The Fair’s the Thing
For nine days in September, when the London Design Festival’s distinctive red signage appeared at scores of event locations, the remarkable breadth and depth of the U.K.’s design industry was suddenly made visible. The 14th edition, held September 17 to 25, was a sprawling affair: Hundreds of designers and manufacturers hosted events across the city as five separate trade fairs ran concurrently.
Commissioned projects gave a sense of order to the dizzying array of pop-ups and partnerships, lectures and launches. At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the festival’s official hub, several temporary large-scale exhibits were installed among the permanent displays. The Green Room, by London-based product designers Glithero, featured a massive cylindrical curtain of 160 brightly hued cords that dropped down a six-story stairwell; individual strands gently rose and fell over the course of a minute, offering onlookers a new way to visualize the passing of time. In the Tapestry Room on an upper floor, Benjamin Hubert’s wavelike Foil—an animated ribbon of 50,000 stainless-steel mirrors—scattered light across the walls like a giant disco ball.
At nearby Chelsea College of Arts, another ambitious project occupied the courtyard. Alison Brooks Architects’ The Smile, a pavilion in the form of a curved box beam, demonstrated the constructional capabilities of cross-laminated American tulipwood. While the center of the 112-foot-long arc lightly rested on the ground, both ends rose 11 feet into the air, culminating in large openings that offered those inside framed views of the college and the sky. (Unlike most of the installations, which ended when the festival did, The Smile remained on view through October 12.)
Downriver to the east, Somerset House—a Neoclassical cultural center and home to the Courtauld Institute of Arts—hosted the inaugural London Design Biennale. For it, curatorial teams from design museums in 37 nations produced pavilions that responded to the theme of Utopia, selected by show director Christopher Turner to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s classic work. Occupying a prominent spot in the center of the entrance courtyard was Barber Osgerby’s Forecast. The supersize weathervane, anemometer, and wind turbine alluded to Britain’s maritime history, tumultuous politics, and—of course—fabled obsession with the weather.
In Shoreditch, architect Asif Khan erected three enigmatic translucent polycarbonate structures, which he then stocked with furniture and thickets of plants. The project, called Forests, which was commissioned by MINI Living, explored the potential of “third places” in the city: spaces to gather in the public realm, away from home and work. Khan, who designed a summer house for the 2016 Serpentine Pavilion program, explained that he hoped his interventions would foster interaction between strangers as well as raise questions about the relationship between public and private space.
Bompas & Parr also used vegetation as a material in L’Eden, a bioresponsive garden installed in a Soho gallery. In the fairy-tale-like indoor landscape, concealed mechanics and motion detectors animated living plants, causing them to “react” as visitors moved through the space. Thus, under a starlit LED curtain, tendrils drew themselves back to clear a path, and a dancing tree bent and swayed along with spectators’ motions.
Similar levels of ingenuity were evident in designers’ studios and showrooms. For example, to introduce his new lighting range, Lee Broom transformed his East London store with an Op Art–inspired installation. Opticality featured geometric-pattern pendant fixtures endlessly replicated by mirrored walls, creating the illusion of infinite space.
Eley Kishimoto took its energy to the streets—literally. With help from design consultancy Dolman-Bowles, the fashion duo applied its signature Flash pattern to crosswalks at busy Brixton intersections, improving safety while adding visual flair to the urban environment. In all, the London Design Festival’s messy diversity is its strength: Grand spectacles coexist with subtle interventions, and culture cozies up to commerce. As the event expands into new territory and broadens its international scope, the mix grows even richer.