The tenuous state of design can be discerned from the cover of the current Business Week. The annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards, which the magazine sponsors, are normally a "hot" summer cover story. This time around, design's greatest hits were reduced to a reference line over a photo of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and a headline about "High Stakes."

With rare exceptions, companies invest in design in good economic times. When quarterly profits cannot be assured, taking a flying leap with a newfangled product can seem imprudent, unless the CEO is Steve Jobs. Business Week tries to be upbeat by noting that "design is playing a critical role" as corporations "turn away from cost-cutting survival tactics to return to strategies of growth." But these winners are the product of several soft years.

Companies kept to tried and true innovations, such as a fabulously powerful motorcycle (BMW's R1200 GS), an assortment of computer peripherals and information gadgets, and golf clubs (Nike's Slingshot Irons) designed to mask the shot-making flaws of an average corporate executive.

The IDEAs, as the awards are known, are judged by the Industrial Designers Society of America. For the first time in the contest's 24-year history, an Asian corporation won more awards than any U.S. or European company. (Samsung took five awards, compared to Apple Computer's four.)

There was little argument about the year's gold-plated industrial design firm. IDEO of Palo Alto, Calif., gained popular notice years ago by designing a novel grocery cart for a segment of ABC's "Nightline." This year, the firm won 10 awards, including six golds, one for the Logitech KeyCase, a flexible, wraparound keyboard and carrying case for the Palm personal digital assistant.

A relative upstart, Antenna Design, won plaudits for Bloomberg's new computer station with dual flat-panel screens, fingerprint recognition for security and a squawk box.

If there was a popular winner, it had to be Apple's iPod Mini. The original iPod has been credited with changing the way people incorporate music into their lives. The $249 Mini has a better dial at half the weight. It holds 1,000 tunes in a package that's half an inch thick but no bigger than a credit card. In a choice of fashion colors, it's another marvel of trendy design from a company that reinvented its fortunes in the design studio.

Other winning products were less certain to survive the scrutiny of time. Consider what meaning may one day be gleaned about a society that prizes a microwave oven specially curved to accommodate large pizzas (from Samsung); a neoprene wine tote (BYO Bag), and an automatic swimming pool cleaner with floppy, cerulean blue fins (Zodiac G4).

The Italians Strike Back

Diplomats who promote their countries' culture in Washington are far too seasoned to compete in public. Those with paltry budgets can't always go mano a mano when they might choose to.

Since April, cultural counselors from Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden have been basking in the glow of "Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers," which they spent months helping the National Museum of Women in the Arts at New York Avenue and 13th Street NW put together.

The Italian Cultural Institute on M Street NW wasted little time firing back. In May, it opened a jewel of a one-man exhibition called "Art & Design." It features the contemporary furniture and "glueworks" of Riccardo Maranzana, a 32-year-old designer with Italian and Swiss parents. Maranzana is also the product of a California design education. He studied art at Pepperdine University in Malibu, attended the Art Center of Pasadena and earned a master's degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Fans of Scandinavian design will recognize a kindred modern spirit. Maranzana makes furniture entirely in birch plywood, stainless steel and clear acrylic or glass. Chairs, tables and bases for tables are made from identical pieces of wood, cut and assembled in clever ways. Seventeen slats, for example, are combined to make a spare but airy chaise.

In the exhibition, the piece balances on stainless steel supports atop the crate in which its parts were shipped. Martin Stiglio, director of the Italian Cultural Institute, tried it out after the designer screwed the parts together. With a pillow, he says, the chaise is quite comfortable.

Visitors can try out Maranzana's "slat chairs," which provide an excellent vantage point for admiring the melted plastic wall sculptures called "glueworks." The designer combines wood blocks into collages and douses them with pale orange and green plastic. The effect is a little like carrot sheet cake smeared with gooey frosting. It's strangely serene.

Cultural counselors, on your marks. Stiglio is already planning a follow-up exhibition for next year. He promises a return to "something traditional."

The Maranzana exhibition continues through Sept. 17 at 2025 M St. NW, Suite 610. Call 202-223-9800 for hours. "Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers" continues through Sept. 12 at the women's museum. Call 202-783-5000 for details.

Apple's iPod Mini, another marvel of trendy form and function from a company that knows the value of design.Antenna Design's computer station, far left, and the Zodiac G4 pool cleaner, bottom left, both captured IDEA awards. At the Italian Cultural Institute, Riccardo Maranzana's no-frills "radial bed," near left, and his "glueworks" sculptures, below, are on display.