Game in lights
The September weather could hardly have been better for the opening of the London Design Festival 2019. No wonder star Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was willing to pose at length for journalists in front of his giant sculpture “Bamboo Ring: Weaving into Lightness”, which he erected for the event in the John Madejski Garden of the V&A, the Victoria & Albert Museum. The world’s most famous museum of applied arts is once again the hub of this year’s festival. In his opening speech, the festival’s founder Sir John Sorrell thanked the V&A in particular for what is now a decade of collaboration. Undoubtedly the prestige of the institution has helped to make the London Design Festival one of the most important events in the design calendar and a much-imitated one at that. In return, however, the festival has also helped the museum, which ten years ago remained a little bit fusty and dusty, to position itself as an important institution of contemporary design.
Today, the 150-year-old museum has dusted itself off entirely, and in 2019 the London Design Festival presents a program that could fill a book. Anyone who attended the opening weekend, however, would have noted with some irritation that the majority of events had not even begun and would only open their doors in the days that followed. For example, the three design fairs that form part of the festival – the London Design Fair, 100% Design and designjunction – only started four and five days later respectively. This need not have caused too much frustration, however, if only because what is on show in the V&A combined with the so-called “Landmark Projects” spread throughout the city is easily enough to fill a weekend – tea breaks aside. The gleaming sunshine for the opening provided ideal conditions to explore the design installations, which were placed in a total of eight locations – thus incidentally also allowing for discovery of some of the most exciting new places in London. First was Coal Drops Yard, a new shopping district in two converted coal sheds across the Regent’s Canal from King’s Cross Station, featuring a spectacular roof construction by Thomas Heatherwick. With an architectural backdrop like this, Martino Gamper had no easy task with his project for the courtyard between the two buildings. There, he erected the façade of an imaginary discotheque. The “Disco Carbonara” is a kind of Potemkin house in more than principle – its wildly pixelated façade seems somewhat immaterial in itself. And this is despite Gamper having chosen the material very carefully: The substances used for its construction are largely waste products, while others will be recycled or repurposed at the end of the project.
On squares and in basements
The trail continues to London’s East End, namely Shoreditch, the location for the giant “Please be Seated” bench sculpture by Paul Cocksedge: three concentric rings of wide benches, each of which forms waves that are as even as they are dynamic. The installation has been placed in the new Finsbury Avenue Square, which took shape as part of the redevelopment of the Liverpool Street Station area to create an office district. The sculpture is designed to serve as a place for lunchbreaks for staff in the surrounding buildings, but one that will not get in the way of passers-by making their way to the neighboring station. Its innovative shape makes it possible to walk under the “crests” of the waves and to sit or lie in their “troughs”. “It occupies the square without blocking it,” says Cocksedge, describing the essence of his installation.
Staying in East London: An extraordinary location is the setting for the light installation “Void”, which designer Dan Tobin Smith, who works primarily as a photographer, has developed together with “The Experience Machine”, a studio specializing in light art and projections. In a backyard in the borough of Islington, “Void” fills the shell of an underground theater that was never finished. The latter was supposed to resemble the shape of Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre and therefore consists of a round atrium surrounded by galleries. At the center of this ghost development, made of bare concrete and devoid of daylight, the designer places a cube of canvas and uses projections to transform it into a magic lantern that bathes the otherwise pitch-black gallery levels in a multicolored, shimmering light. Here, the images appearing abstractly on the cube become almost incidental. In fact, they are photomicrographs of various precious stones. Anyone who doesn’t know this might easily believe they are looking into outer space or the deep blue sea.
“Life Labyrinth” is the name of another bench sculpture, which has become something of a landmark for the London Design Festival. This, too, is located right by a station – in this case Victoria Station in the west of the city. Unlike in Shoreditch, however, here it is not surrounded by office buildings but rather sits in front of Westminster Cathedral, a neo-Byzantine domed structure from the very beginning of the 20th century. Design duo “Patternity” took inspiration from this setting in various ways, creating a maze of wooden benches via which the visitor gets to the center of the exhibition, where a colorful raised bed of vegetation awaits them. It is not only the motif of the maze, which can be found in gothic cathedrals, that points to the Catholic cultural tradition, but also the medicinal plants growing here, which are reminiscent of monastic gardens. The black-and-white striped benches, meanwhile, play on the brownish red and white stripped façade of the cathedral. Incidentally, like the installation by Paul Cocksedge, “Life Labyrinth” also demonstrates how effectively design in the public space can boost the quality of a location. During the London Design Festival, previously dull spaces are transformed into meeting points and places for relaxation.
Fun with forms
The site of the final Landmark Project could hardly be more different to a square by a station: “Iri-Descent”, a sculpture made of 150 interlinked and iridescent cube-shaped plastic frames, hangs in the circular atrium of luxury department store Fortnum & Mason. It fits so perfectly here that it doesn’t appear to be temporary at all, and it would be no surprise if the famed emporium decided to leave it there. Here, the “Landmark Projects” illustrate another facet of design – not social, not intervening, but technical and decorative at the same time. It is thoroughly pleasing to see that the festival committee has gone to great lengths to bring a huge variety of forms of contemporary design to so many different places in the city.
To conclude our tour around London, we return to the Victoria & Albert Museum to see Kengo Kuma’s “Bamboo Ring”. The sculpture takes the form of a ring curving upwards and was realized in line with the architect’s instructions using a combination of bamboo and carbon fibers. In his choice of materials Kuma, who designed the V&A museum in Dundee which opened last year, combines Japanese high-tech with Japanese tradition. Nevertheless, his sculpture remains a little incoherent. Yes, it takes the form of the small basin in which it stands, and yes, it brings a vertical thrust to the Madejski Garden. Ultimately though, the form of the large-scale sculpture is just too banal to be poetic.
This cannot be said, however, of “Sea Things” by Sam Jacob, an enormous, transparent cube that hangs in the museum’s magnificent entrance hall. Jacob’s installation addresses the issue of marine pollution. He does this in such a highly aesthetic way that the message behind the beauty of the object is barely perceptible: Within the cube colorful animations of rubbish floating in the sea are projected onto the walls. Through manifold reflection, these images are given a distant, intangible quality, becoming almost decorative and ornamental. Incidentally, Jacob leaves his trace as an architect in the reduced form of the glass cube with its delicate steel profiles – a homage to Ray and Charles Eames, he explains.
Twinning at the V&A
The most extensive project to be shown during the London Design Festival at the Victoria & Albert Museum is called “Legacy”. For this, the festival’s founder Sir John Sorrell brought together ten heads of great London cultural institutions and ten designers and design studios. The idea? The directors had to commission the designers to create an object they felt was lacking in their personal or professional lives and which they wanted to be shaped in a particular way. Both the commissions and results show great diversity and demonstrate how differently artists and clients approached the task. Alex Beard, Director of the Royal Opera House, had designer Terence Woodgate create two stunningly beautiful sofas for a meeting room, while V&A Director Tristram Hunt had Jasper Morrison design a small seating arrangement for his office – a task that Morrison completed masterfully relying on his unique formal vocabulary. Other commissions were somewhat more specific: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Creative Director of the Serpentine Galleries, for example wanted Studiomama to design a letterbox for his institution. His motivation, he explained, was the desire to see his visitors rediscover the medium of the postcard, which played an important role in the works of many 20th-century artists. Studiomama turned this request into an object that appears a bit like an oval-shaped fluted pillar. The slot for the letters, meanwhile, looks like a mouth with wide lips, a play on the object’s purpose as an aid to communication.
Perhaps the most unusual request for a designer came from Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum. He required a beehive for a new exhibition area. In artist and designer Marlène Huissoud he found the ideal person to execute the task. Huissoud is the daughter of a beekeeper and has previously worked with propolis, a resin made by bees. For the Science Museum she created a hollowed-out tree stump as a beehive that simultaneously serves as a bench. Here, she placed great emphasis on not resorting to classic typologies that regard bees as livestock, but rather aimed to create a refuge for wild animals. Thus, her object became symbolic of the coexistence of nature and mankind.
Sir John Sorrell, incidentally, had designer Juliet Quintero create an appealing little raised seat from which he could watch the sun go down at his cottage in the country. How did he come up with the perfect pairing of commissioner and client? “That’s the advantage of 50 years in the design scene – you get good at guessing which designers are best for which tasks,” Sorrell says modestly.
Incidentally, all the objects that developed as part of the “Legacy” project have two things in common: They were manufactured from American red oak and were made in the workshops of Benchmark, the specialist for crafts production founded by Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe in West Berkshire.
Anyone for whom all this was not enough at the opening weekend of the London Design Festival could marvel at plenty more attractions both in the V&A and around the city: The fantastic Mardi Gras costumes by the artist Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters (at the V&A), for example. Or the installation “Take the Plunge” by Volume Creative, which consists of more than 1,000 cardboard tubes hanging from the ceiling and through which visitors have to find their way (at Oxo Tower Wharf). Camille Walala, meanwhile, has bedecked South Molton Street, a road off Oxford Street, with Pop-Art-like street furniture, while at the V&A Sony is exhibiting robots that can recognize an outstretched hand and move towards it. One of the most impressive design shows currently on in London, however, is not officially part of the London Design Festival at all: Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition “In Real Life” is taking place in the rooms of the Tate Modern. And by the way, it’s packed. Here, people stand in line waiting to experience artificial Icelandic fog, while outside a magnificent late summer weekend draws to a close.