Design is evil | icon 041 | November 2006

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words Anna Bates + Lucy James

There used to be an unspoken code of honour among designers that prevented them from referencing certain subjects in their work. War, death, sex, terrorism, cruelty, disease…

The dark and disturbing aspects of life were, by mutual consent, considered taboo. Design had a moral purpose: it was healthy, happy and uplifting; it solved problems; it sought to make the world a better place.

Not any more. Rather than creating products that reassure people, a new breed of designers is producing work that aims to shock and undermine. “We have enough designers out there that problem-solve,” says New York designer Tobias Wong, whose work includes Fucking Ottoman (2004) – a stool for masturbation – and a range of products that reference the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I’ve resorted to [this kind of work] because I’ve become frustrated that other designers don’t.”

“People are sick of only being stylish and modernist,” says French designer Michael Sans, whose Cuckoo Clock (2006) features a dead cuckoo nailed to a wall with a digital timepiece hung around its neck (gracing our cover this month). “Audiences are becoming bored with clean design. I think it’s a bit of a fashion thing at the moment.”

The fierce competition among designers to get their work published is fuelling the trend. “There are too many designers. A lot of us have to fight a bit and do stuff that says something different,” adds Sans.

Instead of merely being concerned with functionality, designers are increasingly using their work to comment on the world around them – including the frightening aspects of contemporary life. “We made it because we didn’t feel safe on the streets,” says Dutch designer Miriam van der Lubbe about a handbag in the shape of a pistol holster, one of the first of what has recently become a glut of gun-inspired products. “We wanted to express this.”

“In these times of terrorism and war, it can’t help but influence what comes out of your mind in the form of an idea,” says Dominic Wilcox, designer of War Bowl (2006) – a bowl made of melted toy soldiers. “A darker side is coming out because designers feel they want to say something and have a voice.”

“I think designers love to question the norms of society, and probe its taboos,” says Philip Worthington, whose works include the Lap Juicer chair, with an embedded lemon juicer in the seat for squeezing fruit with your buttocks. “Anything that’s off limits becomes a likely subject of investigation eventually.”

While some designers aim to shock just for the sake of it, others are sensitively attempting to solve problems related to issues that were once considered taboo. “Death is taboo – in fact it is one of the last taboos in Western society,” says Nadine Jarvis, one of many designers exploring issues such as cremation and burial. “Death is something that everyone has to deal with, yet there aren’t many options for our treatment of the deceased, and certainly none are very challenging to our existing belief systems.”

Design’s new willingness to address darker issues makes for dramatic imagery in a magazine, but will be viewed by some as further confirmation of the discipline’s descent from a noble cause into shallow sensationalism. “Certainly the recent lame preoccupation with the gun seems to be devoid of responsibility and humanity,” says Nic Daughtry, whose designs include floral wallpaper with subtle erotic patterns. “They are mere products of decadence, which aim to be cool and hip and dangerous, but in reality are glib and cliched and vacuous.”

01 Eric Klarenbeek
Poekie, 2003
This stuffed cat has a mechanism inside it that makes purring noises and mimics breathing movements. “We use electronic devices on a daily basis, but we have absolutely no emotional contact with them,” says Klarenbeek.

02 Michael Sans
Cuckoo Clock, 2006
Cuckoo Clock is a stuffed bird with a digital clock hung around its neck. “It’s a real bird, but it’s not real because it’s dead. I don’t see much difference between this dead bird and plastic. I find it weird that people react so differently to this, than if it was plastic,” says Sans.

03 Miriam van der Lubbe and Niels van Eijk
Moulded mole slippers, 2004
The insides of moles are scalloped out to create slippers. “Most people think it’s okay to kill these animals if they destroy your garden,” says van Eijk. “But if, instead of throwing them away, you make a nice pair of slippers out of them, people say you have gone too far. I think that’s hypocritical.”

04 Julia Lohmann
Flock, 2004
This chandelier is made from 50 preserved sheep stomachs. Lohman wanted viewers to see the piece as beautiful before they realised what it was made from.

05 Sonia Marques
Tentative, 2003
This wax candle is cast from the same mould that was used to create the gun. “As I burn the design what I am also saying is that we need war stopped,” says Marques. “Symbolically, I am burning all weapons.”

06 Kathryn Hennessey
Gnomes with Guns, 2006
These porcelain, gun-holding gnomes are glazed and decorated with a delftware pattern. “Putting something so innocent and something so dangerous together gives a shocking visual,” says Hennessey.

07 Philippe Starck
Gun Collection, 2005
The Gun Collection, consisting of a beretta-shaped bedside lamp, a kalashnilkov-shaped table lamp and a rifle-shaped floor lamp, is made from gold-plated, cast aluminium. “Designed, manufactured, sold, dreamed about, purchased and used, weapons are our new icons,” says Starck. “The Gun Collection is nothing but a sign for the times.”

08 Miriam van der Lubbe
Me and my Beretta, 1998
Me and my Beretta is a leather handbag moulded into the shape of a gun. “We made it because we didn’t feel safe on the streets. We wanted to express this,” says van der Lubbe.

09 Suck UK
Gun Vase, 2003
Suck UK designed a ceramic, wall-mounted vase in the shape of a gun. 3 Gun Vase, a freestanding version, followed shortly after. “I don’t think there is any subject more relevant right now,” says Suck UK co-designer Sam Hurt. “The world is a pretty fucked up place. If a few more guns were made of ceramic rather than steel perhaps it would be a nicer place.”

10 Studio Job
The Labyrinth Garden, 2005
This skull-shaped model has two sculptures of sheep as eyes and was shown in the Post Mortem show during this year’s Milan Furniture Fair. “The Labyrinth Garden is a very strong symbol. You get lost in the skull.”

11 Kristian van Kuijk
Tombstone, 2005
This rapid-prototyped tombstone can be designed by relatives of the deceased over the internet.

12 Lesley van Berkel
Body Box, 2001
An emergency body box to house victims of catastropies. This flat-packed cardboard coffin is easy to construct and transport and cheap to produce.

13 Tessa van Dam
The Glitter Girl, 2004
The story of Tessa van Dam’s life with Hodgkin’s disease is portrayed through a series of illustrations.

14 Nadine Jarvis
Bird feeders, 2006
These bird feeders are made of bird food, beeswax and human ashes. As the birds peck away, the urn disintegrates, leaving behind a wooden perch inscribed with memorial details about the deceased. “The ash is mixed with the bird food, causing the bird to eat the person,” says Jarvis.

15 Hilde Koenders
Bleeding till Death, 2005
Cut flowers lying on miniature hospital beds are fed coloured water through a drip. “I wanted to show the process of the dying flower,” says Koenders. “The flower becomes more and more beautiful as it dies.”

16 Damian O’Sullivan
Porcelain Cast for Arm, 2003
This arm cast is made from bone china. “I set about redesigning medical prostheses in the hope of arriving at more dignified solutions,” says O’Sullivan. “Upon recovery, disposing of these trustworthy companions is simply not an option. Instead, they can be kept and treasured, and exhibited amongst our finest bone china.”

17 Madeleine Herridge
Proportion and Distortion, 2006
These silver prosthetic fingers can be attached with leather belts. The Sixth Finger Insert (middle) is wedged between two fingers to create a sixth finger. “I find the pieces fun but they can cause discomfort in some people. They have pushed the boundary of what we consider and accept as jewellery,” says Herridge.


18 Studio Job
Blood Pattern, 2004
This wallpaper has been used to decorate a room at Centraal Museum, Utrecht, which features a collection of Viking swords.

19 FredriksonStallard
Rug “The Lovers”, 2005
The quantity of material in this rug, made from red urethane, matches the quantity of blood in two people. It is one in a range of three rugs including a black version resembling an oil spill, and most recently a white version representing ejaculation. See our interview on page 116.

20 Michael Sans
Wearable, 2001
This mask allows cyclists to smoke multiple cigarettes. It was inspired by the sight of a cyclist removing his mask to take a puff of his cigarette. “It’s ironic that cyclists wear the mask to protect themselves from fumes and still smoke cigarettes, which are so damaging,” says Sans.

21 Tobias Wong
Smoking Mittens, 2003
The nylon mitten has a rivet hole inserted into it. “This idea was inspired by the smoking ban in bars in New York. People were complaining about going out in the cold to smoke so I designed this to allow them to smoke and keep warm,” says Wong.

22 Industreal
Smokes Like a Chimney, 2006
This rapidly prototyped ashtray has bronchi-shaped tubes attached to its lid. “We are reminded of the unseen effects of smoking,” say Industreal designers Andersson Frida and James Steiner.

23 Tobias Wong
NY Pocketbook, 2002
Only two matches remain in this book for the Florent restaurant in lower Manhattan. “It represents the twin towers in New York,” says Wong.

24 Tobias Wong
Box Cutter, 2002
Inscribed with the text: “Another Notion of Possibility,” these chrome-plated, zinc-cast box cutters reference those used by the 9/11 hijackers.

25 Constantin Boym
Buildings of Disaster, 1998-2005
A series of miniature replicas of 20th-century disasters, made from bonded nickel and sold as souvenirs. Pictured here is a piece from the September 11 Memorial Set.

26 Michael Sans
A last bunch of flowers for my girlfriend, 2002
A bunch of six silver bullets with sculpted rose tips come encased in a red-velvet-lined box, inscribed “A last bunch of flowers for a good friend.” “Bullets are disposable,” says Sans. “But you also dispose of your girlfriend.”

27 Miriam van der Lubbe and Niels van Eijk
Baby Sitter, 2004
Baby Sitter is a menacing wooden chair with leather straps to keep a baby in place. “You have to be able to make things that push design over the edge,” says van Eijk.

28 Rogier Corbeau
Bird influenza, 2006
This wallpaper is inspired by news stories about bird flu. It features a variety of prints of different magnified flu viruses.

29 Tobias Wong
Gold Pills, 2005
The gelatin cases of these pills are filled with gold leaf. “All you have to do is swallow the pill and 24 hours later your shit turns gold,” says Wong.

30 Ezri Tarazi
Baghdad table, 2005
This table is made from pieces of aluminium left over from manufacturing processes and welded together to create a map of Baghdad. The table is a metaphor for the “new” Baghdad and how it must bond to overcome the problems of its past.

31 Dominic Wilcox
War Bowl, 2006
Model soldiers from the English Civil War are melted together to create this white bowl. “In these times of terrorism and war, it can’t help but influence what comes out of your mind,” says Wilcox.

32 FredriksonStallard
Brush#1, 2004
This scouring brush in the shape of a crucifix is made out of ash wood and natural fibres. It can be seen either as iconoclasm or as a message that cleanliness is next to godliness.

33 Yael Mer
Head Hand Bag, 2006
Head Hand Bag is a woman’s handbag in the shape of a man’s head. It is based on the biblical story of Judith cutting off Holofernes’ head. “The Hand Head Bag can be read as a cynical and humorous product,” says Mer. “But it is important for me that it keeps its feministic approach.”

34 Karin van Lieshout
Roadkill-carpet, Fox, 2001
The remains of a fox after a road-kill accident inspired the design of this wool rug. “For me the road-kill carpet is a continuous struggle between attraction and revoltion,” says van Lieshout. “I’m always fascinated by things which you do not want to see. You know the feeling when you don’t want to look at something, but you still do?”

35 Dominic Bromley
Prophopot Condom Pot, 2001
This bedside storage pot has a condom-shaped lid made in either rubber or ceramic. “Most people find it amusing,” says Bromley. “Although you still get a few faces that colour up when they realise the product’s purpose.”

36 Nik Daughtry
Paper Voyeur, Figure 1, Mercury Blue, 2006
This wallpaper is covered in erotic figures disguised as a floral pattern. “We think about sex every ten seconds or so,” says Daughtry. “Sex cannot be taboo, without it we would be history.”

37 Caroline Noordijk and Kyla Elliott
Juicy Phallus, 2005
Juicy Phallus is a sex toy inspired by the shape of Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon juicer. “Juicy Phallus allows those interested in design to fuck the icon celebrity of Starck,” says Noordijk.

38 Oooms
Dutch Delight, 2003
Included in this set of three ceramic sex toys is a dildo inspired by Dutch old master Jan Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. It can be filled with warm water or crushed ice. “We were asked by European Ceramic Work Centre to come up with new souvenirs for the country,” says Oooms founder Guido Ooms. “So we came up with the idea of a sex object, to refer to the Red Light District.”

39 Lelo
Lelo Lily dildo, 2005
This luxury clitoral stimulator, made from plastic with a silk finish, comes in a satin pouch

40 Philip Worthington and Theo Humphries
Lap Juicer chair, 2005
The seat of this chair has a lemon juicer carved into it, so you can squeeze fruit with your buttocks while you sit. A channel allows the juice to run into a glass below.

41 Tobias Wong
Fucking Ottoman, 2004
This ottoman has a mink-fur hole cut into it and can be set to vibrate at different speeds. “There’s a lot of sex furniture out there,” says Wong. “But not in the mainstream.”


42 Tobias Wong
Killer Ring, 2004
The diamond in this ring is upside down so that the sharp side is exposed. “It takes protection into your own hands,” says Wong. “I no longer trust the US government. I don’t trust other people to protect me.”

43 Tobias Wong
Bulletproof Duvet, 2004

This heavy nylon duvet is bullet proof. “We live in a current state of terror,” says Wong. “Alerts are always going up and down. But the world isn’t an awful place to live in. If it was, I wouldn’t have included a rose.”


44 Björn Franke
Traces of an Imaginary Affair, 2006
This set of nine tools allows you to inflict bite marks, carpet burns, love bites, scratches and bruises on yourself, giving the appearance that you are having an affair, to make your partner jealous.


45 Joris Laarman
Painfully Beautiful, 2004
This ceramic vomit pot is inspired by Roman banquets, where people ate, vomited and then continued eating. “Now society is more complex,” says Laarman, explaining that only “issues with our body image” would make us behave in this way.

46 Timorous Beasties
London Toile, 2005
This fabric and wallpaper pattern presents teenage binge drinking and homelessness. “There’s a narrative there,” says Timorous Beasties co-founder Alistair McAuley, “a sense of reflecting time.” See our interview on page 124.


47 Studio Job
Charm Chandelier, Animal Silhouette, 2003
This cross section of Studio Job’s Charm Chandelier, called the Animal Silhouette, features laser-cut pieces of aluminium in the shape of wild animals and insects.

48 Timorous Beasties
Wellcome Trust window display, 2006
Timorous Beasties decorated lampshades with tsetse flies and human foetuses to promote the Wellcome Trust’s scientific research. “The patterns themselves are fantastic – they are totally acceptable in a domestic environment,” says Timorous Beasties partner Alistair McAuley.

49 Front
Rat wallpaper, 2003
Rats gnaw on a roll of paper. When hung over existing wallpaper, the old pattern can be seen through the holes made by the rat.


50 Studio Job
Perished, 2006
Studio Job’s Perished collection consists of a bench, cabinet, table and screen inlaid with marquetry skeletons of different creatures. “For us the skeletons are merely expressing a desire for absolute minimalism,” says Studio Job co-designer Job Smeets.

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