Designer of the week

The Drum

Article by Lynda Relph Knight for the

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Nelly Ben Hayoun never fails to surprise. The space-addicted French designer is not only training to be an astronaut, but made it on to prime time Radio 4 last Saturday morning, flouting the public view that design is concerned solely with product and graphics. Her wholly unorthodox projects show that it can create memorable if transitory experiences too.

It is a rare accomplishment for any designer to make it into the UK media unless they are an established star – and probably male. Indeed, in her introduction to the Ben Hayoun interview, the Broadcasting House presenter predictably named 3D creative supremos Philippe Starck and Thomas Heatherwick as exponents of great design. Ben Hayoun was nonplussed by this, her simple response being, ‘I spend my time designing chaos’. 

Chaos is certainly an apt descriptor for the wondrously cacophonous International Space Orchestra she put together at US space agency NASA’s Ames Research Center in California in 2013. But there is method in it – and design. She speaks of team-building through the orchestra that brings together astronauts, scientists and others integral to space travel who might not normally meet – and certainly not easily stray out of their specified zones in a necessarily regulated environment.

The International Space Orchestra is the subject of a successful film directed by Ben Hayoun. The sequel movie, Disaster Playground (see clip below), due for launch in the UK in June, promises more of the same, taking its cue from catastrophes in outer space and how design can help avoid or deal with them.

This broader creative outlook typifies the best of design currently. Though product, environments and visual communications still count, design has a more significant role to play in creating stimulating experience – from theatre to retail – in crossing boundaries between art, science and the humanities and in shaping the future. Ben Hayoun describes herself as ‘an optimist for the future’ even when speaking on Saturday’s programme against the backdrop of terror in her native France.  No creative discipline can fully claim her.

Ben Hayoun has come a long way since she started out as a painter, later studying textiles in France before graduating from London’s Royal College of Art with an MA in Design Interactions in 2009. Now creating experiences through design, she is collaborating not just with space agencies, but with the music industry, academics and research centres. She is even studying for a PhD in Human Geography.

Her inquiring mind, engaging personality and dogged self-determination are to be applauded and emulated. That she successfully stormed the barricades of the sometimes reactionary BBC counts as a massive plus.