Autumn 2005

The Republic of South Yorkshire

Brain Aided Design SoYo

The Designers Republic
Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, UK
28 May-21 August 2005

Browsing ‘Brain Aided Design SoYo’, the ‘mini-retrospective shrine’ of work by The Designers Republic (TDR), several questions come to mind. Why is the exhibition squashed into such a small space? Surely Sheffield’s finest deserve better? With many 2A0-size images on display, it is all but impossible to stand sufficiently far away to get any proper perspective. Conversely, given TDR’s predilection for the inclusion of tiny technical notes and production specs – often of an apocryphal nature – it is wise to peer studiously at the fine print. In a cramped, busy gallery, this is difficult to do.

A recurrent TDR theme is the incorporation of dubious public service-style instructions for the optimal use and maintenance of the object in question. TDR’s architectural book, 3D>2D, represented here in extracts only, has the mass and dimensions of a piece of furniture (see Eye no. 41 vol. 11). Amid statistics concerning floor area, signage and the number of parking spaces, I found the warning: ‘Caution: this publication may set off metal detectors at airports.’ Which, of course, it does.

TDR’s design work spans eighteen years and covers everything from packaging and clothing to wristwatches and the Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information retail store in Tokyo’s Shibuya-ku district. Why, then, has so much of the three-dimensional work been excluded? Where are the Powergen ‘electricity boxes’, or the packaging for Sony’s robotic canine, AIBO? The sole 3D object on display is the TDR Sissy Doll – a scowling ceramic ‘death toy’ armed with pigtails and a baseball bat.

Otherwise the show is devoted purely to two-dimensional work – chiefly album sleeves and posters. TDR’s graphics for the band Funkstörung are some of the most engaging items, because they offer some insight into the consistent yet slightly unhinged logic behind TDR’s methodology. We see ‘illegal’ logo variations, vehicle livery and Funkstörung clothing suggestions, along with a droll visual exposition of the evils of thoughtless imitation.

It is not clear how graphic design is enhanced by being displayed in a gallery, abstracted from its intended context. One could argue that design deserves more recognition as an artform, and TDR certainly warrants arts coverage. But it is institutional ‘fine’ art that has the credibility problem, and a gallery setting can be oddly ill suited to a full appreciation of commercial work. The AIBO packaging and the sculpted indents of the Powergen boxes demand tactile investigation and the gallery setting appears to be at odds with this imperative. There are finishes and materials to consider, none of which can be fully appreciated if the objects are under glass. And, ironically, the posters, dolls and video would arguably have more impact in their intended everyday contexts, where their merits could contrast with the surrounding ephemera and tat.