Of all the degree shows that take place each year at this time, the Royal College of Art's (RCA) is one of the most keenly anticipated. Now in its 175th year, the RCA has a well-deserved reputation for furnishing some of the brightest new additions to the design world.
This year provided plenty to think about before even getting to individual student work. For the first time design was split in two, with Design Interactions and Design Products at the College's Battersea campus, while Innovation Design Engineering and the rest of the design-led disciplines remained at the South Kensington site. This division reflects bigger regroupings at the RCA to reflect its growing size: this year saw the biggest ever cohort of over five hundred art and design graduates.
The increasingly populated field is just one of the concerns for this year's graduates. Facing unfavourable economic conditions and mounting environmental and social challenges, there was a notable ethical and political charge in many of the exhibits.
Visitors to Battersea's de-industrial Testbed 1 site were welcomed by Joseph Popper's The One-Way Ticket, a low-tech film prop representing the interior of a space capsule, intended to question our view of space as the final frontier. Man's extension into new environments was just one of the subjects explored by Design Interactions students, that also included speculations on advances in digital, transgenic and biotechnologies in relation to issues such as ageing populations and food shortages. While weaker projects stretched the bounds of incredulity, others showed real insight, like Shing Tat Chung's A Superstitious Fund, a trading algorithm based on lunar cycles and numerology that neatly exposed the irrationality and unpredictability of today's financial markets.
Several Design Products students displayed an equal awareness of current affairs. For The Materiality of a Natural Disaster, Hilda Hellström spent a week living in Japan's Fukushima with the last person still living in the evacuated nuclear disaster zone. In a dystopic take on the interest in provenance and place-based production, the Swedish designer brought some of the soil back to the UK to create food storage jars. Their low-level radioactivity means that the vessels can't be used as intended — just like the area's fields can't be used to produce the food to fill them.
Not all the projects were so downbeat. Some continued last year's interest in construction details and craft techniques while other, more functional, highlights include a ball-shaped kinetic mobile phone charger, a skateboard that can go down steps and Kim Thome's furniture series, which uses neon graphic patterns and two-way mirrored glass to create striking optical illusions.
Although the split between the design disciplines created artificial divisions between the students' work, the Vehicle Design and Innovation Design Engineering displays at South Kensington were equally impressive. As with any degree show there were some misses, however both showcased projects that demonstrated a desire to use design for social good alongside technological innovations such as Eunhee Jo's interactive textile surfaces and Mimi Zou's Iris, a biometric re-invention of the camera that tracks eye movements to control the lens and take photographs when you blink.
Speculative, technology-driven work found its way into the School of Materials, evident in the wide-ranging Fashion and Textiles projects as much as in Ceramics & Glass. John Rainey's Insurgency series employs additive manufacture technologies to create hybrid objects that explore the instability of identity amidst the increasing blurring between the real and the virtual, while Camille Flammarion uses the language of modularity to turn ceramics into re-arrangeable furnishing components that tap into the wider co-design trend.
This broad spectrum of conceptual and production-orientated work continued in the other departments, all of which demonstrated a welcome emphasis on material experimentation. In Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery, Emma Montague and Nina Khazani used animal teeth and human hair respectively to create objects that fell more into the realm of fashion accessory than conventional jewellery.
Political engagement returned in the School of Communication, awkwardly housed in a series of sprawling spaces in another building. Minjae Huh's Future without PSW was a reference to the law-change that means that overseas students can now stay in the UK just two months, rather than two years, after graduation — creating clear implications for Britain's design industry.
The internationalism of the student body is just one factor behind the high quality of the RCA's research activity, a small fraction of which is mentioned here. In addition to the School of Fine Art are the students of the Humanities School, which this year saw the first graduates from its new Critical Writing in Art & Design programme. Here, as across the RCA, there is a willingness to experiment and explore the boundaries of their discipline — a vital skill for those seeking to make their way in design today, and one that many of the students leave here are more than equipped with. Catharine Rossi