Wrought iron ornaments at the London Design Festival
Planting the Flag
By JULIE LASKY
Ounce for ounce, bloke for bloke, Britain produces better designers and design impresarios than anywhere else. They build retail emporiums, as Sir Terence Conran did. Or revolutionize household appliances, like Sir James Dyson has done. Or dream up impeccable furniture, as Jasper Morrison has. Or construct toasters from scratch by smelting their own ore and cooking their own plastic, like Thomas Thwaites did, a feat he undertook for his 2009 thesis project at the Royal College of Art.
And if the London Design Festival, a 10-day program of some 200 events, including exhibitions and studio tours, which ended on Sunday, failed to express the full radiance of contemporary British design, blame it on growing pains. Having just marked its 10th year, the festival is poised between being a regional showcase bubbling with spontaneous interventions and a smooth international canvas.
Once a satellite (or several of them) swirling around an annual trade show called 100% Design, the festival now extends from Ladbroke Grove in West London to Hackney in the east. You need an hour on the tube simply to travel its breadth.
Yet despite the scale, and the presence of more than 300,000 visitors, the London Design Festival is apparently still too small for many members of the British design elite.
To be sure, celebrities like Mr. Morrison and Sir Terence were visible. As were Tom Dixon, who organized a group of international design exhibitions near his canal-side studio at Portobello Dock, and Thomas Heatherwick, who had a popular one-man show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Mr. Heatherwick may be best known for designing the caldron for the 2012 Olympic Games, a rosette of 204 copper flambeaus that rose and converged like petals in a fiery dahlia.)
But only glimpses, if anything, were seen of work by renowned London-based designers and studios like Ron Arad, Ross Lovegrove, PearsonLloyd and Doshi Levien.
“Everyone with half a brain still launches in Milan,” said Caroline Roux, a writer for The Financial Times and other publications, referring to the international furniture fair held in Italy every April.
The London event offered many bright moments, like patchwork seating and floral wallpaper by the bespoke furniture company Squint Limited and an exquisite group of lamps by the Greek-born designer Michael Anastassiades. (The lamps, which will be produced by Flos, stood on three-pronged bases that resembled birds’ feet and were lighted with big glass bubbles that looked as if they were attached to their brass stems by little more than spit and static.)
But this festival was not the place to go for revolutionary ideas. Nor, despite all the Britishness on view in the form of ceramics, metalwork and a positively druidic devotion to hardwoods, was it simply a distillation of a regional design character.
What it offered, which was fascinating and redeeming in every way, was London itself.
Still glowing from the energy poured into the Olympics, London harmonized with the installations stuffed into its storefronts and leftover spaces. From the crooked houses of a revitalized East End to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, which has become a revolving showcase of contemporary design and craft, new goods basked in venerable niches, mixing it up with Turners and cobblestones.
DOWNING STREET was not open for public viewing of this eclecticism, but the Victoria and Albert Museum was. For the last few years, the V&A, that warehouse of historical spoils that sprawls like a gorgeous beached whale in West London, has been the design festival’s nominal home. Dozens of exhibitions related to the event, grand and tiny, could be found there — if you managed to get hold of a map showing their whereabouts. “We’ve almost run out,” said a woman at the information desk when she handed one to me. “Would you mind returning this when you’re done?”
I might have been better off without it. En route to displays like a collection of smartly sustainable wood chairs by Royal College of Art students and one of courtyard benches commissioned from international designers by the British company Established & Sons, I stopped at exhibits of wrought-iron ornaments, Elizabethan miniatures and Buddhist shrines. Imagine what I would have seen without any direction.
And so it was throughout London: even if the festival fare was hard to find or disappointing, you were sure to stumble on something else worth looking at. A daylong conference called the Global Design Forum, for instance, was a slog (most presenters were limited to an awkward 10 minutes, too short or too long, depending on the speaker).
But attendees could marvel at the construction zone known as the King’s Cross neighborhood and admire the new campus of Central Saint Martins art school, where the forum was held. This proto-Brutalist building, converted from an 1851 granary, had a sea of end-grain wood flooring and a foyer where an Airstream trailer was inconspicuously parked.
to be continued