A Journey into this year's Festival

With Anne Laure Pingreoun by Lily Saporta Tagiuri

October 14th 2019 - One of the big fears when attending a design event is the risk that it will be a series of photogenic projects without much substance. While there were pieces that fit that description, curator Anne Laure Pingreoun described London’s Design Festival as having a new energy and set of impulses that set it apart. With decades of international attention focussed on Milan Design Week, London is a younger voice in the world of design shows and it is setting itself apart.

In past years many neighborhoods were unofficially part of the Design Festival; many events operated more like an ad-hoc series of open studios the public was invited to. This year the official Festival felt more established, Anne noted, with new design districts in Kings Cross and Peckham. In a city as large and sprawling as London this expansion was a way to reach new audiences and include people otherwise both culturally and physically removed from the offerings. Northern Londoners were lured south to Peckham by a collaboration between The London Flower School and Lisa King who installed an explosion of floral sculptures and hosted a series of workshops. While Anne described Kings Cross as underwhelming and disjointed, she was enthusiastic about the effort being made and the quest for London to claim an identity as a design destination. 

Masters of Disguise at Se-eds Gallery by Sabine Marcelis

One of the major elements that set London apart was the style of interactive work. Not just the typical techy AR and VR “immersion” but installations that centered visitors in uplifting and fantastical experiences. One example of this genre of interactive work was VOID by Dan Tobin Smith; A galaxy like space created by projecting the micro details of rare gems. Through music and design, the visitor was encapsulated in the heart of these exaggerated geologies. A lighthearted installation of a fantastical maze, Never Lost by Emilie Forgot, was intended to inspire curiosity and joy. Another playful show was Masters of Disguise at Se-eds Gallery, in which twenty-three designers we asked to create a mask that reflected their personality. From the quirky and colorful textile clown mask by Bertjan Pot to an elegant pink glass slab that shrunk the face of the wearer by Sabine Marcelis, the masks allowed the designers to have a sense of humor. In tense political times, pieces with positive energy are not just lightening the mood but making a statement. 

With Brexit as the backdrop, the projects installed around the city reiterated Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s declaration that ‘London is open’ staging the city as welcoming and approachable. The vibrant geometric shapes, of Camille Walala’s public seating project Walala Lounge commissioned by Grosvenor on South Molton Street, which will be up for the year, encouraged interaction between strangers and brought a vibrancy and a sense of community back to the street. Immediately accepted as a regular fixture, the newly street furniture was occupied at all hours.

Please be Seated by Paul Cocksedge

In the heart of Broadgate, visitors and commuters reclined on the smooth communal benches of Please Be Seated by Paul Cocksedge. While the undulating benches were also an invitation to interact with the city in a new way, unlike Walala’s piece the seating was individual and lent itself to a more introspective rather than social experience. Visitors could find a moment of calm and zen in the otherwise chaotic Victoria in Life Labyrinth built by the wonderful Patternity duo in the Westminster Cathedral Piazza. The stripes of the labyrinth matched those of the edifice though the modernized maze was made of recycled materials rather than precious stone. In conversations with people engaging the space, Anne heard many visitors lament the temporal nature of the installations and their longings for a permanent versions. These vibrant additions to public space made the city come to life and brought people together. When cities are focussed on more practical infrastructure, the need for these human moments of connection are often overlooked. 

Life Labyrinth by Patternity

In the Brompton Design District curator Jane Withers focussed not only on making the city better for people but for the non human cohabitors. Brompton Biopia took place outside, including animal shelters designed by Marlene Huissoud to attract and house wildlife, and simple habitats equipped with cameras to document the movement of the animals installed by interaction studio Nature Scenes. Unlike the majority of design show offerings, this was not about selling but earnestly about creating better spaces for the fauna of the city. With a complex range of intentions, many of the pieces at the festival were focussed on “sustainability” at large. While that term has become vague, there were unique approaches to some of the major issues we are collectively grappling with. From Sam Jacob to Jesper Eriksson, designers are increasingly placing their work in the center of the conversation, asking challenging questions, and expressing the need for alternatives. 

Brompton Biopia by Jane Withers

When Anne recounted the highlights of this years design festival, I felt like I had missed out on something special. As the certainty of the UK is called into question by Brexit, London has asserted its relevance. Every year it grows, accepting the challenges of a changing world and growing to incorporate new approaches and ideas. I will definitely be attending next year.

Written by Lily Saporta Tagiuri