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Work / Product Design

Beyond the fridge door: Dominic Wilcox unleashes the design capabilities of kids

“The project started as a series of workshops where the kids were asked to invent something,” explains artist and designer Dominic Wilcox. “When I saw the designs, I thought that there was an opportunity to take these ideas seriously.” The outcomes range from a surreal High Five machine to a remarkably accomplished design for a lamp. Developed through workshops attended by children ranging from four to 12 years old, it’s a body of work that shakes off the shackles of reality and has produced a number of delightful and thoughtful inventions.

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Handi Hi Five created by Tony Canning of Fab Lab Sunderland

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Handi Hi Five by Oliver (6)

Working with Steam Co. an organisation that organises activities for children, Dominic was invited to be an “inspirator” and showed his inimitable inventions to children before asking them to come up with their own. “Some of them were brilliant, they were the same standard, if not better, than some undergraduate design students’ work,” says Dominic. “I thought that there was some untapped potential here. Rather then just put these on the fridge door, why don’t we take them further?”

Having won a commission from The Cultural Spring, an Arts Council initiative, Dominic asked 450 children in the Sunderland area to come up with inventions and asked local makers to make them a reality. “I had no limitations on practicality, I was just looking for good ideas,” says Dominic. Each child was presented with a form where they could draw a design and answer some questions about what the idea was and who might need the invention. “I was trying to get them to think about problems – asking them things like ‘does your Grandfather have problems getting out the chair?’ etc. And then told them ‘go’,” says Dominic. “But if you ask children what problems they have it’s that they have to tidy their room, or they have no one to high five.”

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The Ladybird Umbrella being created by Norman Veitch of Wearside Glass

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Ladybird Umbrella by Sophia Carr (5)

Having put out an open call for makers to help the project, Dominic received responses from a diverse range of disciplines. “There was a theatre props maker, a man who had worked in glassmaking for 50 years and came out of retirement to make the ladybird umbrella (pictured) – I’m sure there was a tear in his eye as he did it. The Fab Lab was very helpful too.”

Dominic picked about 60 inventions and showed them to the volunteers and they picked out the ones that they were interested in doing. Then the inventors met the makers, so the maker had the best idea what the inventor wanted. “Obviously the age range of the inventors was quite large. There was one guy who was four and half. Each had different abilities for communicating thoughts and ideas, so the makers had to make a few minor technical decisions on their behalf but I wanted the inventor to be involved as much as they can – so their idea and design was followed through as far as possible.”

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Family Scooter by Wendy Ridley (9)

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Family Scooter by Wendy Ridley (9)

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Family Scooter under construction

The work is currently on display in an exhibition at 18 Fawcett St in Sunderland, with the original drawings and models on show. Dominic also asked a local animator, Rosario Rivas Leal, to bring the drawings to life. For Dominic, the whole endeavour confirmed his thoughts about the design process.“Having a playful approach to invention is vital to coming up with good ideas that are innovative and surprising. Some of the children’s designs may not be practical given current manufacturing abilities and technologies, but they will be in the future. They give us a way of thinking of ideas beyond the horizon – a target,” he says. “This playfulness children have, without the worries of wondering if they can find someone to manufacture that, all the limitations adults impose on ideas and possibilities are gone. They have fantastic ideas that might lead us somewhere more interesting.”

This Saturday Dominic will be hosting an Inventors! event in Sunderland. You can find more details here.

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Cleaner Fun by Neeve Natasha Neale (10)

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Shady Lamp by Layla Amir (11)

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Shady Lamp by Layla Amir (11)

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Ezy Slice Fryer by Isaac Pawson (11)