It would be deeply unfashionable these days to confess to buying supermarket chicken Kiev. The slow food movement has successfully instilled the idea that eating seasonal, organic produce is the only healthy and ethical way forward. But that may turn out to be a rather romantic notion. We are already staring a global food crisis in the face, and the world’s population is expected to grow by almost 3 billion people by mid-century. In which case, the industrialisation and genetic modification of food will probably only become more widespread.
The idea of food as a design product is not exactly new. Pasta is arguably the first example of a designed foodstuff, manufactured for centuries in hundreds of shapes, each one of which is designed to absorb sauce slightly differently – mass production by a high food culture. Philippe Starck had a go at designing a new pasta shape in the 1980s, as did the legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, but neither novelty caught on. Really, it was the American TV dinner of the 1950s that turned food into a design product – it even came in a box designed to look like a television. Inspired by airline meals, the TV dinner dispensed with the time-consuming and messy process of cooking, and compacted the turkey roast into a neatly packaged commodity. In this country it all began in 1976, when Marks & Spencer launched its first ready meal. You guessed it: chicken Kiev.
We don’t tend to think of food as design and yet we love it when celebrity chefs treat it as such. Even though most of us will never taste them, we are spellbound by the liquid-nitrogen-dipped creations of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, of The Fat Duck and El Bulli respectively. Their “molecular gastronomy” employs fundamental design principles, such as rethinking accepted norms and prioritising the user experience.
In a way it’s surprising that there are not more designers working with food. They certainly exist though. The best known is the Catalan designer Martí Guixé. For more than a decade he has been experimenting with turning food into products, or – perhaps more accurately – experiences. He created the Foodball concept restaurant for shoe brand Camper, where, if it’s not self-explanatory, all the food was ball-shaped. He’s started a restaurant where everything on the menu is ordered from local takeaways, he’s branded organic peas with images of female icons and he’s made cakes that look like pie charts – the icing reveals the percentage of each ingredient in the recipe. He doesn’t claim to know anything about cooking but, rather, is fascinated by the idea of edible objects.
Guixé believes that food is curiously under-designed, that it is an essentially conservative medium. No doubt that has to do with our – occasionally deluded – perception of it as somehow coming straight from nature. However, as the global food shortage starts to precipitate technological solutions, we may become more used to the idea of artificially produced nourishment. Last month, The Royal Society published a collection of papers on the future of food (covered in this newspaper), one of which speculated that artificial meat “grown in vats” was a viable way to meet our future demand for protein. Indeed it argued that “in vitro” meat was healthier and more hygienic than the real thing.
It is a testament to how diverse the design world has become that there are designers – albeit in the extreme fringe – who are already exploring the implications of that. Oron Catts, a former industrial designer who now operates out of a synthetic biology lab at the University of Western Australia, actually grew himself a steak in 2002. He used cells harvested from an unborn sheep. His Petri-dish steak was rather chewier than a real one, but Catts is not aiming for fine dining. His work – which, at the more “designer” end has included growing a “victimless” leather jacket – is intended to focus debate on the ethics of synthetic biology. On the one hand, we get to eat victimless meat, on the other, he argues, we are creating a new “semi-living class” for exploitation.
So where does the design come in? A recent graduate from London’s Royal College of Art took the implications of work by Catts and his partner Ionat Zurr to its logical conclusion. James King, an interaction designer, asked a simple question: if a steak hasn’t actually come from a cow, why should it be steak-shaped? In theory, it could take more aesthetic, abstract forms. He decided, though, to retain some link to the animal, instead using MRI scans of livestock and choosing the most aesthetically pleasing cross-sections. His MRI steak looks like a cross between a chop, a brain and a sea anemone. If you think that the premise of mass-produced chicken Kiev is simply verisimilitude – in other words, this object looks like a real stuffed chicken breast – then this is the opposite model. This is food with artistic licence.
Although the work of designers such as Catts and King is speculative, it raises interesting questions about the future role of designers in the food industry. Traditionally their role has simply been to package the food, to make consumables more desirable, to make it stand out on the shelf. Scientists believe that another decade of research is needed before in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable, but it raises the idea of a new role for the designer: not just packaging what we eat, but designing it.