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Stretching the boundaries

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Stealing Beauty: British Design Now

At the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 until 23 May

When William James wrote that 'dirt is only matter out of place', he implied that whatever the aesthetic of an object may be, as long as it is within its own habitat it has the possibility to be beautiful.

Stealing Beauty, the survey of new British design currently at the ica, claims to kick against the slick, label-dominated design currently being peddled to the quick-fix Wallpaper generation. Bringing together architects and designers working in graphics, furniture and fashion, the show suggests that the idea of beauty in design can be as much about appropriating the disposability, consumability and flexibility within contemporary society as producing fetishised style objects.

Curator Claire Catterall's premise collages the furniture and objects of Tord Boontje, who gives discarded materials new functions, with Georg Baldele's percol flooring, in which the top layer is gradually worn away to reveal another colour, recording the passage of its users. Alongside these is the restrained re-editing and relocation of materials used in the architecture of 24/seven, embodied in its remodelled ica cafe.

It is significant that the ica and Catterall should seek to stretch the boundaries of a British design show, not only in bringing together designers from diverse practices, but also in extending the ways in which design is communicated by borrowing from contemporary art the prioritisation of ideas over objects. Such attempts are to be strongly welcomed as for too long the presentation of architecture and design has been shrouded in a professional language.

Although too much of the show is simply made up of the designers' pre-existing objects, some concentrate more on communication and exploration than displaying a refined product. fat's seemingly endless birch forest, and graphic designer British Creative Decay's fly-posting of the ica corridor with images of slatted-timber barriers (intended to prevent just this), communicate their preoccupations incisively, and both pieces set up loops of recognition in which the viewer is central.

It is this prioritising of the communication of the designers' ideas over their end-product, rather than the familiar reappropriation theme, that is the most exciting element of Stealing Beauty. However, few of the designers seem sufficiently confident in the shifting of their language, which results in an unfortunate smattering of conceptual one-liners. This exaggerates a general sense of disjunction running through the exhibition.

Beyond the difference of presentational approach, there is probably less similarity of intent and methodology among these designers than Catterall claims. Although factional groupings can be found - between the furniture of the Azumis, the clothing of 6876 and the architecture of 24/seven, for instance - there seems to be little common ground uniting the whole group. Frustratingly, the viewer is left with the feeling that Catterall has hit on a number of interesting exhibitions, but in the end compromised them by cramming them all into the same show.

Claire Price is an architect in London

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