The creative industries are worth close to £90bn a year to the economy, offering some three million jobs here. It is a ‘serious, big, wealth-earning and reputation-enhancing’ sector, Sir John Sorrell told the Financial Times this weekend. These numbers came back to me as the London Design Festival (16-24 September) kicked off bringing colour and creativity to pockets of this dynamic city.
In its fifteenth year, LDF is expecting some 350,000 visitors. Sorrell founded the festival. He feels London’s advantage over copycat events has always been our rich creative education system which dates back 180 years when the state set up the Government School of Design in Somerset House to improve the quality of design. It is also thanks to an open city, an international city that embraces people of all colour, race and religion – something that became rather clear when, unlike most of the nation, the majority of Londoners found the concept of leaving Europe completely absurd.
Fifteen years on and LDF is bigger, bolder, braver and crucially more inclusive – representing voices from the international community and not only star designers which seemed to be the case in previous years. This year’s festival, which officially began on Saturday and will go on all week, feels more confident. LDF has grown to include Design Frontiers at Somerset House, Landmark projects around the city, Design Junction at King’s Cross and a whole host of pop-ups from Brixton to Clerkenwell and around the city.
Sir John Sorrell seems pleased with the event as he joins our group for a preview walk around the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is traditionally LDF’s main hub where exhibitors are asked to choose a room and create work that responds to the space and collection. For me the V&A exhibits are the most exciting part of LDF, for this unique place is a living museum, constantly evolving to be an expression of my city, its past, its now and its future – and it carries infinite personal memories.
The exhibits are a big mix tackling various themes from sustainability, ageing to materiality. They include Leaf, a bionic chandelier by the V&A’s emerging talent medallist Julian Melchiorri. Here his chandelier explores how biological micro-organisms and materials can convert waste and pollution into valuable resources. Then Scooter for Life by transport designer Paul Priestman addresses ageing and mobility. Whilst Czech glassmaker Petr Stanicky works with the possibilities of materials with two installations – a mesmerising site-specific work offering pixelated vistas of the surrounding V&A in the delicate September light, and a geometric thick glass structure that plays with our sense of perspective. Then, set designer Es Devlin’s High Tide for Carmen takes us on a bit of Alice in Wonderland trip to the making of her scenes for the Georges Bizet’s opera.
A visual treat is Flynn Talbot’s Reflection Room which looks incredible in the Prince Consort Gallery, a vaulted space rarely visited. It is dramatically illuminated on either end by the Australian artist’s trademark blue and orange lighting. He says the blue is symbolic of the ocean and the orange of the vast sunsets and sunrises of his childhood.
While We Wait by Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas explores the cultural claim of nature and is inspired by the Cremisan Valley between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The lace-like structure of local stone spirals softly up the Medieval and Renaissance rooms as we are encouraged to enter and take a meditative and reflective moment inside. Form and objects also chart cultural identity and ideas by V&A artist-in-residence Lobna Chowdhary.
Yet my pick of the V&A exhibitions is Transmission by London designer Ross Lovegrove in the incredible Tapestries room. His 21-meter-long flowing installation and free-standing three-dimensional tapestry works are made of tactile Alcantara – the colours offer the exact pigments of the stunning renaissance textiles that surround it. Lovegrove was inspired by the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries on display at the far end of this dark and mysterious room. In a reflective moment, he expresses his longing to explore such non-commercial projects, of taking this installation to other historical locations and to see how it responds and lives on.
Away from the V&A, as part of the Landmarks projects, architect Sam Jacob Studios presents Urban Cabin, the fourth project in the Mini Living research initiative to see how intelligent design can help city life. Sitting on the Southbank behind Oxo Tower, it explores London’s identity and what the city means to its inhabitants. Jacob questions the concept of private home, how we can challenge the existing (possibly outdated) model to be relevant for today and future urban inhabitants living in crowded cities where property is limited and expensive. He proposes a mixed private and shared space explored through food and books. Urban Cabin offers a shared open kitchen to evoke the feeling of street food and markets, and a micro-library, a cross between grand library and the books piled by our bedside. It is brilliantly constructed with opposing materials – precious stone, building foam, expensive timber, cheap wood – stacked sculpturally to create both shelving and exterior structure. Then the communal modular structure is covered in copper mesh to reflect the surrounding city life.
Elsewhere, Stellar Works presented Indigo: A Cultural Iconography at the Design Museum, an installation by design duo Neri&Hu exploring materiality in manufacturing, the craft of making and the associations between old and new and east and west in attitude, form and application.
Finally, at Design Junction Campari offers Campari Creates a stylish floating bar on the canal at Granary Square, King’s Cross to serve classic Campari cocktails and launch La Vita Campari. This lifestyle book is a hybrid of arts and ideas, design history, liquid history and cocktail book, and it was created by Spinach for Campari and authored by me. The book will be available at the barge until the end of the festival.