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Clerkenwell Design Week

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Ensconced on the fourth floor in the RIBA Journal’s offices, slap bang on Clerkenwell Green, the first real sense you tend to get of the Clerkenwell Design Week cranking up is the cocktail hour sounds of some chanteuse resonating dreamily off the walls of the Green’s edges- and it was no different this year.

If Radio One’s Edith Bowman is to be believed, the elfin singer Lola Rose is the next big thing. She certainly has a big voice- her and her guitar drew us all downstairs to the Crown Tavern to put a face to her swoony songs. 

It proved a good counterpoint to three days where Clerkenwell, a place partially lost in the drive for most people to get from the West End to Shoreditch, develops a healthy sense of self, and self-importance. The cutting-edge product design showrooms cease to intimidate by their exclusivity, and for three days, they all become part of the festival’s ‘street culture’. Suddenly, you’re sipping champagne in a toilet showroom overhearing conversations on modern approaches to ablutions. Office furniture designer Steelcase decided to concentrate over the three days on workplace wellbeing- one event saw me quaffing Sancerre while watching mentalist Doug Segal convincing a lunchtime audience (including the RIBA J’s own art editor Mark, who was up on stage) that he could read their minds. They certainly read mine- the prosciutto ciabatta went down an absolute treat… 

But just looking at the crowded streets, it seemed like design was on everyone’s minds- even Clerkenwell Road changed. The ‘Step Inside Bar’, by architects Chetwoods,  was a reworking of the ‘Cineoleum’ cinema that was a reworking of the original petrol station- to become an explosion in a furniture showroom of Cornelia Parker proportions- and which at any time of the day, you’d see both locals and tourists pulling-in for a refuel. Some things, however, went on behind closed doors and had to be discovered. Both the Farmiloes building and the House of Detention became pop-up design showcases, albeit using opposing attributes of light and darkness as a backdrop. These ‘hidden spaces’ of Clerkenwell, as much as St John’s Gate, are part of its’ soul and feed its air of Dickensian mystery. Design sits well in its dappled or dim corners. 

For me the most ethereal moment was about two pints into band The Laurel Collective’s set outside the Crown Tavern early one evening, with the sun shining brightly and everyone wondering if the beautiful London spring would ever end, watching London Fieldworks’ beguiling sculpture ‘Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven’ getting lost in the cooling shade of its own tree. I’d spent three songs trying to work out who the hell Laurel Collective sounded like and I couldn’t quite place it, and they were drunk with the drinkers’ attention, becoming more intriguing by the note. All while the leaves were rustling in the breeze, and the lager was so cold and so sweet, and the shadows were drawing long. I never did pin down the band’s influences but as I stood there in the sunshine I remembered that good design may engage all the senses, and can be a fleeting as well as permanent thing; and that a moment once gone, is gone for good.