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 Best of the London Design Festival 2016
“Mezzing in Lebanon,” designed by Annabel Karim Kassar as that country’s entry in the first London Design Biennale, won first prize for its evocation of a Beirut street market, complete with food stalls, a small cinema, and even a barber shop.
“The Green Room,” an installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum by the London studio Glithero, riffs on the idea of time (it was sponsored by the watchmaker Panerai) with a six story-high, rotating cylindrical curtain of multicolored silicone cords that rise and fall as they make one revolution per minute.
In “ABC. . .,” an exhibition in the Brompton Design District, the editor Oli Stratford comments (left) on Study O Portable’s “DIffuse Screen” (right), part of “XYZ. . .,” an exhibition at Etage Projects in Copenhagen. Both exhibitions were organized by the Workshop for Potential Design.
Martyn Thompson’s “Rock Pool,” designed with Charlotte Lawton, features Thompson’s latest textile designs, based on his photographs of the Ionian Sea, in an installation that was a Victorian-tinged collage of furniture, plants, and sculpture.
“The world’s smallest sauna,” by Marcis Zieman, was part of “Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture,” an exhibition at the Roca Gallery curated by Jane Withers that examines the history of communal bathing and presents bathhouses designed by contemporary architects.
“No Ordinary Love,” an exhibition at the gallery SEEDS, was curated by Martino Gamper, and includes ceramics by a collective of thirteen designers, including Tiago Almeida, Lars Frideen, Gemma Holt, Jochen Holz, Max Lamb, and Bethan Wood — all of whom are friends, but who have never collaborated in this way.
Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s limited-edition Hakone table for Galerie Kreo is a monumental, nearly 10 foot-long dining table made of solid oak from a 400 year-old-tree. The designers intended it to be a table for family meals, noting that the wear and tear of everyday use will only increase its beauty.
JamesPlumb’s “Reading Steps” is their re-do of a 19th century staircase; the designers added an upholstered seat at the top, to create a place for reading or contemplation. Hannah Plumb and James Russell are known for their lyrical re-fashioning of antique objects with a contemporary spin.
Lee Broom’s hall-of-mirrors installation “Opticality” was a clever showcase for his Op Art-inspired Oprical lights, which were introduced during Milan’s design week earlier this year, in a mobile showroom made from a van.
“Fordlandia,” Studio Swine’s exhibition on Henry Ford’s rubber processing plant and company town in the Brazilian rainforest — a failed venture that was abandoned in the 1940’s — reimagines the place as a model of collaboration and sustainability, and includes the designers’ own creations, like this chair made from ebonite, a hard rubber.
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.