Here’s a fun fact: in 2019, before the pandemic hit, arts and culture overtook agriculture in terms of its contribution to the UK economy. Back in 2016, at the last count, museums, art galleries, theatres and other arts organisations added £10.8bn to the economy – despite drastic funding cuts. However, not everyone in power is determined to eradicate culture from our lives; when he began his second term as mayor in May this year, Sadiq Khan launched a “Let’s Do London” campaign to bring visitors back to the capital and rebuild the economy.
London Design Festival, now in its 19th edition, is a key date in the capital’s creative calendar. Last year’s festival was a more muted affair, thanks to the pandemic, but in 2019 it welcomed a record-breaking 600,000 individual visitors from over 75 countries while an additional one million people made up a passer-by audience. LDF director Ben Evans, talking in the festival’s Instagram Live presentation during the summer, made it clear that much had been learned from the previous year, when many of its presentations were an online affair; although keen to point out that ‘nothing beats the live experience’, he confirmed that a hybrid model would be in place going forward. At the very least, it’s a great way of showing off London design to a global audience.
Evans also echoed Khan by pointing out that ‘cultural and creative activity is a powerful tool to help reignite the city and kick-start London’s economy. LDF will provide the public and visitors with an opportunity to take to the streets to discover new pockets of London, and find works by leading designers and emerging talent, while enjoying all the city has to offer.’
The festival, which takes place from 18-26 September, certainly makes its presence felt across the city. In previous years, artist Camille Walala created Villa Walala, a series of brightly coloured building blocks in Broadgate’s Exchange Square that set out to inspire positivity in the 150,000 people who walked past it every day. This year, the baton has been passed to Yinka Ilori, a London-based multidisciplinary artist of British-Nigerian heritage who only established his studio in 2017 and who won the LDF’s Emerging Design Medal last year. Working alongside students from the University of the Arts London – and mindful of the fact that the Covid generation had their graduate shows cancelled in successive years – Ilori will transform pedestrian crossings on Tottenham Court Road and The City of London into large outdoor public artworks.
Since Ilori’s studio is driven by ‘colour-obsessed architects and designers’, the artwork is sure to be bold, colourful and inclusive. He is excited about working in the public realm after galleries and museums were shut during the winter lockdown. ‘I want to try and celebrate London being open again,’ he said during the Instagram Live presentation. ‘To try to bring everyone out and celebrate what it means to be a Londoner.’
As in previous years, the V&A will serve as the hub of the LDF. And at its heart will be a new installation in the museum’s Raphael Court created by award-winning Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto in collaboration with mixed reality studio and technology developer Tin Drum (who most recently worked with Marina Abramovic in a much-hyped performance art piece at the Serpentine Gallery). Architecture + Reality (A+R) promises to be groundbreaking: it will examine the role of nature in modern life through light, sound and architecture. On one level visitors can enjoy the visceral experience of a mixed reality installation, but its aim is in fact to push us to think about our relationship with technology and how, when we connect with each other digitally, we might not really be connecting at all. Fujimoto wants visitors to ultimately be reminded of the importance of human touch. ‘I really like to go back to the fundamental aspects of the architecture experience, creating the relationships between people and the place, or between a space and people’s feelings.’
If Ilori and Fujimoto are the blockbuster headline grabbers, there are a myriad of other events taking place around London that are free for the public to visit or attend (with the exception of the Design Medal Awards – previous winners include David Adjaye and Dame Vivienne Westwood – and special events at the Global Design Forum). As usual, the festival is made up of design districts, with three new districts (Greenwich Peninsula, Park Royal Design District and Southwark South) being added to the seven that existed in previous years (including Brompton, Shoreditch and Mayfair).
Each of the 10 design districts will be marked by a sculptural design marker to both welcome visitors and note the particular characteristics of the local area. These design posts will be created by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and the Conran-founded furniture studio Benchmark. They have teamed up with students and recent graduates who need help getting their work out there.
It would, of course, be a dereliction of duty if LDF wasn’t environmentally minded. To this end, AHEC and the selected students will be working with sustainable American red oak while professor of Design and Entrepreneurialism from London Metropolitan University Peter Marigold, is repurposing single-use cardboard boxes. Visitors to the exhibition in King’s Cross Design District will be encouraged to use a cardboard cutting machine to make an object they can take home, which may sound a bit Blue Peter. However, a quick Google reveals that seven million tonnes of cardboard is wasted to landfill each year in the UK alone – a sharp reminder that we can’t keep buying and binning at current rates.
Meanwhile, over at Fortnum & Mason, French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani – whose London-based practice specialises in digitally designed architecture and whose previous projects include a climbable tower that replicated a giant tree for Burning Man festival – is creating an installation in the shop’s atrium using bioplastics (plastic materials from renewable biomass sources such as corn starch). His aim? To show that design can be more circular and therefore reduce its impact on the environment.
There are, as ever, elements of LDF that are consumer-led as opposed to ideas driven. Design studio HØLTE, for example, is a 2017 start-up whose founders Tom and Fi Ginnett are already making waves in the world of kitchen design by adding bespoke fronts to standard IKEA kitchens, thus making the heart of the home an affordable luxury. HØLTE will be using the festival to make a big announcement about a pioneering sustainability initiative that they hope will influence kitchen brands for the coming decade.
As Sir John Sorrell, chairman of LDF says, ‘London is a magnet for great designers who come from all over the world to make the capital their home and to add value to the British economy.’ Equally importantly, the festival will demonstrate that ‘design will be at the heart of the future’. To paraphrase Sadiq Khan, let’s do it, London.