At 2 am lorries filled with fresh carcasses arrive at Smithfield meat market and at 10 am in the same part of London the flagship stores of the leading design brands open their doors. Historically the area thrived on manufacture and trade and it was in this spirit that the London Clerkenwell Design Week was set up four years ago. Its rapidly growing reputation as a top tier trade show attracts more brands and visitors every year. The success of CDW lies in its geographical concentration and making the most of its local infrastructure where the traditional and contemporary are allowed to co-exist.
There are three spectacular buildings in which Clerkenwell Design Week resides. The central hub is located in the nineteenth century Italianate palazzo style Farmiloe building. With much of the original office and warehouse interiors of this Victorian glass and lead merchant building still intact it is the most fitting and persuasive venue to host an eclectic range of international and British design brands. In the eerie subterranean vaulted cells of the nearby Clerkenwell House of Detention the main exhibitors are newcomers and emerging talent.
The more established and luxurious interior design companies have set up shop in the peaceful spaces of the Priory Church, Crypt and Cloister Gardens of the Order of St John.
A giant pop up trading store
The newest high profile brand to participate for the first time is Foscarini who have prominently displayed their best sellers over the ground floor of the Farmiloe building. Attempting to win a share of the growing contract market of furnishing bars, hotels, offices and hospitals is what entices these international brands to exhibit. Those individuals coming to discover new innovative design, however, will be disappointed. The majority of the displays cater for contractors that seek to inhabit public environments with a more individualized, domestic and homely feel. Hence there is a prevailing sense of conservatism as the manufacturer's focus is on long-lasting and well-made pieces.
Commitment to craftsmanship
Quirky traditionalism is what underpins Britain design and this year a "Design Britain" section at the Farmiloe building brings together an emerging group of young UK based furniture and lighting brands including Deadgood, James UK, and Another Country amongst others. Most of these manufacturers were established after the 2008 banking crisis and are responding to an ongoing re-calibration of current values. Planned obsolescence of plastic production, a remnant of our industrial design history, is replaced by a renewed focus on local and sustainable manufacturing. Emotional connection to the materials and commitment to skilled craftsmanship is palpable in the beautifully figured grain of responsibly sourced woods such as oak and walnut, exposed joints and tapered legs that define the look of the furniture.
Deadgood's newly launched "Brogue Light" plays with the traditional hand stitched-aesthetic of the classic leather Brogue shoe and is more about the inherent story the object tells rather than about progressive innovation.
Steuart Padwick's "Giant Sticks Lights" and boldly coloured "Belly Desk" appeal to the quirky idea of British-ness whilst Russell Pinch's solid beech wood "Holland Park Chair" rethinks the traditional Windsor chair, an icon of British craftsmanship.
This "Keeping it British" attitude doesn't seem to be a passing fad. Having worked alongside British design legend Terence Conran, both Padwick and Pinch represent a growing number of UK based brands who are not afraid to offer products with distinct personalities that either offend or appeal.
Walking around the Farmiloe there is a sense of a strengthening generation made up of practical and shrewd UK designers who have the know-how to set up and survive on their own. The consequences of this confident entrepreneurship may backfire on retailers who previously relied on young designers. London based SCP, one of the earlier companies to nurture British talent appears with a worthy but somewhat predictable re-launch of the 1990s "Woodgate" sofa system and parallel shelving.
The scarcity of innovative products on display seems indicative of a gradual shift of designers' zeal to satisfy core human needs such as privacy and safety. Tilt, an architecture and design practice founded in 2010 showing for the first time at CDW is presenting furniture that was conceived through collaborative consultation with the end user. Commissioned by the London Whittington Hospital's Outpatient Pharmacy staff, Tilt designed the "Quiet Chair" and "Call Booth" in response to the staff and patient need for personal space. At the expense of aesthetics Tilt's approach does not compromise on comfort and practicality as shown by the "Open Book Chair" which combines library shelving and a comfortable reading seat.
Understanding how spaces affect the way people interact has been a longstanding mantra of postmodern design. Verner Panton's approach to "space being furniture and furniture being space" has inspired "Hush", Freya Sewell's felt chair made of biodegradable multi-climatic merino wool. Responding to the need to create private spaces within an interconnected public world the petal like shape of "Hush" allows one to withdraw from noisy surroundings into a quiet retreat. With orders placed already by forward-thinking companies such as Google, British Airways and Unilever, Sewell's "Hush" raises the optimistic prospect that stimulating and adventurous designers are still recognized even if they are tucked in the furthest corner of the House of Detention prison vaults.
Design literate neighbours
Outside on the streets of Clerkenwell the competition for the attention of the design week visitors is fierce. One office furniture company dressed their showroom in props from the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sedus installed a pen with cute baby lambs, the youngest being only seven days old to attract buyers.
Of course it is possible to catch up with the latest international design products launched in Milan in the nearby flagship stores. Design giants such as Vitra have specially curated and remodeled their showroom with an installation of the Bouroullec work bay office set amongst an indoor garden made from vertical planting of the internal structural columns.
During the three-day festival there are plenty of opportunities to participate in the lively activities hosted by the creative residents of Clerkenwell. Icon invites passersby to doodle an imaginary context around the silhouette of one of the six iconic chairs displayed on plinths designed by Mobile Studio dotted around the streets.
A full schedule of dynamic debates involves residential showrooms, designers, academics and architects. Domus hosted an evening with Patricia Urquiola to explain how the design process led to the inception of her new range of "Azulej" tiles, whilst in his talk "Emerging Trends: Craft and Design" held at the Contemporary Art Society Dr. Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A Museum considers how the history of craftsmanship impacts on contemporary practice.
With the highest density of architects per square mile in the world the festival organizers came up with some enchanting ways of making their presence noticed on the streets of Clerkenwell. Pedestrians are enticed to take part in some aspects of street performance by eating herbs from the edible gardens or playing piano in the textile hut both installed by Architecture for Humanity to raise awareness for the charity's work. In order to generate a relaxed atmosphere for visitors exploring the locality, the architecture collective Assemble designed and built 200 low cost triangular chairs. Placed along the streets from the Farmiloe building to Clerkenwell Green the triangular structure allows the chairs to be reconfigured into different arrangements and patterns, with the intention that "The sheer multitude of chairs will set up absurd and otherworldly situations that prompt speculation as to their purpose and turn their users into part of the performance."
One of the most curious interventions instigated by the festival organizers is an exhibition entitled Design Equis that explores the collective processes of design inspired by the surrealist technique of collectively assembling words or images. In order to maintain the random nature of this experiment none of the four designers knew who the others were and the only reference point given was the last object created by the predecessor.
The zany results are exhibited amongst the collection of old masters and antiques in the Museum of the Order of St John, charting the four stage metamorphosis of a stethoscope into a 3D printed “Venus of Google”.
Amid these thought-provoking demonstrations Zaha Hadid has the last word. The most conspicuous resident of Clerkenwell hijacked the CDW to officially open her own gallery space to the public. It's like walking through Zaha's brain, her forcefulness and agility of mind is visible in her constructivist inspired paintings and archive of past and current architectural models, including early projects such as the unbuilt Düsseldorf KMR Zollhof 3 Media Park and paper relief cut-outs that convinced Vitra to commission the Fire Station for Weil am Rhein. Most of her futuristic furniture range is on display too and fans will no longer need to mooch about in trendy clubs to get a feel for her infamous “Aqua table” (2005, Established & Sons) or to sit on the “Zephyr Sofa“ (2010 ZHD).
The Clerkenwell Design week is a peculiar and eccentric event that successfully coordinates the commercial humdrum with highbrow design ideas. It works because of its unique local situation and thus provides something for everyone. In the short time span of three intensive days in May it is possible to catch up with a truly British interpretation of international design impulses and gain glimpses of the thought processes that drive Clerkenwell's creative studios.