The motley products in the Release1 collection aren’t for sale, but they’re intended for public consumption on an intellectual plane. “Suicider” offers a convenient and painless death in a variety of flavors (with snazzy product branding, no less). The “Eye-Q” gun addresses the oxymoronic notion of “safer weaponry,” prompting the user to unlock a firearm by staring down the barrel for a retinal scan while maintaining light pressure on the trigger. Meanwhile, the sculptural “Unisex Toy”—simultaneously phallus and cavity—juxtaposes questions of dominance, submission and gender stereotypes.
“It’s social commentary with a sobriety of forms,” said Barrett of the collective, which made its public debut last year in an exhibit titled Disturb Delight Design at Boston’s Revolving Museum and can also be found at www.release1.net. “It’s an endeavor that dares to consider design as a cultural activity, rather than as a purely commercial one,” she observed.
As an anthology, the products that make up the Release1 collection deliver potent observations about consumerism, ritual, homogeneity, excess and waste. “The use of irony, absurdity and pastiche are modes that the design discourse is now sophisticated enough to indulge in,” Barrett noted. “I don’t know that design would have dared this kind of sacrilege back when it was still fighting for professional legitimacy.”
Burks nevertheless questioned whether the “design as art” approach sends design down an ultimately self-defeating path. “The collection is deserving of an award, in that it makes a great example of this typology, and should be used as a kind of professional stop sign,” he said. “But it’s really time that we designers, conceptual or not, get down to the business of engaging society from the inside—not from the outside. Has design reached a point at which rampant formalism, miniaturization and absurdity, as manifested in a collection of useless objects, need to be applauded?”
Stéfane Barbeau, co-founder of Release1, spoke with I.D. about the philosophy of Release1:
WHAT COMPELLED THE GENESIS OF RELEASE1?Designers increasingly question what they create. The six founders of Release1 hoped to build a platform for further introspection. Many of us previously worked together and, when hammering out real projects, found ourselves asking, “What’s the least appropriate thing we could do to solve this problem?” Release1 provides a forum for this sort of design exploration, sheltered from traditional market forces.
DESCRIBE YOUR SELECTION CRITERIA FOR THE COLLECTION.We developed many of the models ourselves, but also issued calls for submissions online and received more than 100 concept proposals. We were looking for designs that “jumped the tracks”—in which the parameters normally imposed to guard the design process had been distorted or removed.
WERE THERE CERTAIN LINES YOU DIDN’T WANT TO CROSS? Of each piece, we asked: “Is the concept illustrated clearly? Is there a risk that it may be interpreted in the opposite way of what’s intended? Can the concept be executed? Does it work on multiple levels? Does it generate an emotional response? Is there an element of surprise or discovery?” Also, we didn’t want any pieces to be angry. Most of the pieces we included were defiant, yet playful. We drew the line at entries we thought could be harmful to people, despite whatever good might have come from the message.
WHY SHOULD DESIGNERS INVEST THEIR ENERGIES IN FICTIONAL PRODUCTS?It can have a healthy effect on your overall approach to design. When you really push yourself through a conceptual piece, you may realize that there can be more thinking that goes into a simple ergonomic product like an iron. It’s like design yoga.
HOW DOES YOUR MANIFESTO COMPARE TO SIMILAR DESIGN COLLECTIVES?Certainly Droog Design in the Netherlands was an influence. They’ve proven that conceptual design is marketable and something people are interested in learning about. There’s also a group based in San Francisco called Design Raw. Most of their stuff is very highbrow and intellectually dense, whereas we’ve focused more on mass appeal and consumerism.
(Row 1, L to R) Daniel Reilly, Charlotte McManus, Ben Durrell(Row 2, L to R) Ryan McManus, Stefane Barbeau, Duane Smith
Stefane Barbeau founded the Brookline, Mass.-based product-design firm Vessel to produce items that make people comfortable. He’s involved in Release1 for exactly the opposite reason. Vessel co-founder and Release1 member Duane Smith has spent years building his portfolio and is proud that he’ll never show it again. He also has several “un-released” products on the market. Charlotte McManus joined Release1 as a means of escape from her office job. Now that she has tasted the exciting world of design, she packs it every day in her lunchbox. Ryan McManus got involved with Release1 with hopes that Stefan Sagmeister might some day recognize him in the men’s room of a Howard Johnson’s lobby bar. Ben Durrell is a furniture designer and partner in Kazam, a group pushing process and materials out of a cluster of machines and workshops in Portland, Maine. Daniel Reilly is a professional designer who enjoys designing professionally. He got involved in Release1 because design brings joy and because everyone else was doing it.
EXHIBIT ORGANIZERS Release1 Design Consortium: Stefane Barbeau, Duane Smith, Ryan McManus, Ben Durrell, Dan Reilly, Charlotte McManus. ADDITIONAL PARTICIPANTS Peter Allen, Kevin Askling, Robin Chalfin, Angela Clark, Daniel Cuffaro, Jonathan Fairman, Katherine Gillieson, Forrest Glick, Friederike Hamann, Aaron Hillis, Megan Hurst, Eric Johnson, Jean-Pierre Le Guillou, Beth Mosher, Carla Murray, Abby Newbold, Ken Nichol, Yvonne Potter, George Schnakenberg, Daniel Schwartz, Kirsten White. MATERIALS/FABRICATION Series of appearance models made of fabric, thermoformed plastic, wood, welded steel, modeling clay and resin. HARDWARE/SOFTWARE Macintosh G4, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Ashlar Vellum.
Photocredit: Andrew Ng (For Release 1 products)Photocredit: Ryan Mcmanus (For Headshots)