Enlightened: The Victoria & Albert Museum, the self-proclaimed design hub of the LDF, seems to be the commonsensical setting to show off current design. All photos © London Design Festival
28.280 coloured glassbowls
by Antje Southern
Oct 1, 2013

Why bother to travel to Milan, Stockholm or Berlin to seek out the hippest design when it is accessible in an abridged version at the London Design Festival? Everyone agrees that it would be futile to visit the LDF in order to discover design novelties. Most have been seen at another design festival in another city earlier in the year. The incentive here is to browse the installations, exhibition venues and events held all over London, not to uncover but to compare and review the highs and lows of the 2013 goings-on in the design world enjoyably set in the atmospheric city that effortlessly integrates contemporary design into its tradition.

The vast spaces of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the self-proclaimed design hub of the LDF, seem to be the commonsensical setting to show off current design to its best effect but also to examine its propositions within the context of the museum’s rich and varied collections spanning 2000 years of global design history.

28.280 by Omer Arbel

This blend of old and new is enchantingly enacted in Omer Arbel’s Bocci chandelier installation that appears above the visitors as they enter the V&A. Arbel is proud of his largest installation to date and the engineering skill needed to hang 28 pendants, each made of 280 individually hand made glass lights from the 30 meter high cupola without breaking any of the 280 glass bubbles. Attracted by the soft play of light emitted from what looks like pastel-coloured candy bubbles floating mid air the viewer’s eye is playfully drawn upwards past the coffered ceiling into the domed space above the entrance. It is difficult to believe that its charming aesthetic is unintentional as the designer insists, merely a result of the fabrication and installation process rather than artistic imagination.

The ”Louvres” LDF information desk, strategically placed underneath the cascading Bocci installation was specially commissioned from Giles Miller Studio, whose multi-faceted geometric-cut Corian surface shimmers in the chandelier’s soft lights.

A detailed map pinpoints the design installations within the palatial building and guides the eager design pilgrim on a seven mile journey past the museum’s spectacular collections spanning 2000 years of design history.

Designers were given strategic settings for their installations. Bridging the old and the new Amorim installed a natural cork floor on the bridge from which a serene reconstruction of a Renaissance church interior can be viewed. The scientific diagram of the material’s cellular structure provides the inspiration for the repeating trompe l’oeil patterns but also echoes the geometric floor tiles on display below.

Dinner Party by Scholten & Baijings

Scholten & Baijings installed a dining table set with their own designed products, not in pristine showroom condition but in an upsettingly messy after dinner party state. Their concept to juxtapose contemporary everyday products within the gilded 18th century glamour of the Norfolk Music room reinstalled in the British Galleries, however, this does not quite inspire the adventurous viewing intended and unfortunately jars with the period interior.
Najla El Zein’s magic wind portal is the most successful installation that enhances the museum environment during the LDF week. The Lebanese designer uses the idea of a gateway that creates transition bringing the visitor from the inside to an open covered courtyard. The walk-through gateway is made of 5000 paper windmills that intermittently spin in a breeze. All senses are engaged. Soft lighting feels as if sun filters through the leaves of a forest. Air is caught in the spinning paper windmills making a whooshing soundscape reminiscent of flutes.

God is in the detail(s)

This intriguing multi-site exhibition that unveils the immense diversity of the museum’s collections was inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famous comment “God is in the details”. Swarovski provided specialist lenses to 14 designers from different disciplines and asked them to magnify a detail otherwise easily missed. One of the designers Ilse Crawford positioned her lens in the midst of the vast Ceramic Galleries focusing on the nearly invisible inscription of a simple 17th century plain white geometric Dehua porcelain teapot designed for a Chinese scholar “defy the laws of historical typecasting” in its unadorned simplicity.

To encourage people to look beyond the aesthetics of design and to celebrate the skill of making, the V&A and LDF conceived a small exhibition entitled “Alessi Made in Crusinallo”. The show’s purpose is to explain how the factory’s deep-seated handicraft attitude is translated into the modern industrial production. A range of well known Alessi products are appropriately presented in the factory’s own transport crates. Drawings borrowed from the Alessi Museum and a specially commissioned film help to gain insights into the factory’s accomplished manufacturing and design processes.

2D underrepresented

Max Fraser, LDF Deputy Director of the LDF intentionally focuses his attention on what he describes as under represented design categories, especially typography and drawing. In collaboration with Moleskin, LDF commissioned 70 London based designers to feature the importance that drawing has on the creative process. The “Moleskine Sketch Relay” displays drawings and doodles across unfolded concertina sketchbooks allowing a glimpse into how designers think and develop their idea across and over the edges of the pages.

An overdue celebration of typography and magazine design, the V&A and LDF invited Dominic Lippa partner at Pentagram, the graphic design studio also responsible for the striking LDF identity to exhibit issues 8-18 of the award winning Circular magazine. Each magazine is unique designed voluntarily by typography aficionados, it has no definite style and each issue comes out however they wish.

Look to the past to understand the future

In addition to its curatorial input the LDF has set up a Design Fund, which raises £100,000 per year to help the V&A fund acquisitions of contemporary design. The “Liberator”, a 3 D printed disassembled gun designed by Texan law student Cody Wilson is among this year’s new acquisitions. Wilson did not think of the work in the traditional sense of design but as a political act. It signals that the museum does not shy away from the sinister side of design and is prepared to engage with unexpected aspects that new technologies bring with them. Other works included in the 2013 selection such as the “Toaster Project”(2009) by Thomas Thwaites, question the current state of production by extracting the raw materials and building the toaster himself for a cost of £1187.54 compared to a cheap superstore version available for £3.49. Among the objects selected are “Botanica”, containers made by Studio Formafantasma from the Netherlands who experimented with a plastic made out of natural plant polymers instead of oil. The furniture maker Gareth Neal deems that it is necessary to ‘look to the past to understand the future’. The jig-sawed surface of Neal’s Chest of Drawers “George” (2008/13), included in the new acquisitions, was inspired by a digital drawing mistake.

Design history has inherently been narrated through furniture styles and production. Fittingly the V&A displays the shortlisted chairs for the Bodleian Library Competition all in 3D printed prototypes and three real models designed by Amanda Levete Architects (Herman Miller), Matthew Hilton (SCP) and the winner Barber Osgerby who collaborated with the small British manufacturer Isokon. Remarkably the judges’ appraisal endorses seemingly old-fashioned traditional values, commending Barber Osgerby’s three-legged oak chair for its sense of craft heritage and sculptural form.

Is the mood of our times changing?

Across the river, the Design Museum exhibits Ross Lovegrove’s concept car for Renault in the outside tank alongside his new chair “MOOT” (acronym for Mood of Our Times) manufactured by Established & Sons. Neither is groundbreaking but presents old in a new dress. The “MOOT” chair shows off the strength of the carbon fibre material, previously used by Lovegrove for suitcases, in the daring curvature of the cantilevered seat. Rooted in 20th century modernist Bauhaus mindsets and Panton’s organic lines it is a disappointingly recognizable design aesthetic. A comparative glance at Barber Osgerby’s oak chair indeed makes one reflect upon the mood of our times. After all these years of technological progress are we again beguiled by a prospect of a simpler life through a return of handicrafts, familiar ideas mooted by Ruskin and Morris.

Read on in part II of our London recce here.


The main criteria is good work: At the LDF Sebastian Wrong presented his new "Wrong for Hay" collection
(29 September 2013)

Omer Arbel and its installation “28.280” supported by Bocci.
Amorim’s installation of a natural cork floor covering the bridge over the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries.
Scholten & Baijings dinner party table setting in the Norfolk House Music Room, a display in the British Galleries of the V&A.
Who has been eating from my little plate?
Najla El Zein’s 5000 paper windmills…
… turning in the breeze connecting an inner staircase into an extension where the medieval gallery is housed.
Swarovski provided specialist lenses to designers to focus the historical exhibits.
Pentagram’s "Circlular" Magazine edition 8-18 on display in the Clore study area of the V&A.
New acquisition: the “Liberator”, a 3D printed disassembled gun designed by Texan law student Cody Wilson.
Gareth Neil designed the Chest of Drawers “George” which was bought for the V&A contemporary collection with monies raised by the Design Fund.
Max Fraser, Deputy Director at London Design Festival, leaning on a chair designed by Barber Osgerby and produced by Isokon, the winner of the “Bodleian libraries” competition.