FEB 27, 2017
The Lexus Design Award, an annual design competition founded in 2013, invites young designers from around the world to submit concepts inspired by a theme, such as “YET”, which was the starting point for proposals submitted to the 2017 event.
Several projects have been developed and showcased at renowned design fair, Salone del Mobile Milan (Learn more about Lexus Design Event). The award is unique among similar programs for its mentor initiative, through which up-and-coming creatives are offered the opportunity to learn from – and collaborate with – design-world luminaries. We have talked to the designers and mentors to see how the process has worked – and why it’s so important.
1.Hiroto Yoshizoe and Snarkitecture
2017 Lexus Design Award Grand Prix winner
“It was magical,” Daniel Arsham, co-founder of experimental art and architecture practice Snarkitecture, of the moment he was introduced to Hiroto Yoshizoe’s work.
Yoshizoe, a graduate of the Musashino Art University who is based in Tokyo, had proposed to make “PIXEL” – an intriguing structure that creates a range of light and shadow effects – as part of the Lexus Design Award. And Arsham, a Lexus Design Award mentor, was blown away by the idea. “There was something that you could sense immediately upon looking at it,” he says. “There was this question about how it would function, or how it would work right. I think that sort of unusual quality is one of the things that attracted us to it.”
Arsham and his fellow Snarkitecture co-founder, Alex Mustonen, mentored Yoshizoe over three months, helping to evolve an exciting idea into an even better product – and the collaboration was sensitive and ultimately fruitful.
“My mentors understood and respected the core concept of my work,” said Yoshizoe. “And they gave me advice and guidance on not only the visual aspect of my work but also the process of making the idea into a product, looking at the work from both micro and macro perspectives. I have been able to develop and proceed with the production of the work very smoothly thanks to their precise advice.”
Mustonen agreed: “Hiroto was very clear regarding the ideas, which in some ways are very simple. Our job was really more about guiding the direction, and through conversation working out an eventual application for the concept: should it be more of an installation-based project, more of a commercial project, or more of an architectural project? We were hoping to guide that process.”
So how, exactly, did the work develop during the mentorship process? “The initial idea for this work was very simple: it is focusing on the beautiful phenomenon of light,” Yoshizoe said, who described the piece as a structure to “experience light YET shadow”.
“During the Lexus Design Award process, I have been able to develop this simple idea into something realistic that can be used in everyday life. So I have been able to explore the possibilities of this work, whether it’s produced on a small scale, as a product, or on a much bigger, citywide scale. The fresh opinions and ideas I received throughout this process enlightened me with possibilities I did not expect in the beginning. And, throughout, the team has been respectful of my own voice.”
It is now months after Arsham encountered Yoshizoe’s idea. So what did he think of the result? “I thought it was really striking,” he said. “It is a simple concept in some ways, but I really feel like I haven’t seen anything like this. It references architectural traditions and precedents, such as the idea of the architectural screen, but does so in such a simple way. It also has a strong relationship between digital technology and, in a contrasting analog way, directs toward a tactile experience.”
2.AHRAN WON AND NERI & HU
Korean designer Ahran Won, who is studying landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, believes in the potential of design as a positive societal force, and the product she has created as part of the Lexus Design Award is testament to the YET philosophy. Titled “Having Nothing, and YET Possessing Everything”, Won’s product is a clever container that allows minimalist living by providing users with a variety of methods of use. It is both a piece of design and a monumental societal question – simply, do we really need all that we own?
In an era of over-consumption, Won’s approach is rare. It is also one that immediately impressed her Lexus Design Award mentors, Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, co-founders of Neri & Hu, a renowned architecture practice based in Shanghai.
“The idea of having nothing yet possessing everything is a spiritual one that is required in today’s society,” they said. “We often try to accumulate more and more, often without being satisfied. Ahran’s product teaches us a lesson about life’s possessions, and if what we own is really necessary. It is a great idea to bring this awareness into today’s world, and the change in mindset it might bring about will have a big impact.”
When Won entered the Lexus Design Award, she had never experienced certain practical aspects of the design process, such as how to successfully evolve a concept into a real-life product. That’s how Neri and Hu first helped.
“My mentors were very understanding,” said Won. “They first taught me, with great knowledge, about how to actually produce a prototype, which I had no experience with.”
But that’s not the only way the architects offered support. “We advised Ahran on different ways to articulate her ideas about the importance in today’s society of living a more simple life,” said the pair. “And we helped her find ways to make her product, define the materials and craft, and aided her in adding layers of meaning into design.”
Won’s end product differs from her initial idea, thanks mainly to the designers’ three-month-long collaboration. For example, the work now has an important secondary use, sprung directly from conversation between Won and her mentors. “The other problem Ahran’s work now tries to solve is to do with the world’s many displaced people – those who are left homeless, either through social problems or through war,” said Neri and Hu. “This product intends to help those individuals.”
Won has been grateful for the opportunity to work with two of the design industry’s most celebrated practitioners, but it wasn’t just the practical advice that Neri and Hu offered that benefited her.
“Most importantly, through their warmth and generosity, my mentors have helped me understand what kind of designer – and person – I want to become,” said Won.
“The process has helped me become a designer who has a conscious mind when it comes to very many important issues around the world,” she continues, “but who does not forget to think about the tangible outcome. I wish to be more involved with the world, share other people's interests and happiness, pain and difficulties – to sympathize and experience so that I can brighten a corner of the world with this small ability of mine.”
So what does Neri and Hu think the future holds for Won? “She has a keen sense of how design can bring about change in the world,” said the pair. “And her work has a very sensitive quality that is beautiful and poetic. She will learn through experience some of the more practical aspects of design, and when she does, she will be ready to make many beautiful projects that impact our society.”
3.Jessica Fügler and Elena Manferdini
When American designer Jessica Fügler applied to take part in the Lexus Design Award, with a proposal comprising objects whose surfaces alter depending on the viewer’s perspective, her mentor, Elena Manferdini, was excited by the idea. But she knew there was work to be done to develop the concept into a viable commercial object.
“Initially her idea was very interesting,” said Manferdini, founder of respected California-based design firm Atelier Manferdini. “But it was also very abstract. Part of my mentorship was to help her find the right application to create a stronger product, so my advice was to get her to consider a real scenario of application. Now that she has thought not only about the surface, but specifically about a rug – a rug that has four different applications according to how ceramic beads in different colors are located.”
Fügler, a graduate of the Royal College of Art’s respected Design Products program, has created a product titled “Structural Color – Static YET Changing”. She originally looked to nature for inspiration – specifically, to moments of interference, refraction, and diffraction caused by microscopic structural features such as the cells of bird feathers or butterfly wings. But realizing a piece inspired by these occurrences proved challenging.
“In the beginning, I proposed a very abstract and sculptural design,” said Fügler, “but the creative process is never as linear as you would like it to be. Over the first few weeks of development the design quickly changed from large-scale metal sculptures into a floor covering made of ceramic beads. On paper it may seem like the two ideas are completely disconnected, but to me they stem from the same concept leading to two different applications.”
This evolution came in part from the conversations Fügler and Manferdini were having during the Lexus Design Award development process. “Elena has been very helpful in making sure my work has a clear story and purpose,” said Fügler. “Her advice has been to keep in mind the impact of the object on the user. Working from a function-first standpoint led my project in a direction I couldn’t have imagined when starting. And I was invited to visit her studio in LA, which was fantastic. Seeing a successful, female-run design studio was very motivational!”
Manferdini has been a Lexus Design Award mentor since 2015, and passionately believes in the importance of older designers helping younger ones. “I’m the chair of a graduate school of architecture in Los Angeles, so I believe in education,” she said. “It creates conversation, perspective, discipline, and, if you’re able to be part of that conversation, your work will become much more meaningful.”
“I feel mentorship is crucial to the development of any designer at any age,” she continues. “We tend to think that mentorship happens only at school. I think mentorship is actually a much longer process, and happens throughout the career of an architect or designer. I had them in school and I still have them. It’s a very good thing to have.”
So what has happened? Fügler has developed this project, and, through Lexus Design Award, she has displayed her finished product in Milan – “a big deal for me”, she said. Then come the next steps in a promising design career.
“Jessica’s work is very poetic and very personal in many ways,” said Manferdini. “It’s not the kind of work that will change the world – it’s not a technology that everybody will want. Her germane ability is to create a personal connection with objects, which I find very interesting. Objects become animated in her hands – they have multiple uses and multiple narratives. She’s making products that you will keep forever.”
4.Jia Wu and Max Lamb
Making vegetables into musical instruments sounds like a strange idea, but it’s exactly what Chinese industrial designer Jia Wu proposed as part of the 2017 Lexus Design Award. And it’s something Wu’s mentor, British designer Max Lamb, absolutely loved.
“The first thing I liked about Jia’s project was that it focused on very simple ingredients,” said Lamb. “The idea of bringing something as simple and everyday as fruits and vegetables into the playroom – or into the education of children – is interesting. Taking something as humble as a potato, or an apple, or a carrot, and using these as the main ingredients for a game or a toy is a great idea. Most children are being told constantly not to play with their food. Now, for once, you are actually allowed to play with your food.”
Wu’s original concept centered on creating a modular music-toy system – a system of mouthpieces, hole punchers, and connectors that children can connect to vegetables to assemble their own musical instruments: vegetables YET musical instruments. That connection, Wu believes, will encourage improvisation, and help children to experience music as a familiar and enjoyable activity.
“It actually went through several iterations, from a simple idea to a more robust package,” said Wu. “There were some changes in form, the relationships between objects, the experience of playing and storying, and so on. It was such a fun process being mentored by Max. So much inspiration in this short period of development!”
Lamb’s mentorship focused on different aspects of the design process, “from details in the design and manufacturing process,” said Wu, “to provoking thoughts about the value of our practice to other people.”
Lamb agreed. He helped Wu improve functionality, interaction, and eventual impact. Or, as Lamb puts it: “What this project is actually supposed to do.” The subsequent changes Wu made have delighted Lamb. “I feel very confident now that there is going to be a really good end result,” he said. “The product is going to be both beautiful and functional, really usable, and musically of good quality.”
So what's next? “Jia must focus more on functionality and usability,” said Lamb. “And she must try lots of different fruits and vegetables!”