Highlights of 2016 London Design Festival

Urban life requires a little creative navigation. We benefit from the vibrancy of the city, and experience its diverse communities. Yet city living is noisy – physically, emotionally, mentally it can be a chaotic cocktail at times. Added to this, with many of us working away from the office desk, our work/life patterns have evolved to be so much less linear than they used to be. Then there is the high price of housing in cities like London which inevitably means shared living for so many, especially the young. A quite spot is thus essential – a space that allows us to gather our thoughts, one that encourages us to connect and helps us to create.

Forests offers exactly this. Asif Khan has envisaged a trio of ‘spaces within spaces’, according to the British architect – pop-up sanctuaries dotted around dense urban settings. They include an interactive workspace to promote creativity, an elevated hideaway to switch off and meditate, and a space designed to meet, make friends, share food. The project for the London Design Festival (17 to 25 September) forms part two of MINI Living, an initiative by the car marque to explore the future of urban life, which began at the Milan design fair earlier this year.

Whereas the Milan installation was a physical example of an innovative shared living concept, in London Khan is exploring the relationship between public and private space through the use of plants, in this case a gorgeously exotic selection by London horticulturist Jin Ahn for mini green jungles in this urban jungle. Khan explains, ‘There is a Japanese phrase shinrin yoku, which literally means forest bathing. It means every sense switches to absorb the forest atmosphere, what you hear, what you smell, even the feeling underfoot.’

Popped up amongst the housing estates and crowded office blocks of Shoreditch, east London, they are a welcome sanctuary, especially on the day of my visit as my guide greets me with news that her mobile phone was snatched en route. It certainly highlights the less tasteful sides of urban life. Yet as we climb into the meditative sanctuary ‘relax’ surrounded by exotic plants and the sound of silence, all our worries seem to wash away. MINI Living will continue is exploration later this year with A/D/O in Brooklyn – a long-term initiative to introduce a diverse programme of resources for creative professionals, including a prototyping studio, in-house accelerator and open workspace.

Elsewhere at LDF one of the main visual highlights is The Smile, a 3.5m high, 4.5m wide and 34m curved tubular structure, its two ends raised high in the sky, outside Chelsea College of Art. Here architect Alison Brooks has worked with engineering firm Arup using hardwood CLT – the engineered timber used by architects as an interesting replacement for steel – to push the limits of timber and explores an alternative material for construction. The installation is on until the 12 October and really worth seeing for the sheer scale and engineering craft.

Every pocket of the city seems to have come alive with LDF. A visit to Clerkenwell London and we were excited to see this innovative concept store champion creativity with a host of pop-up exhibitions, talks and workshops throughout the week. We particularly enjoyed graphic artist Camille Walala’s colourful takeover of the vinyl lounge, a space where incidentally I’ll be participating in a talk on our latest book The Life Negroni next month.

Over at the LDF hub at the V&A there are a number of exciting site-specific projects too. Foil is an immersive installation by British designer Benjamin Hubert of Layer in the Tapestry galleries – a room that seems to respond so well to contemporary conceptual design projects. Created for the German electronics brand Braun, and as a nod its famous shavers, Foil is made of 50,000 hand made metallic panels that dance slowly creating a sort of wave motion whilst LEDs splash small blades onto the rooms walls and corners for an incredibly hypnotic effect.

Other highlights include Elytra, a growing shelter in the V&A courtyard by the University of Stuttgart as part of the museum’s engineering season. Inspired by beetles, the robot housed inside this intriguing structure creates new components as it responds to our presence thus exploring possible futures for architecture. Whilst Beloved, by Istanbul-based architect Tabanlioglu, is a seductive introduction to Madonna in a Fur Coat. Here on the bridge of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries we peak through tiny cracks in the 13-meter long mirrored black box to glimpse and hear teasing moments from the classic 1943 novel by Sabahattin Ali.

I always enjoy the V&A exhibits for they represent how contemporary creative work can interact with the treasures in this amazing space. The building holds a very special place for me too for it has been my urban sanctuary since childhood when I first stepped inside and was seduced by the incredible collection, seeing the power of art, of craft, of design, of creativity to help shape the world.

Nargess Banks


Read our previous reviews of London Design Festival here.

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