The annual London Design Festival, now in its 14th year, remains one of the more intriguing design fairs for its embrace of young, sometimes unknown designers as well as established stars. The big news for 2016 was the opening of the first London Design Biennale, with 37 countries participating in the event at Somerset House. Its theme, “Utopia by Design,” resulted in a predictably mixed bag of responses, but Lebanon’s first-prize entry by Annabel Karim Kassar, a micro-version of a Beirut street market constructed on Somerset House’s riverside terrace, stood out for its lack of surface polish and depth of feeling. Honorable mention goes to Russia’s fascinating second-prize entry, which examined that country’s innovative but unsung industrial designers of the 1960's to the 1980's.
The Victoria & Albert Museum, the hub of the LDF, houses a number of installations each year, but “The Green Room,” designed by the London studio Glithero, was by far the best of this year’s lot, with its subtly rotating, cylindrical curtain of multicolored silicone cords — a conceptual clock soaring through a six-story stairwell. In the nearby Brompton Design District, Bernadette Deddens and Tetsuo Mukai’s Workshop for Potential Design, known for its thoughtful, conceptual exhibitions, presented “ABC. . .,” a series of comments by writers, curators, designers, and an illustrator on “XYZ. . .,” an object-centric exhibition, also curated by Deddens and Mukai, which had opened a week earlier at Étage Projects in Copenhagen. (Who says criticism isn't an art form?)
Around the corner, photographer-designer Martyn Thompson’s “Rock Pool,” a cozy alcove overlooking a planted courtyard, presented (with the stylist Charlotte Lawton) his lushly-pattered textiles, based on his own photographs of the Ionian Sea. Jane Withers, the curator who oversees the Brompton Design District, had a show of her own at the Roca Gallery in Fulham. “Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture” traced the history of communal bathing throughout the world and presented bathhouses by contemporary architects.
The design-art gallery SEEDS put on “No Ordinary Love,” an exhibition curated by Martino Gamper, featuring ceramics by a who’s-who collective of young designers who are also friends. The objects are presented anonymously, and prices are twice as much if you want to know the identity of a piece’s designer.
Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s Barber & Osgerby showed several designs during the festival — their monumental wind-driven sculpture was the UK’s entry in the Design Biennale — but the most striking was their equally monumental Hakone table at Galerie Kreo’s Mayfair outpost. The design duo JamesPlumb presented “Reading Steps,” a 19th-century spiral staircase to which they added an upholstered seat that served as a poetic perch at the Makers House, a showcase for crafts from embroidery to lacquer organized by Burberry and The New Craftsmen that was one of the most talked-about exhibitions of the week. On a more intimate scale, the Shoreditch-based lighting and furniture designer Lee Broom’s tiny, seductive hall of mirrors showed his Optical lights to dazzling effect.
Finally, one of the most unexpected and haunting exhibitions of the week was at the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Space Gallery. Studio Swine’s “Fordlandia,” which is on view until December 10th, re-imagines Henry Ford’s failed, long-abandoned rubber processing plant and company town in the Brazilian rainforest as a success, “where nature and industry have entered a symbiotic relationship to create — sustainably and beautifully.” On display are both historic artifacts from the site and new designs, like furniture made from ebonite, a hard rubber, or Emma Fenton Villar’s denim jackets, which reference both workers’ garments and the geometric tattoos of indigenous Amazonian tribes.