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Andy Stagg: Hefin Jones

Work / Product Design

Designers in Residence prove the power of design to challenge, move and train astronauts in a coal mine

In something of a departure from last year’s experiential walk-in show, this year’s Design Museum Designers in Residence exhibition is shunted into a little corner alongside the Designs of the Year show.

Still, it’s as ever a thought-provoking and hugely varied showcase of what this year’s four designers can do, and demonstrating the breadth of what design means. This year’s theme is Migration, and the designers who’ve been beavering away at the museum for the past six months are architectural designer Chris Green, product designer Stephanie Hornig, interdisciplinary designer Hefin Jones and Alexa Pollmann, whose work explores the intersection of fashion and technology.

Shows like this, with such complex ideas and such limited space, require work from the viewer: but in this case, it pays off. Our undisputed highlight is the work of Hefin Jones, who uses design as a tool for social, political and experimental ends. His piece looks at migration as a starting point for “shifting industries,” and shows how traditional Welsh culture and a disused coal mine could be repurposed for space travel. It’s more Jeremy Deller than traditional design, with the exhibition showcasing a beautiful hand-made flag for Hefin’s proposition, Cosmic Colliery. Through a sweet documentary film and various sketches and ephemera we see plans (albeit fictional ones) to create a site to train astronauts in the Welsh town of Cardigan, drawn together by speaking with members of the local community and a small army of children with a penchant for pancakes and an apparent mistrust of ex-cons, if the video’s anything to go by.

“This project isn’t about actually building an astronaut training centre,” Hefin explains in an interview accompanying the exhibition. “I’m designing objects and scenarios as a way to make people consider new possibilities. I’ve been experimenting with designing situations which are in many ways ephemeral, and despite that, are successful at creating the necessary conditions to think big.”

He continues: “I’m conscious that initially people may not see or understand my work as design, however I’m passionate to show new ideas and challenge conventions of what design is and what it could be. But when they recognise it as design, that’s a personal victory.”

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Jenny Lewis: Hefin Jones

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Jenny Lewis: Hefin Jones

Alexa’s project takes a very different angle, continuing explorations from previous projects into character-based creations that speculate on the future of society and interactions. Her piece, Indivicracy – Dance of the Perergine, is exhibited in the form of four surreal costumes. These represent the project’s wider aims to imagine new idea of nationhood that fits with mankind’s increasingly itinerant lifestyles. “Technology has changed our lives in a way that we are actually more unsettled,” Alexa explained in a conversation with designer and cultural theorist Tony Fry. “Once we are unsettled, our cultures give up the formations that have grown up around us…people try and bring part of their culture to the new culture that they move to, and by doing so they actually separate themselves rather than become integrated.”

It’s these concerns that have informed Alexa’s designs, which propose a new “national costume” that aims to challenge the media’s often negative thoughts around peoples’ migration to new places.

The theme is taken more literally in Chris Green’s work, which looks at the increasing use of drones. Alas none are in-situ for the exhibition, but we see a tiny little prototype with a menacing, piercing blue light on a plinth. In Aerial Futures Chris sets out three systems for the futures of drones: one for the home, one for the city and one for the “wild,” informing his look at the role of design in the devices.

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Jenny Lewis: Alexa Pollmann

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Jenny Lewis: Alexa Pollmann

Stephanie Hornig’s response to design and migration is perhaps the most traditional – at least in a design gallery setting – and we see a new furniture system that aims to take its owner through their life, regardless of the settings they move in and out of. Set out as an eerie still life, her pieces use light materials and minimalist design to make them at once adaptable and aesthetically pleasing. “I think that objects should be much more flexible and adaptable to different environments, but still fulfil basic requirements,” she tells Joseph Grima in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “The home is becoming much more of a transitional space…”

Hers is a practical solution to a very real problem, but the joy of the designers in residences’ work is in its ability to find answers to questions both real and hypothetical, and to prove design’s capacity to solve issues and create a better, braver space for now and for the future.

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Jenny Lewis: Stephanie Hornig

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Jenny Lewis: Stephanie Hornig

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Jenny Lewis: Chris Green

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Jenny Lewis: Chris Green

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Andy Stagg: Hefin Jones

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Andy Stagg: Chris Green

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Andy Stagg: Stephanie Hornig

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Andy Stagg: Alexa Pollmann