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Design for Our Times

By Susanna Beaumont, 14.01.2022
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Drinking fountain by Mirrl as part of Design for Our Times at V&A Dundee from 3rd December 2021 to 19th June 2022. Image: Michael McGurk.

In 2013 Aymeric Renoud left his native France and moved to Dundee to study Interior & Environmental Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. As a newcomer to Scotland and a fan of whisky, he also spent these early years visiting distilleries, where something caught his eye and his imagination. It was ‘spent grain’ the leftover barley from the distilling process that usually heads to landfill or into cattle feed. Could this spent grain – often called draff - be transformed into a solid useable material, wondered Aymeric. The answer is yes. Six years on from graduating and after much experimentation, Aymeric has a fast-growing design studio called Draff in Dundee, that produces eye-catchingly beautiful furniture made from spent grain.

It was this story and countless others, that was the impetus behind Design for Our Times. It inspired me as the exhibition’s curator, to want to celebrate the tireless imagination, fresh ideas and the energy of the many designers, artists and makers working across Scotland today. It is their desire to make a difference, to question established norms, challenge the use of time-honoured materials and think anew about a product’s life cycle and impact on the planet that I wanted explored. I wanted Design for Our Times to share insights into what inspires and fuels a designer’s innovation, the trial AND error of the design process and the sometimes, challenging journey of taking an idea to fruition.

And I particularly wanted to explore ingenuity when it comes to materials, to tell the story of sourcing, using and reusing and about the possibilities of re-imagining the discarded. Often it takes one individual with a great idea, plus tenacity and time, to create real change. And it seemed important to share this tireless exploration with a wide audience so when the opportunity came about to present Design for Our Times at V&A Dundee, I obviously jumped!

Pendant lights, by Studio Andrew Miller, made of glass vases found in charity shops. Image: Michael McGurk.

The exhibition focuses on 7 design initiatives: There’s Chalk Plaster, a collaborative duo founded by Steven and Ffion Blench who are based on the Fife coast. They are true hunter gatherers who collect stones from Fife beaches to experiment with making pigment which they use to colour recycled gypsum to make functional objects. There’s Catriona Brown, a recent graduate of product design engineering at Glasgow School of Art / University of Glasgow, who is exploring the possibility of producing an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic sapling tree protector out of mycelium. Entitled Shroom, the shelter would decompose over time into the surrounding landscape. While Brazilian-born engineer and material researcher Professor Gabriela Medero, from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, has addressed diminishing global resources through the invention of a building brick made of over 90% construction waste which does not require firing unlike conventional bricks. Named the K-Briq, it is now in production in East Lothian. This year they hope to produce over a million bricks thanks to support from Zero Waste Scotland.

Andrew Miller is an artist based in Glasgow who has long explored ways to re-imagine discarded objects. His Pend sculptures are pendant lights which are created from coloured glassware – plates, vases and vessels – he has bought from second-hand shops. Uniting various shapes and colour, these sculptural lights are exquisite – they look like beautifully wrapped sweets suspended from the V&A Dundee’s ceiling.

Design for Our Times at V&A Dundee from 3rd December 2021 to 19th June 2022. Image: Michael McGurk.

A further Glasgow practice, Future Practical established by Maria Lander & Peter Large, interrogate a material’s provenance – its origins, how it was sourced & how effectively it can be reused and or recycled. They were commissioned to design the plinths for Design for Our Times (the ‘construction’ of an exhibition is often its most wasteful aspect with plinths and signage frequently being ‘single-use’) and after a period of research they decided to use aluminium which can be endlessly recycled. Their modular plinths which are perforated with finely detailed repeat pattern, can be easily re-configured and reused for future exhibitions.

It is this idea of how thinking afresh about design can help change habits and everyday practices, that prompted Design Exhibition Scotland to commission Mirrl of Glasgow to make a drinking fountain. In the Victorian era drinking fountains were commonplace and invariably beautifully crafted, whereas today’s ‘top up taps’ tend to be standard issue & far from eye-catching. Mirrl’s prototype drinking fountain 'Dixon' which stands at the centre of Design for Our Times, is inspired by the kitchen tap – arguably a universal symbol for water. Beautifully crafted, it celebrates fresh & free water & invites people to ‘top up’ rather than buy water wrapped in plastic.


Design for Our Times at V&A Dundee until 13 June 2022, admission free. There is a programme of events & talks please check the website.

Susanna Beaumont is founder of Design Exhibition Scotland. Design Exhibition Scotland is a pioneering project that celebrates exceptional objects and ideas for the everyday. It celebrates experimentation, excellence and exploration, making visible through debate, exhibitions, conversation and public advocacy, the energetic brilliance of the many contemporary designers, makers and artists working across Scotland today. Launched in April 2020, DES also presents a new online design journal and a series of Studio Visits via Zoom. As to future projects, DES are delighted to be partnering Mount Stuart Trust on the Isle of Bute on an open call to design a public park bench. Visit here for further details.