Young Asian designers create unconventional air cleaners for Electrolux contest

Three semi-finalists from Singapore, China and Korea are proposing new ways to solve air pollution with the aid of biomimicry and a bit of fashion.

Home and professional appliance company Electrolux recently announced the top 20 semi-finalists for its Electrolux Design Lab 2013 competition, and making the cut are a handful of young designers from Asia with far out concepts.

There are six successful Asian aspirants out of the 20 chosen. These semi-finalists have qualified for the fourth stage of the competition, which leads to the culmination night on October 16 in Stockholm where one winner will be selected from a shortlist of eight designers. 

The Electrolux Design Lab, now on its tenth year, is the annual international design contest of the Swedish global company open to both undergraduate and graduate students who can think of innovative ideas for homes of the future. Ideas can range from designs for healthy eating to intelligent mobility to green designs, just like some of the themes in the past. 

In this edition, students are tasked to come up with solutions for the theme, “Inspired Urban Living”. This tackles the complex issue of urbanisation, and according to Electrolux, the problems that arise from lack of space and people trying to lead comfortable, healthy lives amidst congestion and stress-inducing schedules.

Students have to design a product, accessory or service that fits this overarching theme with special focus on one of three topics: social cooking, effortless cleaning and natural air. 

Of the six Asian semi-finalists, half of them conceptualised forward-thinking solutions on natural air: Singapore’s Wei Kiat Law with his OZ-1 air purifier neckpiece; China’s Qing Ji with his air cleaning Cellular Pillow; and, Korea’s Jeabyun Yeon with his Breathing Wall

Their ideas addressed the company’s design brief, which stated: “The climate we live in is changing yearly; pollution is a growing problem and our indoor space should be a sanctuary from the suburban outdoors.” 

This resonates strongly with the recent haze disaster in Singapore and the pervasive air pollution in China. In Singapore, residents experienced the worst case of air pollution since 1997, brought on by smoke from forest fires in Indonesia. China, on the other hand, continues to have high levels of air pollution due to burning of coal. In fact, a just-released study on the Proceedings on the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal details how pollution in northern China will reduce the life expectancy of people in the area by 5.5 years.  

As for Korea, while there are no alarming pollution levels lately, the East Asian nation renewed its cooperation with China and Japan on the fight against cross-border air pollution and climate change, earlier this year. 

However, the state of air quality in these countries, despite being the places of origin of the three designers, did not figure prominently in the concept description that they submitted. 

Law, who hails from Singapore, initially concentrated on the context of cigarette smoking. The OZ-1 was a smoke remover fashioned like a chunky necklace or sleek headphone and it had a smoke sensor that could trap unpleasant odour through a filter cartridge. 

Electrolux head of advanced development Mats Ekblad suggested broadening the concept, however. The device, still stylish and in different colours, became an air purifier that can clean the air around a person in two ways: one, by releasing a certain amount of oxidant to neutralise harmful gases, and two, by trapping dust and air particles on its filter. 

Qing from China differed in his design and approach. His observation was people wished to commune with nature, to travel outside the city and leave work pressure behind. His Cellular Pillow arose from that need, and he was also inspired by his aloe plant at home. In particular, he employed biomimicry in his design. He said, “The Cellular Pillow is made up of aloe cells, which can be used to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen and anions, as well as get rid of bacteria and break down harmful gas.” 

An internal piezoelectric battery simply activates the aloe cells. “This brings fresh air during our sleep, just like if we are sleeping in the forest,” he said. 

The third designer, Yeon from Korea, similarly used biomimicry in his gill-like Breathing Wall concept. He explained, “When I first heard of the “Urban Living” theme, I immediately thought of Seoul – tall buildings, lots of cars and vast number of people in a small city.” The Breathing Wall will give people a better environment indoors, where different parameters are adjusted to create the right atmosphere, he said. 

Using smart material, nanotechnology and robotics, the Breathing Wall creates a visually stimulating and experiential setting based on mood, memory, breathing and other factors. The home appears to breathe in sync with a person, and according to Yeon, it certainly does since the wall syncs and is controlled with a person’s smartphone. 

Thomas Johansson, Electrolux design director, pointed out that Yeon has to further explain how the wall moves and cleans the air precisely. He suggested presenting calculations of the air cleaning process for the designer’s next step. 

These three Asian designers, together with the rest of the semi-finalists, have to prove the feasibility of their concepts. The OZ-1, Cellular Pillow and the Breathing Wall have to show that it can improve air quality and reduce pollution, to ultimately help the user and the home. 

If the design is narrowed down for the final round, a jury of experts will pick the winner based on consumer insight, innovation and intuitive design. 

The winner of the 2013 Electrolux Design Lab competition will receive 5,000 euros and a six-month paid internship at an Electrolux global design centre. Consolation prizes will also be awarded to the second and third places, as well as the People’s Choice winner.

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