Global design takes over London
London lived and breathed design during the course of the month of September. The 16th edition of London Design Festival, jump-started by the 2nd edition of London Design Biennale at Somerset House on September 4, got Londoners, and visitors to the city exploring its many design, cultural and retail hubs.
For this article, I focused on a set of varied themes which ran through many installations, pop-ups and events during the design event - sustainability, diversity and inclusion, luxury, and the impact of design on our emotions. During my explorative venture, I had the privilege to talk to many renowned designers who were able to provide an enlightening perspective on their individual practices, in relation to our contemporary needs and lifestyles.
My great interest and fascination for design is not only based upon my own aesthetic needs and search for beauty. It is much more profound than that. I am also intrigued to find out how design can better our lives and adapt according to profound changes occurring in the world. Changes that could be led by advances in technology and ways of communicating with each other. Traditions such as tea-drinking which has existed in East and West for centuries, but has to adapt to changes in culture and lifestyle. The impact of light on our mood and the city space, and how the architecture practice and construction industries can contribute to building more houses using more sustainable materials. These are all relevant preoccupations as they are part of our everyday lives. Hence, I sought to explore London Design Festival, as a powerful platform for creative professionals to have a voice, to display these new ideas, innovations and expertise in design.
According to London Design Festival’s Director, Ben Evans, 'the city’s creative industries employ around 850,000 people’ claiming that London has ‘the biggest creative sector of any global city.’ Conceived by Sir John Sorrell CBE and Ben Evans in 2003, the event was founded with the aim to celebrate the British capital’s global standing across the design industries, bringing together creative professionals, companies, organisations, and cultural institutions from all over the world.
The event created eleven different design districts with four design routes and five design destinations to be visited and explored by members of the public and industry professionals. According to the organisers, last year’s Festival witnessed a ‘record-breaking’ number of ‘450,000 individual visitors from 75 countries.’
Though very exciting, this abundance of events, pop-ups and exhibitions did feel at times too overwhelming to explore the incredible in particular, because of London’s sprawling layout. LDF also ‘clashed’ with another major design event happening in the city for five days - London Fashion Week. Neither of the events had an overt dialogue with one another, which was a shame as fashion is a great expression of culture and design.
It is not a surprise at all that London may be one of the preferred global cities by many creative professionals and companies in which to establish their practices. The city has a relatively low corporation taxation, certainly compared to other European cities. Greater flexibility to hire and dismiss employees, added to a substantial offer of very talented and highly-skilled professionals coming from all over the world - an element that is echoed by the creative director Ben Rigby later in this piece. London is also one the world’s most important capitals for banking and financial services - though The City’s position may be affected due the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
Most of all, London’s incredibly vibrant and diverse multicultural history gives the city a fantastic strength, added to the cool British edge. The capital’s prestigious and renowned museums, galleries and department stores also make a huge contribution in reflecting the city’s knowledge and expertise in hosting world-class collections, design and great availability of consumer goods.
London Design Festival’s long-standing collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which owns one of the world’s largest collections of decorative arts and design demonstrates how these collaborations elevated the event. This collaboration between the Festival and the museum, drove last year ‘173,250 visitors into the institution’ - many of whom had never visited the V&A. The museum hosted a number of installations, displays and talks throughout the event, encouraging its visitors to navigate through contemporary design interventions juxtaposed with the museum’s historic collections.
Among the numerous interesting events, collection launches and collaborations showcased throughout London Design Festival, the following have particularly stood out to me in my travels.
Scholten & Baijings
Time for Tea - the title of the collaboration between London’s Fortnum & Mason and the Dutch high-end design company, Scholten & Baijings, certainly gave a luxurious touch to the Festival.
Fortnum & Mason was established in 1707 by William Fortnum and Hugh Mason as an upmarket groceries store on London’s Piccadilly. Famously supplying delicatessen items to members of the British Royal Household and elite, the business developed into a department store in the nineteenth-century. Today, owned by Wittington Investments group, the department store trades a wide range of goods and retail services whilst aiming to keep and project its traditional reputation and heritage.
There was not a more appropriate time for Fortnum & Mason to partner with Scholten & Baijings - British retailers, in particular some department stores, are struggling to keep themselves relevant in the age of e-commerce and online shopping. Profit margins are becoming increasingly difficult to increase, with many retailers facing challenging times whilst registering losses. According to Fortnum & Mason’s bosses, the department store is still popular among tourists visiting London, however, it is really struggling to attract Londoners through its doors to shop.
Collaborating with the luxurious and contemporary brand Scholten & Baijings as part of London Design Festival was indeed a clever marketing tool, benefiting both the British department store and the Dutch design firm. Time for Tea conveyed an alignment between Fortnum & Mason and the Dutch brand’s taste for true luxury, craftsmanship and heritage, presenting an exquisitely conceived collection, which also involved other partnering makers and manufacturers from all over the world.
Scholten & Baijings truly epitomise the entrepreneurial, mercantile and globalist Dutch spirit, dating back to their golden age history of the seventeenth century when Dutch merchants of the period were the only ones, for instance, who were allowed by the Japanese to have a base in Japan with a greater focus on trade as equal partners. Whereas the Portuguese, who had reached the closed Asian country much earlier in the sixteenth-century, failed to establish themselves due to their ambition to convert the Japanese into Christianity. This conversion did not appeal to the highly sophisticated and self-determined Japanese society of the period.
Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings - the owners and creative directors of their own design company, have successfully repeated this Dutch history by working closely with Japanese makers in the twenty-first century. For this collaboration with Fortnum & Mason, Scholten & Baijings created a tea ceremony collection introducing their unique and sophisticated contemporary design to the seventeenth-century Japanese porcelain makers, 1616, from the Arita region, which masters the craftsmanship of porcelain-making.
Japan was not the only country to be included in this incredible global partnership - marble floors and tables were exquisitely produced by the Italian firm Luce di Carrara, the long textured grey curtains, which provided the beautiful backdrop for my conversation with Stefan Scholten, were woven in the United Kingdom by the American textile company Maharam. Upholstered chairs in a unique shade of green were furnished by HAY, Moroso, and Karimoku New Standard, including many other collaborators from different geographies.
Fortnum & Mason’s signature Eau de Nil colour - a particular green blue tone - was beautifully incorporated throughout the entire collection, reaffirming their notion of heritage through a distinct design element. This great sensibility for colour, makes the Dutch designers masters in creating and manipulating new hues, which is echoed by their own statement, ‘we always start with a blank page. Colour is the starting point with our design process.’ The couple’s inspirations usually come from their travels whilst experiencing other cultures, always keeping nature as their main source of inspiration.
Scholten & Baijings’ designs are distinctively elegant - thin, delicate and incredibly well-cut and finished objects, epitomising their own sense of craftsmanship and mastery of form.
Time for Tea was a truly aesthetic experience down to every detail. The collection was magnificently curated into an installation, featuring tables and vases presenting delicate flower-arrangements. Perfectly-cut glasses, tea vessels of all contemporary forms, fine cutlery, and rich textiles introduced warmth to the whole setting. This visually stimulating display invited the consumer and visitor to Fortnum & Mason to fall in love with tea-drinking and the tradition of the tea ceremony in a contemporary context.
This was indeed the intention. Stefan Scholten confessed, during our conversation, that the collection and display had the ambition to draw 'attention from a younger consumer'. Perhaps he aimed that at the younger generations, in their 30s, who may not necessarily be compelled to enjoy tea drinking like in past centuries, particularly in the age of ugly-looking takeaway coffee cups. The collection, as stated by Scholten, offers this 'young consumer the opportunity to start collecting one item at a time.’
MultiPly at the V&A
Anyone passing by the V&A’s new Sackler courtyard on the Exhibition Road between September 14 and October 1st, would have noticed a large timber structure on display. The installation featured a number of square timber boxes layered on top of each other, connected together, in a rather disorderly shape. Different and intricate entrances and exits, tunnels, doorways, rectangular windows, bridges, paths and staircases, would lead the visitor on to a little ‘rooftop’ area from which you could appreciate a 360 degree-view encompassing the Science Museum, Imperial College and the V&A.
The installation was not a work of art, it was a rather fascinating, clever and playful attempt to solve one of the greatest issues in modern Britain - the housing crisis. But not only that, MultiPly also aimed to draw the public’s attention to building more sustainably.
A collaboration between Waugh Thistleton Architects and the engineering and architecture firm Arup, with the support of the American Hardwood Export Council, MultiPly was built from a reusable cross-laminated timber panel system made of 60 cbm of American tulipwood. This particular quality of hardwood is of a low value and it was made into palettes for the installation. The concept was built around a modular design for the permeable structure, allowing the different parts to be reused once dismantled, therefore significantly reducing the carbon footprint.
Andrew Waugh, the internationally renowned architect and director of his own practice, has been pioneering innovations and technologies around sustainability for architectural design and construction worldwide. Currently working on projects in Britain, France and Stockholm, his ethical and passionate discourse focuses on sustainability and tackling the housing crisis. He has also attracted the attention from clients in Australia, Singapore and Madrid, where he will be soon establishing a new studio.
During my fascinating conversation with the architect at his office in London’s Shoreditch area, Waugh stated,
‘We started looking at low carbon technologies fifteen years ago. Now mostly we measure the carbon footprint of buildings by how much energy they use to heat or to cool, or to light. But what we realised, is that the actual construction of the materials used for the construction of conventional buildings are in fact a major part of a building’s footprint.’
He continues to say that, 'if you look at where we are now, the buildings that we are making now and where we need to be in seventeen years for the Paris Agreement, we need to be looking at what we are doing right now’.
When asked about the challenges that timber presents, as a material, in the context of the damp and wet British weather, the architect recognised that whilst having some problems for particularly humid and wet climates, timber 'should be used predominantly for the structure of the building rather than the external cladding’.
In spite of collaborating and creating a dialogue with many London councils about building sustainably whilst tackling the housing crisis, the architect criticises both the local and central governments for being ‘lazy’ about these issues. As well as not really grasping how crucial sustainability is for the environment. He suggests that London is falling behind other major world cities in these areas, and that there is no need to touch the Greenbelt, a protected woodland area circling London. The architect argues that Transport for London owns an area of the size of Camden Borough within London, which could be developed properly to build new homes, in addition to densifying construction around train stations in the city.
MultiPly is an ambitious project and collaboration. I mean ‘ambitious’, based on the current lack of political will and public awareness and education relating to issues around sustainability and the lack of good housing for all. In Europe’s wealthiest city, it is disturbing to realise that whilst foreign investors are allowed to buy luxury homes while living abroad, middle-class and disadvantaged Londoners struggle to be properly housed leading to increasing numbers of homelessness in England, particularly in the capital. The interactive installation taking over the V&A’s Sackler courtyard, demonstrates however, that the design industries can innovate and push the boundaries in dealing with the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century.
Parallel to the events officially organised by London Design Festival, Designjunction - a trade show dedicated to the design industries, was established in 2011- took over London’s cultural complex of South Bank. The fair showcased the work of some of the world’s most prestigious design brands and emerging industry talents.
Representatives of major companies, architects, designers, wholesalers, retailers, press and buyers visited the 2018 edition of the event. I walked up and down along the river Thames to look at installations, displays, pop-ups, and to take part of numerous talks, find new products and ideas, network and socialise.
The event welcomed more than 28,000 visitors last year, reflecting the importance of the design industries for the British capital and for many industry professionals. It was at this vibrant environment where I had the opportunity and pleasure to talk to two very talented British designers: Ben Rigby - creative director at the London-based design studio Haberdashery, and the emerging product and furniture designer, Kusheda Mensah.
With a design expertise of ten years of practice, and an experimental approach to working with light and sound, the design studio Haberdashery impressed many visitors, including myself, at the 2018 edition of London Design Biennale.
Composed by three glass sculptures - each one of them featuring six glass layers which project light through - the sculpture Radiance represented true beauty, as it evoked that poetic feeling produced by nature during a flawless sunset or sunrise. The sculptures projected soft and warm hues that would take over the whole room dedicated to the installation at the Biennale.
The sculpture created all sorts of emotions during the event: calm, peace, contemplation. But it accomplished something more than that, it encouraged the viewer to have a genuinely interactive and aesthetic experience with light.
Radiance concentrated and reduced light into a set of three sculptures. Elevating light from an everyday ‘mundane’ functionality into a compelling experience. The installation reinforced Haberdashery’s reputation as a leading design studio whose aim is to demonstrate the immense possibilities that light can offer.
Established in London’s Dalston area, the Haberdashery studio has been expanding over the last ten years within the building where it is based. With an international team of twenty-two employees in addition to contractors, it collaborates with a range of manufactures, designers and artists from all over the globe.
Haberdashery’s client portfolio is impressive, working with names such as Stella McCartney, Selfridges & Co., The Welcome Trust, Virgin Airways, Gettys, British Film Institute among many others. The studio creates bespoke sculptures for clients in South and North America, the Far-East, the Middle-East and all over Europe, whilst respecting local cultural sensitivities.
It became clear to me during my conversation with Haberdashery’s understated creative director, Ben Rigby at Designjuntion, that having a passion, and focus on a particular segment of the design industries is absolutely essential to success. The company’s design team are ‘artistic light engineers’, in Rigby’s own words.
‘Whatever kind of design or creativity you are involved in, you are really telling a story, and trying to engage on a human level with an audience.’
Rigby’s motivation to spark an emotion in people through his artistic vision is evident when looking at Radiance. The creative director expands upon it,
‘It is really focusing that thought, slowing people down, engaging with something deep within you that makes you want to connect maybe with the sun, the setting sun at the end of the day is an example of radiance.’
When questioned about the importance of light for urban areas, the creative director points out that usually light is about maintaining transport routes and pathways as well as for safety reasons. As a result, there are many ‘dead spaces’ that do not make an effective use of light. Instead, he envisages ‘light brought to these dead spaces in order to attract life and communities out in the evenings.’ Rigby’s point about illuminating ‘dead spaces’ in urban areas is absolutely crucial, particularly in a city like London which lacks many public spaces for people to station and socialise. There seems to be a greater focus on in using light to keep the consumer in shopping areas, as opposed to use light to create socially democratic and inclusive public areas.
Light also has a huge impact on people’s mental health and mood. Rigby comments,
‘excessive blue lights in the evenings are bad for human beings, because it disrupts your natural rhythm, actually disrupting your hormone levels which have many side effects.’
The designer goes on to highlight that 'we should all educate ourselves as to when we should use light, and when not to use it’.
Ben Rigby is confident that Haberdashery can still push the boundaries in terms of innovation and new experimental work with light. Although falling back into previous works can be a commercial temptation, the fact that the studio is not owned by a corporate firm offers his team more creative edge to take risks.
Haberdashery’s clients and followers look forward to seeing what the inventive and innovative firm will produce moving forward. I could envisage Ben Rigby and his talented team engaging with visual artists to push the boundaries of what light can offer within the context of the contemporary art discourse, perhaps considering current research on the impact of colour and light on our lives, transcending the barriers between design and art.
Modular by Mensah
Mutual - the latest furniture collection produced by the emerging British-Ghanaian London-based designer, Kusheda Mensah, for her own brand Modular by Mensah, has recently sparked significant attention in the design industries and press.
Forget about sterile and hard-minimal looking chairs. Ditch excessive digital methods of interacting with the outside world. Instead, start looking up and straight, preferably away from your phone device, face to face with a stranger at a cafe whilst sitting on comforting, soft and colourful, yet modern, sustainable and durable seat. This refreshing discourse was brought to the fore in a talk curated by Designjunction, Move Over Modernism - The Power of Feeling in which Mensah took part.
Kusheda Mensah aims to move beyond the discourse created by many 'modernist freaks’ and designers. Proposing new inclusive ways of sitting, encouraging people to physically interact with society by repositioning the place of furniture design within a new contemporary dialogue. A conversation informed by collective well-being and social inclusion, which would counter the negative products of the rapid technological changes in the way we communicate and socialise. By no means I am suggesting that we should all throw our smartphones in the bin, we should rather regulate the use of such devices, while re-engaging with the real world and its realities. Furniture design can definitely play a constructive role in fulfilling these ambitions by bringing people closer together.
The designer’s own trajectory explains her ethos in relation to design. Mensah was trained in print design at London College of Communications and is unashamed to admit that she is not the classic stereotype of a product designer. Passionate about textiles, colours, shapes and textures, the ‘outside eye’ of the London-based designer has provided the industry with a fresh approach while looking at the role of furniture design and its impacts on societal behaviour.
In tune with the real world, Mensah conveys her motives whilst talking to me at the fair,
‘I started researching about what was missing in design, and how design can affect people. When I started to design furniture, there was a lot of research coming out related to mental health, too much “screen time”, smartphones, computers, not leaving work until late, and not having much of a social life…’
Mutual began to be shaped as a response to these new realities and lifestyle described by Mensah. The modular collection features abstract separate pieces that can be interlocked with each other. Leather, different fabric qualities and foam in tones of sky-blue, tan, egg and ivory suggest warmth. Fluidity, flexibility, interactivity, tactility form the core identity of the collection. The collection pieces allow us to sit on it, take a nap, play, and relax. Each form adds greater versatility to furniture. The designer expands on her ideas,
‘When I was looking at modular furniture, a lot of it was very rectangular, blocky, leading people to sit side by side only. It was never promoted that you can sit while facing someone. If you never meet people or have that social connection with someone, you can never really get their body language, their vibe… It seems really hippie, Emo or spiritual, but it’s not really. It’s about having that connection.’
Underlying Mensah’s courageous discourse an increasing feeling of discomfort with the way we all have substantially reduced or stopped to notice other people, public spaces, social issues and the outside world. In the neoliberal society in which we live - consumer-led, fragmented, excessively narcissistic and aloof, self-absorbed and individualistic, Mensah’s message offers hope.
In a world where cosmopolitan 'hipster' middle-class obsessions, such as having the ‘perfect home’ or collecting the latest and ‘coolest’ designers, Mutual humanises design again. It encourages people to be face-to-face, touch, socialise, interact, learn about the other, as opposed to be looking down on his or her own mobile screen whilst at dinner. This is indeed a very refreshing collection and take on design. It has a truly democratic appeal as it seeks to bring diverse groups of people closer together. It does not exclude, and on the contrary, it includes.
The 2018 edition of Designjuntion was a very appropriate platform to have this dialogue with Mensah, as diversity was one of the main themes discussed at the fair. The designer expresses her concern at how the industry, as a whole, is still very filled with white middle-class men. The designer states,
‘In design, there’s an increasing number of women out there. But for me, if I can position myself as a black woman at events such as Designjunction, or a talk like the one I gave at the Design Museum, people then can see that a person of a different background, not socio-economically privileged, can achieve.’
The designer who had her latest collection well-received by the Europeans during the Milan Salone Satellite, considers herself very European in her values. She was amazed at how positive the continental European audience was regarding her ideas and collection. When asked ‘what’s next’ in terms of upcoming projects, the designer revealed that she is currently working on a collection of modular inflatables. The industry is certainly curious about what Kusheda Mensah will be bringing to us all next.
Concluding this review, one sentiment in particular became apparent whilst talking to these creative professionals through the Festival - their incredible disappointment at the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and its impact on the industry as a whole.
The architect Andrew Waugh was confident to describe Brexit as a ‘xenophobic decision, cultural and economic tragedy', blaming it on populism and nationalism stirred by politicians such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage. Haberdashery’s Ben Rigby described how this process of rupture with the European Union 'will affect the supply chain and planning for the design companies.’ Highlighting that ‘with the fluctuation of the sterling, creative businesses will lose the ability to negotiate deals assertively’. The designer spoke expressing a feeling of concern and sadness at the 'cut off in the stream of design professionals crossing the Channel, bringing a constructive cultural perspective to the industry’. Kusheda Mensah made it clear by stating that 'she does not believe in Brexit, considering herself a true European.’
The inability of politicians to listen to the realistic perspectives by companies and professionals within the creative industries means that public debate has been hijacked by emotional and irrational reactions as opposed to the good and old English common sense and reason. It will be interesting to witness how London’s potent creative industries will overcome the immense challenges moving forward as Brexit unfolds.
On the contrary of what Britain’s Conservative Party has marketed as ‘Global Britain’, Brexit may well reduce this country into ‘Shrunken Britain’, in particular as this insular political process disregards London’s incredibly vibrant and diverse multicultural history and how this same heritage has made London, in the postwar era, truly prosperous, European and global.
Throughout the hectic and exciting Festival programme, it was clear that themes relating to artificial intelligence, sustainability, luxury, emotions, inclusion and diversity were very high in the agenda in terms of developing design forward. Creative minds aiming to push the boundaries to shape design for the needs of the future, creating dialogues, proposing ideas and experimenting. London Design Festival presented design for all tastes and pockets, it also made members of the public visiting the event’s districts to think about design as an important discipline that is part of our everyday lives. It will be very interesting to witness whether London will remain an important global capital for design, and how the Festival will continue to attract the interest of industry professionals and firms from all the over the world.
Essay Co-editing: Author and Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, Dr. Emily Orr (RCA/V&A History of Design PhD).
Film and Editing: Lara Elliott
London Design Festival, Designjunction, Haberdashery, Scholten & Baijins, Kusheda Mensah, Waugh Thistelton Architects, Dr. Emily Orr.