London Design Festival highlights at the V&A

The London creative season is in full swing with London Design Biennale at Somerset House and London Design Festival spread to almost every corner of this great city. The hub at the V&A is possibly the best place to get a feel for the more conceptual work. The festival is celebrating its sixteenth birthday as well as its tenth year collaborating with the museum. For 2018 it is bigger, bolder, more international, and a vibrant start to autumn.

At the V&A’s Exhibition Road Quarter entrance is the striking MultiPly – the clean, clear Sackler Courtyard the perfect stage for this timber structure. One of the festival’s four key ‘landmark’ projects, it is the collaborative work of Waugh Thistleton Architects, the American Hardwood Export Council and engineers Arup who are exploring sustainable materials and modular systems that could help with today’s challenges – namely climate change and housing shortage. MultiPly is nine meters high and made from panels of American Tulipwood to resemble a series of wooden blocks, connected by bridges and stairs, with holes and open spaces throughout – perfect for climbing and seeing new views of the V&A and the surrounding South Kensington.

Sustainability has been addressed in conventional and non-conventional ways throughout the festival. This month, alongside eighteen other cities, London committed to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration for a carbon free near future. In another V&A festival highlight, London Fountain Co. presents a public drinking fountain, commissioning Michael Anastassiades to design a contemporary public drinking fountain that would replace wasteful plastic bottled water consumption in the city. Installed permanently in the V&A courtyard, this elegant, sculptural piece is made from polished cast bronze to reference historical fountains as well as be hygienic. The Cypriot-born designer wanted his fountain to be an experience, but also blend into London’s furniture. So, the form is an abstraction of a classical column, and the scooped top is a nod to drinking from a bowl. London Fountain Co has plans to install more clean water public fountains throughout the city, each responding to the area and its history.

The V&A is a labyrinth of curiosities, and LDF offers the opportunity to explore its hidden passages and less visited rooms. I have been coming to this incredible space since my childhood, and am amazed at how many rooms have been undiscovered. LDF asks its chosen designers to respond to their allocated room, and the results are often hit-and-miss. Some exhibitors have looked at how to enhance the museum experience by introducing sound to bring life and context to otherwise musical instruments displayed as just ornaments. Others, take us on a virtual journey into other worlds from the museum to create more a bit of an experience. Some, like the Onion Farm by Danish fashion design Henrik Vibskov, have responded to their surroundings in more abstract terms. His long corridor of fabric onions and crude, prickly cash-wash style brushes, running the length of the elegant Tapestries Gallery (possibly the most exciting setting to work within), are, according to the V&A, comments on the ‘hyper-industrialised state of agriculture today’.

Elsewhere, as part of the arts initiative ‘14-18 NOW’ for the First World War centenary, design studio Pentagram has covered the walls, doors and floors of the V&A’s Creative Studio with black and white graphics to dazzle the viewer. This a brilliant concept inspired by ‘dazzle’ ships. Pioneered by the artist Norman Wilkinson, who took aspects of Cubism, Vorticism and animal camouflage, then painted the surface of vessels during the war, it was meant to confuse the enemy as they struggled to make out the dazzle ships against shifting waves and clouds.

See our previous LDF reports here.
Photography © Andy Stagg for the V&A and LDF.

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2017: A year in design, cars and their intersection

It has been quite a year in design. London alone is buzzing away with creative energy – at times impossible to keep up with the number of festivals, exhibitions, talks, walks… Perhaps as a reaction to the current political and social climate, there appears to be much more open discussions around arts and ideas – platforms for encouraging wider dialogues.

It got me thinking that perhaps a little nudge – in this case a painful electric shock – is needed through periods in history to awaken the mind and rediscover the voice. Trump and the global rise of nativist sentiment that also brought us Brexit has been a shock to the liberal minded. I share architect David Adjaye’s vision when he wrote recently: ‘I don’t think my generation needs a passport to define their nationality.’ What recent events have proved is just how much of this sentiment is shared with a generation of creatives and liberals and modernists who define themselves not by abstract national borders, but through progressive ideology. There is light in that.

So, what impressed in 2017? The Serpentine Gallery events and ‘marathons’ were again hugely inspiring where people from all worlds – arts, sciences, tech – gather to share thoughts on topical issues. Elsewhere, the London Design Festival felt bigger and bolder than in previous years to include a whole range of fringe events including Design Junction, where I was a little involved helping to write a book for Campari. Outside of London, Salone del Mobile in Milan was a truly impressive week where the city transformed into a creative hub – again with a strong international voice.

Looking back on the year, I am once again reminded of how multi-layered the car is – being at once a remarkable piece of engineering, a representation of avant-garde industrialism and a complex object. Added to that, the car is now an extension of our personal, social and working lives – a role that will become ever-more evident as we shift towards the clean connected autonomous age of mobility.

2017 was a year when the auto world finally began to seriously show its intent to move forward. It is no longer speculative. Tech companies such as Tesla have been true disrupters pushing the more traditional carmakers into reacting quicker to this inevitable change. And it has been interesting to observe the various car brands and their responses to the future. Some of the more forward-looking traditional companies have also proved that a century of stamping metal and building engines does amount to a great deal – that history, intellect and knowledge are important.

I am particularly fond of the BMW i cars. The marque was the first to show a real commitment to electrification by creating a devoted sub-brand and i Vision Dynamics shown in 2017 explores a unique visual language and preludes a third model in the family. Mercedes-Benz has also been devoting a great deal of R&D to finding more holistic sustainable solutions and the latest Mercedes EQA and Smart Vision EQ Fortwo are the marque’s vision for autonomous, electric urban driving. Then there was Audi’s Aicon, a driverless electric concept with no pedals or a steering wheel inspired by luxurious private airlines and Volkswagen’s brilliant ID Crozz concept to preview a high-riding electric crossover vehicle.

The excitement, however, remains firmly with conceptual cars. Carmakers still seem timid when it comes to radical design – only tip-toeing into the avant-garde with production models. Car making is an expensive business, requiring a great deal of investment and few are willing to take risks. Saying that, there were some fantastic products introduced in the year gone some of which I was lucky to experience.

Amongst my favourites has got to be the new Rolls-Royce Phantom for it simply brings visceral joy in every possible way. I love that the design team have taken the experience of personalisation to a whole new level with the on-board gallery concept. Elsewhere the McLaren 720S is a complex expressive project and, like much of what the company is making, needs to be saluted. Lexus is another company pushing the envelope a little, in the case of the latest LS showing that a bit of eccentricity in design isn’t such a bad thing.

There were some great cross-overs this year too from the world of cars to art and design. BMW released two art cars – the second a very brave virtual proposition by Chinese artist Cao Fei. It was fascinating visiting her at her Beijing studio and in the process exploring the city’s incredible contemporary art scene. Meanwhile, in navigating its future, sister company MINI continued its exploration of urban living working with architects in London and Milan to show us some thought-provoking concepts.

These are the kind of collaborative, ideas-sharing projects that make huge sense as the motor car evolves further to being much more than a vehicle for transport. As for the year ahead, I suspect the car in its formal ‘motor car’ shape will not alter drastically. Nor will our interactions. New car culture still has a little way to go and it’ll be up to a new generation of drivers to force that real shift.

Nargess Banks

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Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Exhibition – Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

Opera requires gauze to be wrapped around the imagination. It is hoped that the power of music and that most versatile of all instruments, the human voice, helped along by the magic of lighting and design could help penetrate that gauze. So, it was with some trepidation that I went along to the preview of ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. How do they convey that artful magic, which depends on so many improbables to work, and in a museum setting? The V&A has done just that and more.

Created in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, this is a vivid and immersive journey through 400 years of European operatic history, focusing on its key moments from its roots in Renaissance Italy. Senior curator Kate Bailey has combined décor, costumes, artefacts, paintings, drawings, videos and above all cleverly-chosen excerpts from seven operas symbolising each epoch which appear in our earphones seemingly from the ether as the visitor walks through the years, to evoke the magic that is opera. The synchronisation of sound and our movement through the galleries is truly astounding.

We begin in Venice, the birthplace of opera with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The date, 1642. One of the first pieces that can be called an opera with the angelic voices of Catherine Bott and Ann Sofie von Otter, literally floating between the two earphones. You have to read the clearly presented synopsis on the wall to remember that they are singing of the murderous emperor Nero. A painting by Bernardo Strozzi of singer and composer Barbara Strozzi as a courtesan hints at the parallel world of sex and music, a theme reiterated throughout the exhibition.

London 1711 follows, with Handel’s Ronaldo dedicated to the art loving queen Ann. Unlucky with children – she lost all seventeen. With the beautiful countertenor voice of David Daniels flowing into our ears, we are led to the tiny picture of Farinelli, castrated before puberty to maintain his fresh boyish voice, on a brooch ready to adorn the chest of some society lady. We learn that, apparently, castrati were popular with women.

We jump to Mozart’s Vienna of 1786 on the eve of the French Revolution. With the Marriage of Figaro, Mozart was thumping his large nose, as pictured by Ernest Thelott, at the aristocracy. Lorenzo Di Ponte’s libretto, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play, shows servants Figaro and Suzanna outmanoeuvring the randy Count. Possibly the most perfect of operas is being sung on the wall as I look over the sumptuous costumes worn by Susanna and the Countess and wonder how on earth they could sing with all that weight on their chest.

Rebellion reappears in Milan half a century later with Verdi’s Nabucco, premiered in 1842. The chorus of the Hebrew slaves became the unofficial national anthem of the Risorgimento which led to the unification of Italy. The powerful angelic voice of Maria Callas, while I walk beneath photographs of the ceilings of many opera houses in Italy, points to the centrality of opera in popular culture there.

Wagner’s Tannhaüser of 1861 was being feted, and reviled, in the Paris of the Second Empire where, in the name of cleaning up the slums, Baron Haussmann had razed the rebellious quarters of the city to the ground, building wide boulevards which made the movements of the troops much easier. Sadly for the emperor, ten years later Paris revolted again. Multiple videos show four interpretations of the erotic ballet scene an der Venusberg, brilliantly synchronised as if they all followed the same tempo.

A corridor lined with paintings by the German expressionist group Die Brücke (Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottlulf) lead us to the Dresden of 1905 with Richard Straus’s modernist opera Salome. The curators present this opera as on the road to the emancipation of women. There on a huge screen Nadja Michael’s Salome, covered in blood is passionately kissing the torso-deprived head of John the Baptist, singing, gyrating to Straus’s erotic music with clear oriental overtones. Sex and violence – another theme of the show. Woman as femme-fatal in a literal sense. Or rather in this case, a teenage crush gone awry. It is a relief to take my eye off the gory video and rest it on the designs for Salome by the likes of the American Lois Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance, the surrealist Salvador Dali and fashion designer Versace.

The next corridor pays homage to pioneering women through text and image – Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg who organised the first International Women’s day in 1911, and German artist Käthe Kollwitz who depicted the hardships of working class women. This leads to Leningrad of 1934 (the curators insist on calling the city St Petersburg) where we see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, wildly acclaimed until Stalin saw it and walked out on the last act writing an anonymous article in Pravda calling it muddle instead of music.

A film showing the young Shostakovich playing on the piano is placed in a patio whose entrance is criss-crossed by red tape – symbolic with a picture of Stalin scowling down from above on all of us. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya singing the aria lamenting her loveless, sex-less life brings tears to my eyes and, like the first room, I have difficulty leaving. This is an opera on sexual liberation far superior to Salome.

The final room reveals footage of some of the iconic twentieth-century operas, projected on its four walls simultaneously, giving a feeling of being immersed. They included George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht, and John Adam’s Death of Kinghoffer. The nun’s chorus scene from Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is interrupted with the guillotine cutting off their heads, one by one – maybe a bit too much decapitation in one show. And a favourite, Barbara Hannigan singing in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Opera alive and well. And singing.

Walking through this maze of wonder, I am made to feel alone with the music of the past and present, enveloped by the experience. This is the press preview, but what happens when the doors are opened to the public? Unless the numbers are limited it would be difficult to get close enough to read the clues so essential to the magical journey. And to feel totally engaged. To rip out the gauze. But I guess the V&A will not let this fantastic effort go to waste.

Mohsen Shahmanesh 

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, opened at the V&A yesterday as the first exhibition to use the new Sainsbury Gallery. It will be on show until 27 February 2018. Take a look at the events surrounding the exhibition here.


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Highlights of London Design Festival 2017

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.

Nargess Banks

See previous years’ highlights here.

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The new V&A Exhibition Road Quarter in picture

Last night saw the opening of V&A Exhibition Road Quarter – the much-anticipated new addition to my favourite London gallery. The work of Amanda Levete and her architecture practice AL_A, it includes a dramatic entrance onto Exhibition Road, and an impressive courtyard that celebrates the V&A’s storied past. New spaces for exhibitions include the Sainsbury Gallery, Sackler Courtyard and Blavatnik Hall.

The scheme has taken some six years to complete and marks the first major construction work at the museum in almost a century. V&A Exhibition Road Quarter opens to the public today with a week-long celebration through a series of art and design commissions. It is really worth visiting.

Find out more about the festival here.

Caption for all images: V&A Exhibition Road Quarter designed by AL_A picture ©Hufton+Crow

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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