The user-friendly, best-selling iPod, created by Jonathan Ive and the design team at Apple (AAPL), is today's go-to example of how elegant design can fuel a powerful business. With business placing more emphasis on design strategy and more companies prowling top art schools for graduates, however, it can be challenging for corporations to find fresh, forward-thinking talent capable of creating the next iPod.
A new book, & Fork (to be released in May by Phaidon), offers an intriguing design resource for businesses. The heavy, oversized volume features 100 young industrial designers, chosen by 10 of the world's foremost authorities on contemporary design, ranging from magazine editors such as Julie Lasky, editor-in-chief of New York-based I.D., to such leading designers as London-based Tom Dixon.
But why should executives pay attention to an artsy coffee-table book such as & Fork? The tome's predecessor, Spoon (get it?), published in 2002, also featured 100 young designers, many of whom went on to become well-known, even iconic design stars—such as Apple's Ive; Hella Jongerius, later tapped by IKEA to create home accessories; Konstantin Grcic, recruited by Braun to design kitchen appliances; and Marc Newson, who became creative director of Qantas Airlines and designed goods for Dom Perignon and Samsonite.
Phaidon editor Emilia Terragni used the same formula for & Fork to predict design stars of the near future. Today, Spoon reads like a Who's Who of contemporary industrial design, while & Fork reads like a Who's Next, although it does feature a couple of established designers, such as San Francisco-based Yves Béhar, who has already worked with Toshiba and Nike (NKE) on high-profile projects, and New York's Antenna Design, which created JetBlue's (JBLU) check-in kiosks and a PC for Fujitsu.
Art vs. Commerce
The 100 designers chosen for & Fork are "a very versatile crew made up of original thinkers," writes I.D.'s Lasky in an e-mail. "I think corporations would do well to snap up their ideas (with appropriate compensation)," he adds.
Some of the designers create pieces that seem more like thought-provoking sculptures for a hip art gallery than practical products soon to be found on store shelves. These include Iron Chair X, a 2006 furniture prototype by Seoul-based Jackson Hong, a former product designer for Samsung Motors. The chair features eight sharp spikes on the seat and back to prevent someone from making him or herself too comfortable.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are familiar-looking, ultra-commercial designs such as the sleek home-theater systems by Yun-je Kang, creative director of Samsung Electronics' audio-visual cluster design team. Although these two designers have worked with a major Asian corporation, they aren't household names globally. And international businesses and design managers can benefit from the juxtaposition of provocative personal design with consumer-oriented products.
Getting Squiggly With It
The book is also a survey of new materials and processes with which these young, relatively unknown designers (mainly in their 30s and early 40s) are experimenting. One spread features outdoor furniture by Dutch designer Ineke Hans (chosen by Didier Krzentowski, owner of the Paris design emporium Galerie Kreo). The chairs and tables are 100% made from plastic found along canals in the Netherlands that has been recycled and are resistant to outdoor elements such as wind and sun.
And members the Swedish design group FRONT (selected by Francesca Picchi, editor of Italian design magazine Domus), use motion-capture software and hardware to record their hand gestures sketching out life-size chairs, tables, and lamps, for their project "Sketch Furniture" (2005).
These motions were transformed into 3D objects via rapid prototyping equipment, resulting in playful furniture with charming squiggly silhouettes.
"In the past, engineers in the aerospace industry and in the military found new materials and processes, and modernist designers such as the Eames used them in home furnishings," says Marc Benda, director of New York design gallery Friedman Benda, which collaborated with FRONT on the "Sketch Furniture" project. "Today, a young guy comes up with an innovative technique or material to be used in design. Industry doesn't want to take much risk but we as design dealers say, this is fantastic! Later, industry comes back to look at it for other products."
No Silver Bullet for Companies
Another standout designer in the book, in terms of his innovative uses of materials and processes, is Kenneth Cobonpue, based in Cebu City, Philippines (nominated by Dixon). Cobonpue's YODA Chair (2006) is made from steel and rattan vines woven together using traditional Filipino techniques. The chair relies on tension between the two materials to make for an easily adjustable, comfortable seat. Cobonpue is also the manufacturer of his furniture, taking an enterprising and innovative approach to making and marketing inventive furniture in an emerging market such as the Philippines, which doesn't have many existing distribution channels for cutting-edge furniture.
Of course, the book doesn't provide a silver bullet for corporate design problems. And some strategists even warn against hiring stylish designers to work on mass-market consumer products simply because of their eye-catching portfolios. "Great design and beautiful style isn't enough," says Doreen Lorenzo, president and COO of frog Design, which works with clients such as Microsoft (MSFT) and Disney (DIS). "Industrial designers today need to also have knowledge of manufacturing and technology to create a successful, competitive product."
Bob Steinbugler, director of corporate strategic design at IBM (IBM), agrees with Lorenzo, adding that trendy materials and forms might not be perceived of as durable by consumers. "Fashion and furniture [like those featured in & Fork] are about style. Normally, these products have a short lifespan. But our corporate customers want to buy [a technology product] that's robust and will last five years or maybe more," Steinbugler says. But, he adds: "It's also key to know about style. So a good sense of stylish finishes and materials is important, to make a product appealing."
The Classic Clip
For any executive or designer searching for examples of the ideal blend of style and substance, & Fork offers a helpful concluding section in which the 10 design experts define what good design means to them, giving a favorite and classic example of beautiful and functional products.
These range from a traditional woven Dilly bag, used by Aboriginal people in Australia for millennia, chosen by Brian Parkes, associate director at Object: Australian Center for Craft & Design, to a 1997 steel Shelving Unit with mix-and-match customizable drawers and other storage elements by MUJI, chosen by Chieko Yoshiie, editor of Japan's Casa Brutus design magazine, who identifies herself as a "proud owner" of the "easy-to-use" piece.
But perhaps the most powerful example of good design in the book's final section is the ultra-practical and ubiquitous paper clip, designed in 1899 (by Johan Vaaler) and chosen by Guta Moura Guedes, Lisbon-based director of the biennial international design exhibition ExperimentaDesign. As Guedes writes, the paper clip "fulfills to perfection the function for which it was conceived. Easy to carry, produce, and recycle…its seductive power is nothing short of mystifying."
It's a description that applies to many of the cutting-edge designs in & Fork —not to mention best-selling examples of industrial design, such as the iPod.
Click here to view a slide show of design examples from the book.