the most thought-provoking work in design today. Students at the RCA collaborate with synthetic biologists, geneticists, doctors and even economists to ask questions as varied as: can we grow our own meat in the laboratory? And what is the future of money? This year, one student has devised a series of tools to help us get over our fear of nuclear energy, while another has invented a telescopic video device with a virtual hand for you to stroke things that you fear – a kind of physical aversion therapy for those of us susceptible to the media-driven frenzy of virus epidemics, terrorism and climate catastrophe.

So was it all soul-searching and doom and gloom? Not at all. If you were in the mood for some good ol' products, there were plenty of those around. Two in particular stood out. Seongyong Lee's wooden stools are elegant and solid, but don't look special – until you pick one up and discover that it weighs almost nothing. With their hollow legs of wound maple veneer, they were a delightful testament to this young Korean's craft skills. And they had a metal counterpart in Harry Thaler's aluminium Pressed Chair, another ultra-light design that is both efficient and economical. You can transport them flat, like stacks of millimetre-thick starfish, and then simply fold them out into chairs. Unlike Gio Ponti's featherweight classic, the Superleggera, which even in 1957 looked nostalgic – it had a woven cane seat – these two designs feel very much of their time.

However, there was also polemic at every turn. Several students had created their own micro-factories. One offered a workshop for an itinerant cabinet maker, enabling whoever operated it to transform urban detritus into furniture. Another had created an elaborate series of Heath Robinson-style contraptions to allow people to make their own clay mugs with a mass-production finish. A third had created a full-size mockup of a home chicken farm: a small coop surrounded by products recycling every last scrap of the processed birds – egg cups made from chicken-bone china, a bomber jacket covered in chicken skin. Where once design students would have been training to work with industrial manufacturers, today they are using craft to explore a new take on industry, one that is self-sufficient and in which anyone can participate. It's a charming vision, tempting and apparently sustainable, but I wonder whether this techno-regression in a world of exponential population growth isn't also a little escapist.

But the work that left the biggest impression on me was not a product, it was a film entitled Pizzas for the People. Created by Hwang Kim, one of the RCA's many talented Korean students, it's a piece of political propaganda aimed at North Koreans. It takes the form of a four-part miniseries (with impressively high production values), in which a young North Korean couple show viewers how to do the kinds of ordinary things that young western couples do: dance to pop songs, pack a suitcase and, crucially, make pizza. That may sound patronising, but, after talking to Kim, I realised that there is only one pizza restaurant in North Korea, too expensive for all but a tiny handful of people. The series is full of similarly subversive cultural material designed to infiltrate the country's stifling isolationism. Even better, Kim paid Chinese smugglers to import hundreds of DVDs of the series into North Korea for sale on the black market.

As such projects demonstrate, young designers today are less interested in simply feeding the great maw of consumption. They aspire to bigger things culturally. They aim to hold up a mirror to society and, where possible, influence it. All very well in theory, I hear you say. Are these graduates going to get jobs? Well, surely that too is an old-fashioned way of understanding how designers operate today. Sure, there are jobs around, but not necessarily designing chairs and spoons. Design can take you in unpredictable directions these days. And – at least on the evidence of this show – there's a new, canny breed of graduates who know how to get funding, how to get their work seen and how to create a space in which they can operate. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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