Just in time for the holidays, a new exhibition at the London Design Museum offers a wry twist on the gift of good design.
The influential museum enlisted 14 designers and architects, who each named 10 favorite designs costing less than 10 British pounds, hence the name "Under a Tenner." At current exchange rates that's about $18.
International design stars such as Ron Arad, J. Mays, Stefan Sagmeister, Murray Moss, Hella Jongerius, Fernando and Humberto Campana and Foreign Office Architects weighed in. Given their experience designing fabulous furniture, hot cars, hip graphics and boffo buildings, this team could surely be expected to lift holiday shopping out of the doldrums, especially for those still wait-listed for an iPod mini. But out there on the cutting edge, consumerism is often lost in translation.
The museum kindly e-mailed the lists. For his Top 10, Arad suggests a couturier's wrist pincushion, which he spotted at Issey Miyake's studio and mistook for a cool bracelet. Other designers included phone cards, inner tubes, book lights and harmonicas, all of which appeal to them as brilliantly simple, functional and innovative. FedEx boxes are touted for great graphics, and Google's search engine for changing lives. Mays waxes eloquent about the shape of an egg.
The Campana brothers of Brazil rose to fame by adapting elements of favela chic from Rio's shantytowns to high-end Italian furniture. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise to find the humble mousetrap on their list, after Bic pens and ahead of Havaianas rubber flip-flops.
The snap mousetrap "is an archaic design, but it is still efficient," they deadpan. Still, the concept of good design at inexpensive prices is inherently likable, especially at the holiday season. So, stealing shamelessly from "Tenner," I asked design-savvy locals -- an art school dean, two museum curators, a cultural attache and a design retailer -- to serve as elves. Given the fluctuating state of the dollar, and because being stingy won't keep the U.S. economy afloat, price tags were allowed to rise to $100. Here's the annotated list:
Christina DePaul, dean of the Corcoran College of Art & Design, spotted a clear winner: the Ghost Candelabra by Jon Russell, an ode in Lucite to traditional 19th-century silhouettes. In clear or pink, it's $55 through Design Within Reach in Georgetown and MoMA Design Store (www.momastore.org).
Also on DePaul's list: Logic and Pocket eyeglass cases ($6.50 and $7.95 at the Corcoran shop), which were designed by a German eye doctor in the 1950s, and open and fold in unpredictable ways. For next year, Karim Rashid's Menorah Morph in blue silicon will ensure a funky holiday for $50 (www.momastore.org).
Ellen Lupton, Smithsonian design curator and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, recommends Moleskine journals, the black leather notebooks favored by artists and intellectuals, including Matisse and Hemingway. For $12 at the New York Public Library shop (www.thelibraryshop.org), they will look like individualism at the WiFi cafe.
What to write with? Lupton noticed both red and blue presidential contenders autographing glossy photos with Sanford's Sharpie permanent marking pens. A multicolor pack (about $15 at Michaels or office supply emporiums) would be indelibly chic.
At Apartment Zero (406 Seventh St. NW), co-owner Douglas Burton is blurring the line between fashion and design with an exclusive line of designer neckties. For $80, choose from Maharam textiles by Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Smith or Hella Jongerius.
Denmark was synonymous with design even before its trade wizards volunteered to furnish the new Museum of Modern Art for free. The Royal Danish Embassy is giving Georg Jensen's Bloom candleholders. Cultural counselor Lene Balleby says she selected the stainless steel design in celebration of the legendary silversmith's centenary. The tea-light holders are $100 a pair (www.georgjensen.com).
Jordana Pomeroy, co-curator of "Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, recommends Voss artesian water, which runs $30.95 for two dozen 12.6-ounce glass bottles at www.regencywater.com. "Okay, it's expensive designer water," she acknowledged in an e-mail, "but the bottle reflects the clean, crisp taste of the water and evokes images of Norway's snow capped mountains and fjords."
Brandweek.com noted wickedly in May that the "long tube-shaped bottle connotes cheap cologne" but could "double as a nightstick at a bar if someone puts the moves on your date." We couldn't find a local retailer, but the company's Web site, VossWater.com, is cool.
My personal favorite is the Garland light by Tord Boontje. The Dutch-born Londoner is intent on burying stark minimalism in an avalanche of laser-cut flowers. The California company Artecnica has brought Boontje's otherworldly couture-and-crystal aesthetic within range of mortals through online outlets such as MoMA and Moss (www.mossonline.com). For about $60, a string of golden blossoms draped over a light bulb would sure beat another ceiling fan.
As for the London show, which runs through Feb. 27, it makes great grist for an informative design book, even if it's a dicey source of ideas for stocking stuffers. A few brands mentioned are worth noting for that elusive marriage of form and function: a trusted lip balm by Carmex, a simple stovetop Italian espresso maker from Bialetti and the clean-lined home design products of Japanese retailer Muji (www.mujionline.com), which turned up again and again and again.