Design in the new millenium has become more surreal and slightly subversive as emerging designers explore a darker side. Rather than shy away from complex psychological issues, designers such as Tim Simpson (1982-) are challenging our emotional connection to objects and the material world through their work.
As part of his degree show from the Royal College of Art’s Product Design course, Simpson exhibited Natural Deselection – a device that empowers plants to control the fate of others using sensors and mechanised shears in a Darwinian race for survival. The sensors, arranged above the plants, detect the first plant to reach a specified height, at which point it is saved, and the others are fatally chopped. As an installation, the instrument provokes thought about the passage of time, fate and suspense, exploiting our emotions as we encourage all the plants to grow despite the brutal climax their growth will inevitably harvest.
Simpson’s diverse range of work – products, films and installation pieces – reflect his fascination with psychological suspense and Hitchcock thrillers, by captivating his audience in anticipation of the usually violent finale. Rich in narrative and cultural observation, Simpson’s work acknowledges a brutal truth or reality that exists within society – but is tempered by dry humour and wit. Subversive Sightseeing, for example, replaced the regular vista of a coin operated public telescope with a digital film of the same London landscape but with superimposed scenes of destruction, including Big Ben exploding, tower blocks falling down. Installed on Hungerford Bridge, it was intended as a wry comment on our cinematic ingenuity and the ramifications events such as 9/11 have on our collective imaginations.
Q. When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
A. I grew up Swindon, which already poses a number of problems as a practicing designer. I remember before being interviewed for the design course at Kingston my foundation teacher telling me to say that I read Blueprint magazine, even though it was impossible to find a design magazine in my home town. I suppose my awareness of design was a fairly gradual one, but I must in some way attribute it to the Argos catalogue and a good box of Lego.
Q. Why did you decide to study design?
A. Until the very last minute I almost studied painting. I used to do some terrible pieces with mixed media which, up until recently, my parents insisted on putting on their walls. I chose to study design instead because I imaged a solitary career as an artist, and thought that design represented a better investment for my education.
Q. What was the influence of your design education on your work?
A. I think it helped coming into design from a fine art background. I began my design education with a fairly na?ve outlook about design, but this helped my education because I had not really established any presumptions about what design was. I was fortunate enough to study on courses that offered enough space for you to develop your own ideologies.
Q. What were your design objectives as a student?
A. As a student at the Royal College of Art I developed a fascination with thrillers and Hitchcock in particular. I enjoyed analysing the narrative methods used to engage a viewer through a plot, such as timing and suspense. I believe that these notions might also have a place in a design context, and spent a lot of time exploring this with my work.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to your work?
A. The Natural Deselection project defines where I see my work nicely although it is unconventional in a design sense. It developed out of an interest in timing and suspense. I intended to build an instrument that provokes thought about the passage of time, fate and suspense, and plants offered the slow, tantalizing unpredictability, as well as an emotional engagement with the inevitable violent climax. The Darwinian concept of competition came later by way of adding value to the victorious plant.
The process itself is a spectacle; a stimulating experience that aims to engage viewers in suspenseful anticipation. The outcome is a product; a winning plant, that has an added psychological value that is appreciated and valued by experiencing the instrument in use.
The piece has attributes that could place it in both a design context and an art gallery, and I see this as an interesting space. Alfred Hitchcock has a nice anecdote that I like to recall when describing the context of my work:
Two spies are travelling on an English train and one says to the other, “What’s that in the luggage rack over your head?”
“Oh,” he says, “that’s a MacGuffin.”
The first one asks, “Well, what’s a MacGuffin?”
“It’s an apparatus for trapping lions on the Scottish Highlands,”
So the other says “But there are no lions on the Scottish Highlands.”
And he answers “Then that’s no MacGuffin”.
Q. How have your objectives evolved since leaving the RCA?
A. I’m not sure they have changed. I’m currently working on a more ambitious Natural Deselection project as well as series of products entitled ‘Suspenseful Products’; a series of domestic appliances that have a slow but dramatic function waiting to occur.
Q. How important is the balance between commercial and conceptual in your work?
A. It is important because it’s the commercial aspect of my work that places it in a design context. As I have only just started to establish my professional practice, the success of my work will be in finding a successful balance between the two.
Visit Tim Simpson’s website at timsimpson.net