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Help yourself from the smorgasbord

The London Design Festival encompasses a mind-boggling number and variety of events. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes

Australia table-top installation at the London Design Biennale.
Australia table-top installation at the London Design Biennale. · Credit: Ed Reeve

It’s strange to think that when it launched in 2003 the London Design Festival wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the industry it purported to represent. Indeed the cognoscenti saw it as something of an arriviste. After all, the capital’s design scene was thriving. 100% Design had launched in 1995, to be followed by designersblock, and other areas of the city, such as Westbourne Grove, were beginning to organise themselves. It took the LDF several years to become accepted. Now, though, the festival acts as an umbrella brand for a wildly eclectic stew of installations, exhibitions, parties, talks, pop-ups and seminars with a semblance of coherence, as well as organising its own events, most notably in the V&A. In the process it has become a model for cities around the globe wanting to create their own festivals.

Arguably the biggest development for 2016 is the launch of the London Design Biennale at Somerset House. This opened a little earlier than the rest of the festival, on September 7, and runs until the 27th. Thirty-seven countries have created installations around the theme of Utopia by Design – a nod to the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book. Predictably, it’s a patchy affair with some countries evidently taking the whole thing more seriously than others. It also raises the question of the relevance of nation states to the industry. We live in a globalised age with a proliferation of magazines and websites as well as festivals, where the process of design is usually separated from manufacture by thousands of miles. That being the case, do boundaries really matter or is the design world now just one big soup of products and services? But the results are diverting enough if lacking a little bit of depth. The highlights include a re-creation of a Beirut street market from Lebanon and Russia’s previously unseen photographic archive of prototypes from the Soviet Union.

  • Barber Osgerby's sculptural weather station representing the UK at the London Design Biennale.
    Barber Osgerby's sculptural weather station representing the UK at the London Design Biennale. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • Beautifully crafted contribution from Spain at the LDB.
    Beautifully crafted contribution from Spain at the LDB. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • Belgium's take on Utopia at the LDB.
    Belgium's take on Utopia at the LDB. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • Ghostly Netherlands room at the LDB.
    Ghostly Netherlands room at the LDB. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • India's LDB installation.
    India's LDB installation. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • Another view of India's installation.
    Another view of India's installation. · Credit: Ed Reeve
  • Sweden's installation at the LDB.
    Sweden's installation at the LDB. · Credit: Ed Reeve

Elsewhere the festival is anchored by a handful of major furniture and lighting shows such as the luxurious Decorex International in Syon Park and 100% Design at Olympia, aimed squarely at the contract market. This year sees the expansion and re-branding of Tent London, held at the Old Truman Brewery, as the (slightly confusingly monikered) London Design Fair. Perhaps more significantly, though, designjunction has left its home in the middle of London and moved north, taking over the King’s Cross development. Visitors can expect the usual variety of brands and bespoke retailers, alongside some more unexpected installations, including one that investigates the relationship between dyslexia and design. 

Satellite Architects' entrance portal for designjunction in King's Cross.
Satellite Architects' entrance portal for designjunction in King's Cross.

Over the years the festival has developed a strong talks strand. It’s a feature of the major shows – the Design Museum has organised a robust-looking programme at 100% Design that includes lectures from the likes of Asif Khan, Ron Arad and Assemble – while one of the festival’s major hubs, the V&A, plays host to the Global Design Forum. Expect masterclasses from the likes of product design studio Doshi Levien, graphic designer (and David Bowie collaborator) Jonathan Barnbrook and architect Alison Brooks – who, no doubt, will be talking about her installation, The Smile, developed in association with the American Hardwood Export Council at Chelsea College of Art. 

Alison Brooks' Smile sculpture at Chelsea College of Art.
Alison Brooks' Smile sculpture at Chelsea College of Art.

It’s up to you to pick and mix. There are a bewildering number of events on across town and in an attempt to save visitors time the festival organisers have split the capital into seven design districts – Bankside, Brixton, Brompton, Chelsea, Clerkenwell, Islington and Shoreditch. Of these, Brompton and Shoreditch are the most established and have the largest number of things going on. Openings I’ll be looking out for in no particular order include the various installations at the V&A from the likes of Glithero and Benjamin Hubert; a retrospective of the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek at SCP on Curtain Road; a show devoted to electronic products, entitled Electro Craft, curated by Tord Boontje and held in the designer’s studio on Charlotte Road; and at Gallery S O on Brick Lane Danny Clare, Carl Clerkin and Jasleen Kaur’s re-creation of the street’s first-ever curry house, which will serve food and beer from September 23-25. 

Visitors hoping to find a unifying theme running through the event will be disappointed. A little like the development of the city itself, the LDF has evolved organically rather than being centrally planned. However, its sheer variety means that if you have even a passing interest in design you’re almost certain to find something you’ll enjoy. Just remember to wear a decent pair of shoes – you’re likely to do a lot of walking.

The London Design Festival runs from September 17-25. For dates and more information on the events mentioned visit www.londondesignfestival.com.

Grant Gibson is editor of Crafts Magazine.