Design “is a way of understanding the world and how you can change it”, according to London’s Design Museum. Every object, from the cell phone in your pocket to the chair in your living room, has something to say about contemporary society.
In recent years, the museum has illustrated that idea through exhibits by 20th-century innovators such as Charlotte Perriand and Margaret Calvert – designers whose work has shed some light on how people lived.
But the institution is not just looking back at what has already happened. It also seeks to celebrate the next generation of emerging talent.
The museum’s new annual Ralph Saltzman Prize will honor this contingent with a £ 5,000 scholarship and the chance to showcase their work at the museum. It was created with the support of the Saltzman family and acknowledges the legacy of the late co-founder of Designtex, Ralph Saltzman, who died in 2020. Designtex, known for its extensive catalog of textiles and applied materials, is a well-known name for product and interior designers around the world.
Five nominees were selected by a panel of established professionals and the inauguration prize was awarded to Mac Collins, a furniture and product designer who divides his time between Newcastle, Nottingham and London. Collins first made an impact with his 2018 Iklwa lounge chair, a large, throne-like chair that was originally in ash wood, colored deep blue.
The Iklwa chair, conceived when Collins was still a student at Northumbria University and named after a type of short Zulu spear, draws inspiration from the aesthetics of Afrofuturism, as well as from the designer’s own family history. The blue used on the first Iklwa chair was the same color as the suit Collins’ grandfather wore when he emigrated from Jamaica to Britain in the 1950s. The chair was Collins’ way of exploring his heritage, the African diaspora and how his own family came to England.
It was Collins’ clear execution of great narrative ideas that caught the attention of the judges of the prize, which included the museum’s directorate and external experts. “I think what’s interesting about Mac’s work is not only the way he interprets African cultural forms, but the way he refers to the history of the African diaspora in his storytelling,” says Justin McGuirk, chief curator at the Design Museum. . “It gives the furniture a political power that one does not see much of.”
The award means Collins will be exhibiting his work at the Design Museum from February 2 to April 2. “I have never shown my work in this way before,” he says. “It might present a bit of a story in terms of how I come to conclusions.”
Collins has been busy since graduating in 2018. Its Iklwa chair went into production in 2020 with British furniture manufacturer Benchmark. The following year, he won both the Emerging Design Medal at the London Design Festival and Elle Decoration’s Young Design Talent of the Year award. .
With these opportunities came some difficult decisions about the directions in which his career could move. “I was happy because there were a number of different paths I could follow,” Collins says. “Which then brings up the issue of how to make the best use of your time. There were definitely opportunities that I deliberately turned down. ”
Ideas are at the heart of Collins’ practice. For a chair, bowl or any other piece to be successful, it must communicate to him an idea while also being physically experienced. In short, although the chair may have great concepts behind it, it should still be able to be used as a chair. His talent lies in how he finds this balance in a single everyday object.
Collins was nominated for the Ralph Saltzman Award by Industrial Facility, a London design studio founded by Sam Hecht and Kim Colin. “Young designers obviously ask different questions,” says Hecht. “But only talent can also answer them differently. What Mac seems to be very good at is both of these. ”
Mac’s results “are not always easy to see”, says Hecht. “But this is exactly what we should expect – it makes you stop for a moment and try to understand its language. That is ultimately why we nominated him – we want to see this language developed further. “
For Collins, the next is an exploratory stage where he discovers how his intentions can be carried out. “I think I have a lot to say,” he says. “And I’m still defining the best way to communicate these ideas.”
The price, he believes, will allow him to work without restriction. “It is financial support that gives me the freedom to push my work in potentially more speculative or holistic directions, and not in a direction that feels like I have to produce figures to get financial reward. So it feels a little freer, and I’m going to make the most of it. ”
Currently, Collins works from a Newcastle studio shared with designer Joe Franc, a friend of university. Collins teaches at the University of Northumbria and especially likes that it gives him the chance to talk to students who think differently than he does.
He says students now come to the classroom already aware of what it is that they find interesting – that especially social media gives people access to ideas and knowledge in the past. Collins finds this exciting. Similarly, he thinks that the lines between creative mediums are getting thinner, and is eager to collaborate with like-minded people from other disciplines.
There are benefits, he says, to working away from London – usually seen as the place to be when working in creative fields. “[I have] a little more room for liberated thinking and action. Things feel a little slower and a little calmer. Although I resent the attraction of London residential, I still visit regularly. But I find it a privilege not to be in London all the time. “
His next project would make him work in the north of England, after being commissioned to create new work for Harewood House, the West Yorkshire estate built by Edwin Lascelles. Lascelles, a wealthy plantation owner, made his fortune from sugar and slave trade in the Caribbean, and the estate, like many of its kinds, recently confronted its problematic history and the connections between the home and the sources of its wealth. investigation. .
His art collection includes works by El Greco, Titian and Giovanni Bellini, as well as furniture made by Thomas Chippendale, who received the biggest commission of his career to decorate the house. According to the University of York’s Lascelles Slavery Archive, the family sold its last plantation in the Caribbean in 1975.
Collins is creating an installation he describes as “an antithesis to the thin, intricate carved shapes” of the house’s Chippendales. “It will be visually heavy, deliberate and uncompromising – with straight lines and a striking silhouette.”
Conversations around colonialism and the history of British art and design are difficult to navigate. Collins is interested in a broad view, noting that culture more generally has some degree of course correction to do. “British material culture is becoming more of a physical representation of the breadth of British sociocultural structure,” he says. “I do not think it was a historical reality. But I think it is more reflected in the cultures that thrive here. ”
There are more stories to tell, and as the work of Collins’ generation points out, design has a big role to play. While personal stories have long been explored by British artists and designers with connections to the Caribbean and African diasporas, it is only in recent years that they have been treated with the same urgency by the country’s cultural institutions, from the Design Museum to the estates that the landscape dotted.
Spaces like Harewood House, Collins points out, have long been considered representative of just one kind of British identity. “But there are so many different cultures and identities that all thrive in this society,” he says. “I want to open it up – not through a negative angle or perspective, but through a positive narrative.”
The other Ralph Saltzman nominees
Alexandra Fruhstorfer, nominated by Anab Jain, Superflux
Fruhstorfer has worked across multiple disciplines and created projects that explore the home, the world of work, and human relationships with the natural world. Her textile and fiber projects, which focus on innovative circular processes and the impact that materials have on the planet, have been exhibited at the Porto Design Biennale and the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Fruhstorfer studied industrial design at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts.
Francisco Norris, nominated by Matt Jones, Google AI
Originally from Buenos Aires, Norris Zelp started a “zero-emission livestock project” in 2017 while studying information experience design at the Royal College of Art. At Zelp, scientists, engineers and product designers are working together to develop new ways to neutralize the methane released by cattle farming.
Marion Pinaffo and Raphaël Pluvinage, nominated by Doshi Levien
The only duo on the list, French designers Pinaffo and Pluvinage, have been working together since 2015 on a wide range of multidisciplinary projects, all united by a sense of curiosity, color and movement.
Interactivity is a real focus for the couple, whether it’s in paper toys coming to life with the addition of sand, or a dynamic dancing “blueprint” installation commissioned by Hermès in 2020.
Sky Lucy Young, nominated by Michael Anastassiades
A textile designer who graduated with an MA in mixed media textiles from the Royal College of Art in 2019, Young uses both analog and digital processes to explore innovation in materials. She currently works as a design coordinator at Kvadrat, the Danish textile company, and balances color, materials and purpose in her design process.