Highlights from London Design Biennale 2018

‘Emotional States’ sets the theme for the 2018 London Design Biennale with Somerset House once again forming the brilliant backdrop to installations conceived by architects, designers and artists from six continents. The responses are varied. Apart from a handful of pavilions seemingly concerned with pleasing the instagram crowd, most others have responded with emotion and urgency to the sustainability of our planet, identity and nationhood, war and destruction and lost civilisations.

Some offer intellectual solutions. At the UK pavilion, ‘Maps of Defiance’ by Forensic Architecture looks at how design can directly inform new perspectives and lines of investigation. This is an emotional project about preserving disappearing cultures. Through digital tools and image-capture the team record and preserve evidence of cultural heritage destruction and genocide, such as the savagely ravaged Yazidi community of Iraq presented at the Biennale. The idea is to eventually reconstruct the buildings and rebuild these communities.

At the US pavilion, ‘Face Values’ by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum explores alternative uses of technology, and consider the vast capabilities of digital design. We are encouraged to make expressive gestures and allow the machine to translate our emotions, so live facial data form the basis for a dialogue on the provocative relationship between man and machine.

A few pavilions take a dark dystopian turn. Austria’s ‘After Abundance’ asked us to enter a terrifying post climate change world where Alpine forests are fast disappearing and rain is artificially created. ‘Matter to Matter’, the LDB winning pavilion by Latvia’s Arthur Analts of Variant Studio, asks visitors to leave fleeting messages on his wall of condensation to explore the transience of emotions and the ways in which nature reclaims the marks we leave behind. Others offer a touch of hope. Over at the Brazil pavilion, London-based designer David Elia sets out to give a voice to ecological anger with his ‘Desmatamento’ (deforestation). This tranquil room shares the beauty and significance of the diminishing Amazon rainforest.

Finally, the Refugees’ Pavilion tells the story of the survival of displaced people through creativity. Housed within the flat-pack structure ‘Better Shelter’ (the winner of the Design Museum‘s 2016 Design of the Year), we enter the temporary world of refugees to see their stories through the objects they place on display, so as to humanise their conditions.

LDB opened its doors to the public last week and will be at Somerset House, London until 23 September.

Take a look at the inaugural 2016 LDB on the theme of ‘Utopia by Design’

All images © Ed Reeve

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

London Design Biennale debuts with ‘Utopia By Design’

I’m sitting in the magnificent Somerset House courtyard overlooking Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s towering navy sculpture that moves ever-so-slowly to the nudge of the September wind. Forecast explores Britain’s rich maritime history and its involvement with the development of wind energy. Created by the local designer duo with the help of the V&A Museum and engineering firm Arup, it evokes the past and proposes a future powered by renewable energy. It is also meant as a wink to the nations obsession with the weather.

Somerset House is hosting the inaugural London Design Biennale with the working title Utopia by Design. The theme celebrates the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s classic Utopia with hugely diverse responses from the thirty-seven participating nations. Some pavilions have looked at tangible solutions for a possible utopia. Others have observed more abstract concepts. A few have envisaged a future that is more dystopia than utopia. One or two are relying purely on visual dazzle with sadly only a tenuous link to the working title. Together, though, they present an intriguing tapestry of possibilities for a shared utopian future.

The sky has turned abruptly from the beautiful blue it was a few minutes ago to a worrying grey – the angry clouds adding to the drama of the Somerset House setting. And I cannot help thinking the weather is also highlighting the volatile nature of utopian ideologies and dreams, of some of the modernist design it inspired, and later crushed.

‘We invited countries to interrogate the history of the utopian idea and engage with some of the fundamental issues faced by humanity and suggest solutions to them that use design and engineering,’ explains the biennale director Christopher Turner. He wants this ambitious bi-annual project to show the power of design to question, to provoke, to inform debate and find alternative solutions.

Lebanon’s pavilion certainly created a visceral reaction. Winner of London Design Biennale Medal 2016, the interactive installation is a snapshot of Beirut street life, not in an imaginary future but now, in its seemingly simple present. Mezzing in Lebanon is the work of architect Annabel Karim Kassar of AKK who’s installation is a constructed scene from the streets of the capital where a barber provides wet shaves, a cinema shows Lebanese classics enjoyed on hand-sewn mattresses, fresh bread is backed and kebabs and falafels sold. You hear street noises, smell urban life here.

Mezzing in Lebanon tells the story of a utopia that can be found in the present, a utopia of close-knit communities, of people enjoying food, music, street life. It is the story of real life in a volatile country where every day living as such takes on strong utopian longing. It reminds me very much of growing up in a somewhat similar setting in the Middle East where communities form micro utopias in the midst of the wider geo-political chaos around.

Elsewhere, Germany’s pavilion is a quieter affair, contemplating utopia’s more subjective roots. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, the pavilion comprises a light and dark room – the former exhibits the John Malkovich quote Utopia Means Elsewhere, whilst in the dark room viewers face a screen projecting a crackling fire as their minds drift off, for Grcic feels utopia isn’t a simple ‘fantasy of perfection’ but an open-ended concept.

Others have imagined entire utopian cities of the future. The Mexican installation Border City by architect Fernando Romero, for instance, is a fully-sustainable, car-free place designed to accommodate rapid growth and encourage interaction. This binational city is built on the topical border between Mexico/US. China takes on a similar task. Here the concept comprises a series of self-sufficient tower/cities within one megalopolis, Shenzhen, currently the country’s fastest growing urban setting.

Others have looked at issues of national identity and migration. Turkey’s entry is a contemporary ‘wish tree’ by design studio Autoban. Visitors are encouraged to send messages through the tunnel of pneumatic tubes that symbolise the country’s past and present migration paths. Italy’s is a floor of twenty white flags by a range of designers as symbols of a utopian emblem of global truce seeing. Here the curators see utopia as an act of deconstruction rather than construction.

Some countries have looked at historical models of failed utopias. Tunisia revisits Hungarian/French architect Yona Friedman’s fantastical utopian fantasies namely his mobile architecture. Russia showcases previously unseen blueprints dreamt up by Soviet designers, and screens a film about a utopia that never saw the light of day. Whilst Chile’s FabLab Santiago rebuilds Cybersyn, a futuristic concept city envisaged under Salvador Allende and created by the maverick cyberneticist Stafford Beer in the early 1970s.

Some pavilions dazzle with their colours and textures. Chakraview by India Design Forum, for instance, is a woven installation of the country’s cultural heritage where traditional textiles and ancient mythology interact with modern design and contemporary innovations – the blend of the social, political and religious climates is there to represent modern India.

The South African pavilion is also worth noting for its unusual approach to the subject. Otium and Acadia are a series of hand-crafted oversized soft toys made with recycled materials and hang like hammocks and swings from the Somerset House ceiling. The work of designer Porky Hefer – a very interesting designer known for his imaginative seats that challenge conventional material – viewers are encouraged to climb into the open mouths of these supposedly dangerous animals for an alternative view. It is reflective of South Africa’s turbulent past, and also a critic of the culture of modern consumption, of throwaway products, Hefer tells me. His fantastically playful animals release the child in us all, spark our imagination and evoke a sense of community.

Jaguar, LDB’s main sponsor, offers an installation addressing the role of the car in a utopian future. Design director Ian Callum proposes real solutions – ideas such as sustainability in car production and vehicle use, and digital connectivity that will help better lives. He tells me about his concepts of shared private transport whereby you belong to a Jaguar club, drive your desired car but have others share this machine when not in use. He sees the urgency in a car that is ecological, compact, perhaps a two-seater and a perfect city transport, yet desirable – and the laser light installation here is such a vision for the marque.

I escape the rain to the Somerset House bookshop and purchase a copy of Utopia sold here with a variety of enticing cover designs. Thomas More presented a radical alternative with his imaginary utopia – a term he coined to mean both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. The philosopher assumed this would be a satirical fiction ‘whereby the truth,’ he wrote, ‘as if smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds’. The fact that Utopia has never been out of print is also telling – we are still in search of finding, or creating this perfect vision of living.

The London Design Biennale comes at an important time too. As the UK cautiously navigates its way out of the European Union, London is eager to preserve its place as the world’s creative hub, somewhere that is international in outlook… welcoming. LDB’s director Turner wants the event to be ‘ambitious, creative and inclusive’ whilst sir John Sorrell tells me he sees it securing the city as the world’s design centre in the way the Venice Art Biennale has done so for the Italian city. ‘If you believe in design you know it can make the world a better place, and I say the more international design dialogue the better,’ he says.

Groups of homeless refugees lie in the grass moments away in Embankment Park as I make my way to the station, their heads resting on their modest belongings. Now, possibly more than ever in history, we should be revisiting utopian visions in the context of the contemporary world.

Nargess Banks

London Design Biennale 2016, in partnershop with Jaguar, is on from 7 to 27 September at Somerset House.

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Clerkenwell Design Week 2014

This week saw Clerkenwell Design Week gather international companies, individual designers, and emerging young artists in one of London’s oldest neighbourhoods creating a striking contrast between the local historic architecture and contemporary design. The three-day event, now in its fifth edition, sees some of Clerkenwell’s landmarks transforms into a large exhibition space.

You enter CDW through St John’s Gate, where this year the young design collaborative Russ + Henshaw worked with Turkishceramics to create Tile Mile, a site-specific installation that references Islamic art and architecture. The combination of the 7200 colourful ceramic tiles and mirrors, incorporated into the passageway beneath the 16th-century medieval arch, created quite a dazzling start to the show.

The fair’s hub was once again at the Farmiloe Building, which formed the backdrop to an installation by car marque and main sponsor Jaguar and light designer Foscarini. One of the fair’s highlights, the giant cascading structure features dozens of Foscarini’s Tuareg totemic LED lamps suspended from a crane attached to the dramatic atrium descending upon a Jaguar F-Type Coupé. The idea is to represent the sparks coming off from the back of this powerful sports car, and to express the lightness of the aluminium structure in both the car and the lights.

The imposing Victorian building also staged Design Factory showing work by international design studios including ArtemideAnglepoiseFolkformNote Design Studio and Stellar Works. Here too there was a celebration of light, with some similar themes running through such as hooded hanging lamps and hand blown glass lights that celebrated the process of making.

Particularly notable were the light designs by French designer Marine Breynaert. Inspired by the contents she found in her grandfather’s old car garage, the former fashion designer utilises industrial screws and bolts for her new collection that she says is a marriage of ‘industrial heritage and a sense of contemporary poetry’.

CDW also saw a focus on design for usage rather than pure aesthetic value with tables, chairs and sofas that transform into various shapes for different functions. Additionally, craft was celebrated throughout the exhibition space. On the top floor of the Farmiloe Building, following a talk on the value of making in the age of digital printing, carpenter Barn The Spoon carved his way through a piece of log transforming it into a wonderful organic stool.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, The Order of St John hosted an exhibition of decorative designs; the House of Detention showed craft, and Crypt on the Green was dedicated to lifestyle objects. CDW also sees local studios open their doors to the public. This year Tailor my Tom Vac at Vitra dedicated the entire exhibition to industrial designer Ron Arad‘s chair with 23 architects and designers asked to re-interpret his iconic piece.

With the art and design festival season in full swing, it is pretty much impossible to keep up with all of the activities around the world. Each fair brings something unique to the table, and they each have their own regional charm. What they mostly do, though, is allow for a shared sense of creativity – even if just for a few days. This was particularly noticeable at CDW this year where established design studios rubbed shoulders with up-and-coming young artists and local crafts people. During these festival communities are created based on a shared interest in making our world a richer space through creativity.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our reviews of previous Clerkenwell Design Week here. Also read about the new Jaguar F-Type Coupe here.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Students interpret Jaguar design

This is an inspired take on Jaguar design by Royal College of Art students Ewan Gallimore and Claire Miller created for Clerkenwell Design Week 2013, which opened this week. The initial brief, put forward by Jaguar’s advanced studio in the UK to vehicle and textile design students, was to create a joint exterior and interior form study that expresses their vision of the marque’s future design language in either a sports or luxury context.

Ewan and Claire explain their art installation: ‘We began the project by looking at light, specifically the way the light falls within the space at Clerkenwell. We thought about how our form could accentuate this light and convey volume through its use of materials and our knowledge of how these materials react with one another.’

The installation’s form relates to the Jaguar brand through its sculptural volumes, use of materials and visual lightness – this being pivotal to the marque’s ongoing design language.

‘These elements helped us to create a sculpture that aimed to display a seamless transition between interior and exterior space,’ say the team.

Read more on Jaguar design as we speak with design director Ian Callum on future ideas and Julian Thomson of  advanced design discusses on the new F-Type.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | www.d-talks.com | Bookshopwww.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Cars at Salone del Mobile Milan

The world of the automobile is rapidly evolving – no longer is it sufficient to build reliable, well-engineered machines. Now cars need to be thoughtfully designed to express current trends and they have to at least be seen to be relevant. And it helps to be spotted mingling with the creative world. Car designers are forever emphasising their involvement with other design disciplines, of how they keep on top of trends and are involved in a discourse within the wider creative community. Rarely an interview takes place without a designer mentioning the Salone del Mobile, the coveted annual design show held in April in Milan.

It is here where they gain inspiration for their work, and unsurprisingly they have long wished to get involved. Shows like Milan don’t bring immediate financial gains, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to get a bit of creative kudos behind you, even in the hard sell world of the automobile, and the car world has wised up to this.

This year the list of carmakers present at Milan included the likes of BMW, MINI, Lexus, Renault and Hyundai. What they exhibited – in other words how conceptual they’ve been willing to go – and the choice of designer partnership reveals a great deal about where they wish to position themselves. Some showed a more daring side, others stayed close to the world they know best.

Renault partnered with British designer Ross Lovegrove (who’s studio happens to be a stone-throw-away from Design Talks) for Twin’Z. This is a pretty straightforward interpretation of a car – the blue four-seater sculpture inspired in colour by the painter Yves Klein mirroring the virtues of the planet, says Lovegrove.  Inside is a single unit; there is no dashboard with all information displayed on a smartphone.

Lexus stayed close to its Japanese heritage by collaborating with space designer Akihisa Hirata and renowned architect Toyo Ito for Creating Amazing. This is a much more conceptual affair – the space offers multi-sensory experiences to highlight the connection between roads, humans, wind, and water thus challenging the viewer to imagine the cities of the future.

A mix of performance art, music and dance, created by German choreographer Nikeata Thompson, accompanied Korean carmaker Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture in Motion. Another inspiring conceptual offering, here lights form virtual sculptures inspired by how nature continuously adapts to the changing environment.

An interesting partnership came from BMW who worked with celebrated French design siblings Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for its Milan exhibit. Quite Motion is a take on individual e-mobility. The slowly and silently rotating installation (reminiscent of a carousel) interprets BMW’s electric i sub-brand’s design – the lightweight construction, transparency and environmentally friendly materials. The installation’s pared-down form highlights the visionary aspect of electric mobility.

Over at sister company MINI, head of design Anders Warming revealed another intriguing installation. Based on the latest Paceman car, KAPOOOW takes observers on a bit of a journey revealing what’s hidden behind the sheet metal. We observe the car trapped between two worlds – one in chrome, the other woven out of paper parts – showing how two opposite parts create one complete unit.

Read more on our report in Milan’s new ‘motor show’ at the Salone del Mobile in Wallpaper*Also take a look at our previous reports on Milan here.

For more on the exhibits visit Salone Internazionale del Mobile.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | www.d-talks.com |Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©