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World's top product designers

March 21, 2007 14:36 IST

Ever find yourself admiring the clean lines of your teapot? Searching for beauty in the design of your dish rack? Maybe even comparing the sexiness of your new Infiniti with that of the latest BMW?

Industrial designers know the feeling. They spend their lives looking for fineness in function, brilliance in the everyday and better ways for us to simply "use" things.

But those things are changing.

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum, whose current show, "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial" highlights the best and brightest in all areas of contemporary design, believes industrial trends are breaking away from the candy color-coated, swooping lines of the first half of the decade and heading toward a more practical, simplified aesthetic.

And like other art forms, including music and fashion, the current political climate has certainly influenced the direction industrial design.

"These are difficult times, and I think a lot of this work reflects a sort of sobriety," says Lupton. "Simplicity and directness is a strong current in contemporary design."

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Emerging firm Ransmeier & Floyd embodies this philosophy, with their gradient dish-rack, which is featured in the 2007 International Design Yearbook, an annual showcase of the best domestic design worldwide. This alternative take on a kitchen mainstay is made up of hundreds of tiny polypropylene posts, resembling a square cut patch of grass one would use to mend a bald spot on the lawn. The posts are arranged more densely at one end and more sparsely at the other, making room for dishes and knives alike.

The dish dryer is a piece that the American-born, Eindhoven, Holland-based design duo are particularly proud of, for both for its function and form.

"The [gradation of the posts] is a function that's also beautiful," says Leon Ransmeier, who, with partner Gwendolyn Floyd, opened shop in 2003. "It's so easy to use."

The couple has done work for several manufacturers, including the Netherlands's Droog and Germany's Mawa Design. Recently, they were recognized in the U.S. at the National Design Triennial, and although they spent only one year working together in New York before moving to the Netherlands in 2002, Ransmeier and Floyd say the new crop of emerging American industrial designers makes them excited about a possible return to the United States in the future.

"I really think that soon there's going to be a very fostered, creative design community [in the U.S.] where we can flourish," says Floyd.

This includes contemporaries like Tobias Wong, Ron Gilad and Jason Miller, who are part of a similar young, experimental community in the U.S., and have benefited in recent months not only from press attention, but also from consumer interest.

Brooklyn-based Miller, is best known for his hand-made, ceramic-cast antler chandeliers, of which he has sold over 500--ranging from $250 to $20,000--from his Williamsburg studio in the last three years. They're also available at Calypso in New York City and online at

Gilad has set up an e-commerce site,, which sells his humorous yet functional design pieces, such as the Box Lamp (a metal frame that resembles a cardboard box with an open top that emanates light), and Void stool (a T-shaped stool with a hollow center where one can store books, magazines, etc). Prices range from around $39 to over $6,000. Other items are only listed as "price upon request."

But while there are many fans of these designers' do-it-yourself approach, some say certain industrial design trends--namely "green" or environmentally-friendly or sustainable design--are bordering on overexposure.

"Green design has become such a catch-phrase," says Julia Crosgrove, deputy editor of ReadyMade magazine, itself a contender in "Design Life Now" contest. "However [we call the overuse of it] green-washing--people will just throw around these words. It sort of delegitimizes the idea, and we're trying to stay away from that."

But James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner and one of this year's Tastemakers, believes the biggest threat to good American industrial design might just be outsourcing.

At a recent event to celebrate the winner of Eye on Why, a competition spearheaded by Dyson and the Industrial Designers Society of America that recognizes the best design by American students today, he let loose a figure that seemed to resonate with the crowd.

"America produces 50,000 engineers per year, China produces 500,000 and India produces two million," he said. "Culturally, that's very dangerous."

So, a decade from now, our eyeglasses and silverware may not only be produced in India, they might also be designed there. Yet our list of Tastemakers consists of five Americans, including rising stars like Miller and Wong, as well as industry heavyweights like Jonathan Ive and Niels Diffrient.

To determine our list, we conversed with a multitude of industry experts, gathered data from industrial design organizations and scoured Factiva for press mentions in 2006. Surely, there are influential and important designers we may have chosen not to mention, but we believe these are the 9 individuals and one duo that made the most impact within the past year.

Lauren Sherman, Forbes