The Eye

A British Designer Helped Kids Manufacture Their Brilliant Inventions

The Inventors project exhibition led by British artist and designer Dominic Wilcox in Sunderland, England, showcases inventions by kids age 4 to 12.

British artist and designer Dominic Wilcox is the eccentric architect behind such inventions as a stained glass driverless concept car and a cereal-serving head crane that he demonstrated on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

“My work has always been built upon the idea that a playful approach to creativity can lead to surprising and innovative ideas,” Wilcox told me in an email. “In fact I take playfulness very seriously when it comes to my work.”

Wilcox interacts with child inventors at the exhibition.

Colin Davison

In August, Wilcox led design workshops for 450 British children aged 4 to 12 in his hometown of Sunderland, England, for a local cultural organization. He showed them the cereal crane and some of his own inventions and asked them to think about how to solve design problems that they or family members face. “I knew that children have a vivid and free spirited way of thinking,” Wilcox told me, “so I was interested to see where their ideas would go without limitations.”

The children submitted 600 drawings. Daniel Shimmin, 4,  dreamed up a shout-activated camera. Katie Symcox, invented a light machine wig, an LED-powered helmet to comfort kids who are afraid of walking home in the dark. Ameliya Liddle, 6, designed a fan-powered food cooler fork that blows cold air on hot food before it goes in your mouth.

The Tooth-O-Matic, an invention idea by Henry Hughes, 12, made in prototype form by Brian Degger.  

The Inventors Project

And while most kids’ artwork is hung on the temporary gallery space that is the refrigerator door before being archived or lost to history, Wilcox took the extraordinary step of persuading local manufacturers to make a selection of these youthful design dreams into real objects. Children were invited to collaborate with manufacturers at Sunderland’s Fab Lab to help explain and flesh out their ideas.

Henry Hughes, right, meets with Brian Degger to discuss his invention. “The idea was a toothbrush with built in toothpaste,” Degger says. “During the client meeting we talked about how it should feel. Not too bulky. One idea was to use the pump type toothpaste dispenser. However, I struggled to see how to get it to the toothbrush and still be functional. The solution suggested itself as using a syringe fitted into the bottom of a electric toothbrush that had its innards removed, and a liquid path made by drilling through the centre of toothbrush neck and a few holes to let it out in the bristles.”

Colin Davison

The project is a nod to the power of a mentor to influence the creative life of a young person, inspired by the artist and teacher Charlie Holmes, who showed a young Wilcox a book of odd inventions and asked him to draw some of his own ideas, opening up the path to his life’s work.

A prototype of the Tooth-O-Matic.

Colin Davison

Wilcox told me that working on the project confirmed his “belief in the importance of uninhibited thought and ideas.” As adults, he said, “we can be limited by knowledge of what is or isn’t technically possible. It stifles our imagination. We need to think about future possibilities no matter how crazy they seem, in order for scientists and technologists to take us there.”

A selection of Inventors project drawings and prototypes are on exhibit until Saturday in Sunderland and may tour elsewhere, Wilcox said. The finished objects will then be returned to the young designers. See more design ideas here.