A/D/O by MINI | London Design Festival 2019

Journal

Product Design

London Design Festival 2019

LDF has emerged as a moral compass on the global design festival circuit, putting emphasis on projects that address pertinent issues.

London’s annual celebration of design typically receives less attention than its much larger counterpart in Milan. But while the Italian city remains primarily focused on product launches, brand-driven Instagram installations, and industry parties, the UK capital’s voice has emerged as a driver of change.

Marlene Huissoud's habitats for insects formed part of the Brompton Biotopia showcase during LDF

Running September 14-22 this year, London Design Festival (LDF) encompassed a variety of platforms for viewing, experiencing and learning about design. The trade fairs like Designjunction, 100% Design and London Design Fair allow brands and studios to showcase and debut their latest products, while many chose to use their own spaces to present new items – in the same vein as Milan’s Fuorisalone every April.

But noticeably in 2019, some of London’s designers and curators went beyond the standard presentations to highlight important issues that the industry should be addressing. Across the city, this was most evident in Brompton Design District, where the overarching curatorial theme Nature/Nurture examined the ways that design can help and learn from the natural world – a subject that has also been tackled by a variety of museum exhibitions over the past year.

The Balustrade Garden by Material Architecture Lab creates an ecosystem on existing urban elements
Indus tiles by Bio-ID are designed to filter polluted water

Under this theme, Jane Withers Studio curated the Brompton Biotopia series of animal habitats that aim to promote urban biodiversity. These included Marlène Huissoud’s sculptural, biodegradable homes for insects installed among the foliage in Thurloe Square; Material Architecture Lab’s hemp and lime-mortar structures that fit over existing architectural elements; and Interaction Research Studio’s low-cost, DIY cameras for keeping track of wildlife. The water-purifying Indus tiles by Bio-ID, which won the Design Challenge for the Water Futures research program at A/D/O, were also installed in the neighborhood – forming a modular wall facing Exhibition Road.

Sam Jacob's Sea Things installation (also main image) highlights the plight of polluted oceans

A handful of commissions at the nearby V&A museum, a longstanding LDF hub, also reflected an impetus to help the planet. Inside the main Cromwell Road entrance, architect Sam Jacob elevated a giant transparent tank. Projected onto its top surface were animations showing sea life interspersed with man-made waste, emphasizing the ever-growing problem of ocean plastic to visitors walking underneath. In the domed room above the tank, Jacob also displayed a series of vessels copied from historic items in the museum’s collection, but recreated in materials like chitin (a natural polymer that forms insect shells), and coconut matting mixed with bioresin, to present their potential.

Additionally, the museum hosted the Global Design Forum series of talks, involving speakers like fashion designer and activist Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney sustainability and innovation director Claire Bergkamp, Biofabricate director Suzanne Lee and many more.

SEEDS Gallery's Masters of Disguise exhibit included 23 masks representing designers' identities

Other projects on show around Brompton tackled identity. At SEEDS Gallery, a collection of 23 masks were created by designers including Martino Gamper, Sabine Marcelis and Nathalie du Pasquier to reveal an element of their personalities. Titled Masters of Disguise, the exhibition was curated by M-L-XL in collaboration with May Concepts. Meanwhile, the V&A’s dimly lit Tapestries Galleries played host to elaborate Mardi Gras costumes by artist Demond Melancon. The giant feathered and intricately beaded attire, presented alongside a video showing the garments worn in a parade, addresses stereotypical representations of black people.

Black Masking Culture by Big Chief Demond Melancon addresses racial identity

London Design Festival wasn’t without its Instagram-targeted installations. For those seeking photo content, Camille Walala’s Memphis-patterned street furniture and flags occupied Mayfair’s South Molton Street, while Paul Cocksedge’s Please Be Seated concentric ribbons of recycled timber, which formed arches and seats, were located in Broadgate.

But the trend for gearing projects towards social-media sharing was also tackled at the V&A. In the Exhibition Road entrance courtyard, created by AL_A and opened in 2017, the Non-Pavilion by Studio MICAT, There Project and Proud Studio minimally demarcated an area that could have been occupied by a photogenic installation. But the space between the thin corner poles was intentionally left empty – serving as “a ghostly reminder of our urgent need to produce less”. Instead, visitors could use augmented-reality technology to imagine what might have been placed there.

The Non-Pavilion by Studio MICAT, There Project and Proud Studio provided comment on overproduction

The city’s other designated design districts featured a sprinkling of projects that address topical issues. In King’s Cross, Granby Workshop’s ceramics made from 100% waste material were on show and Central Saint Martins hosted Designing in Turbulent times, an exhibition of graduate projects “offering propositions for more sustainable and equitable futures”. In Clerkenwell, Viaduct’s Waste Not Want Not showcase only includes products by companies with “strong sustainable policies”, while in Mayfair, a series of installations at restaurant Sketch were built by reusing materials from the previous year’s edition.

Instead of a physical installation, Non-Pavilion invited visitors to use AR technology

London’s festival is certainly not alone in highlighting impactful design. Dutch Design Week consistently presents projects that tackle important global issues, and a portion of the work featured in Milan has more recently swung towards social and eco-conscious topics. For example, curator Rosanna Orlandi transported the Guiltless Plastic exhibition, first shown at her Milan gallery in April 2019, to London’s Istituto Marangoni for LDF. The initiative aims to engage the design community in ways to reuse and recycle the material in innovative ways.

But while Milan design week still largely prioritizes style over substance, the effort at LDF to exhibit and promote effective and thoughtful projects provides a pertinent example for the growing number of other design festivals around the world. A shift and widening of the industry’s focus from the production of furniture and disposable installations, to concerns over insect populations, marine habitats and marginalized communities should definitely be celebrated.