Thursday, 3:30pm
17 October 2013

North by Northeast

Northern design – physical and digital – comes to 24 venues in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland

The Northern Design Festival is a biannual celebration of design from the north of England is currently taking place in 24 venues across Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland until 20 October, writes Cally Gatehouse.

The festival is a chance to showcase what the north has to offer in an industry dominated by London-based practices, with plenty of graphic work to get excited about (and buy), as well as a digital thread that opens up some fresh perspectives about the future of design.

One element of the festival is the affordability of the work on show: ‘Design Event Mart’ has a wide range of products for sale, often manufactured by the designers themselves on a domestic scale and budget. Design Event, the Newcastle-based organisers, aims to  persuade consumers to buy work by local designers.

Matthew the Horse.
Top: Interaction Research Studio’s The Prayer Companion is a tabletop appliance designed for nuns in the order of Poor Clares. The small screen streams text about current events and people’s feelings from a wide variety of websites.

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At the ‘Illustrate’ show, many of the illustrators combined commercial briefs with self-initiated print series, zines and comic books, including prints from Matthew the Horse, Nick Rhodes, Nicholas Saunders and Drew Millward.

Kristnya Baczynski.

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There is a strong DIY indie sensibility throughout: Kristyna Baczynski’s off-kilter cute sensibility was made richer by the references to her Ukrainian heritage in her self-published comics. She has been championed by the Thought Bubble comic festival in her home town of Leeds.

Paul X. Johnson.

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Meanwhile Paul X. Johnson’s film noir cinematic style is perfectly suited to both indie music (the Courteeners) and indie magazines (Little White Lies).

Muro Buro.

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Over in Ouseburn, a former industrial area now filled with studios and exhibition spaces (think of it as a Geordie Shoreditch), the festival continues with works from the local talent pool for sale at the Ouse Street General Store alongside milk and newspapers, including prints from hand drawn type specialist Muro Buro.

Edition#1 by Made North (the Sheffield-based platform for Northern designer / makers) at the Toffee Factory in Newcastle has strong graphic design from the wider North with works from established names such as Frazer Hudson, Craig Oldham and The Designers Republic.

OWT zine.

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Jonathan Wilkinson’s new work is striking: building on his  ‘We Live Here’ series but with strangely hyper-real colouring that brings warmth to the brutalist and industrial landscape of his native Sheffield. From across the Pennines, Manchester-based design collective OWT’s zines burst with graphic inventiveness and energy.

This year’s festival has a theme of ‘Create:Digital’ with an exhibition of that name curated by Design Event at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, as well as events organised by Newcastle’s arts and tech scene such as open days at Maker Space, a workshop for tinkerers, artists and inventors, an exhibition, a workshop from media arts collective Attaya Projects and Datarama, a chance to present your own digital work to a supportive audience at the Tyneside Cinema.

The ‘Create:Digital’ exhibition brings together work from international designers and is a departure from many digital shows – there are no computer screens. There is an emphasis on craftsmanship; most of the objects display the new levels of complexity and detail made possible by digital design tools and manufacturing processes. This can to lead to a ‘more-is-more’ aesthetic, as seen in Timorous Beasties’ hyperactive Omni Splatt fabric and Silvia Weidenbach’s PostOpal Jewellery, though Issey Miyake’s simple folding light proves this is not an inevitable consequence.

Dominic Wilcox, No Place Like Home GPS shoes.

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The process behind Dominic Wilcox’s No Place Like Home GPS shoes travels in the opposite direction, made in collaboration with a traditional shoemaker to create a playful interface with new technology.

Compared to the ‘Future is Here’ show at London’s Design Museum, which highlighted the trend towards open and customisable design systems, the curation of ‘Create:Digital’ may seem slightly regressive. However by focusing on the craft of design, this exhibition highlights why democratising design tools can be a poor replacement for the skills of designers. The Prayer Companion made by the Interaction Research Studio based at Goldsmiths illustrates this point: It is a digital communication device that meets the specific needs of nuns from the order of Poor Clares in York, alerting them to events in the outside world without intruding on their quiet life of contemplation.

The gap here is between the customised and the bespoke: you can customise a mass-produced product to your taste but a designer can craft you something that exactly fits your needs.

Cally Gatehouse, designer, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

Timorous Beasties, Omni Drips.

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Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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