It is September in London; children and students are returning to school, college and university, the sunshine has gone and the weather is cloudy and grey, and the tube is packed again as people return to work after the holidays, while the tourists are still exploring the city.
London is preparing for a design-fest as September is the month of design, with international exhibitions, fairs, installations and events through the month, starting with the 2nd Design Biennale taking over the old Inland Revenue offices of Somerset House, along with the courtyard and terrace, as designers from 40 countries flex their imaginations to respond to the theme of ‘Emotional States’, looking at how design in its broadest sense influences our life and feelings and how it can be a force for good, for example in education, health, political conflicts, sustainability and homelessness.
How have different countries responded to the brief? In the great courtyard, Greece and Turkey’s interactive installations stand side by side, with Studio INI’s disruptive kinetic and disorientating structure on the axis with the entrance of the main block and Tabanlıoğlu Architects’ cubic house of white rods, which is probably best seen at night when they are illuminated, asking what makes a house a home? The house creates an enclosing space while allowing views outside, in contrast to Nathalie Harb’s structure from the Lebanon on Embankment Terrace which creates a totally enclosed silent room, an oasis of peace and contemplation, isolated from the chaos of the city outside.
Then, exploring the spaces inside Somerset House, there is a wide variety of responses to the brief, not only from countries but from cities such as Liverpool, Leeds and Dundee, recently designated the UK’s first UNESCO City of Design and home to the new much-awaited outpost of the Victoria and Albert Museum which opens this month, showing how design can transform a city economy from its traditional industries of jute, jam and journalism. It is difficult to pick out the highlights, there are so many, but there are a few that stand out – Pakistan’s interactive display made from clothes from Mariam Majid, Mehrbano Khattak and Ahmed Nasir, Australia’s swirling installation from Flynn Talbot, which celebrates love, openness and Australia’s recent legislation to allow same-sex marriage, and the Refugees’ Pavilion showing how refugees adapt a design-winning flat-pack house into their home and Lulwah Al Homoud’s changing geometric patterns for Saudi Arabia using the Arabic alphabet to create an hypnotic emotional experience.
Moving from the South Wing, Hanut Ewari, Feroze Gujral, Shaunak Mehboobani and Aparna Konat have created the Indian submission celebrating the heritage of a colour – indigo – , still in use today but which has mixed emotions from workers who are exploited in the creation of luxury garments for the rich of other countries to wear, and there is a sad poignant architectural display from Egypt. Millennia ago, Egypt created come of the most magnificent architectural structures, yet in modern times it had lost its way and the exhibition mourns the loss of modernist buildings which in Europe would be celebrated and preserved, but in Egypt have disappeared as modern architects and architecture seem not to be appreciated, despite the efforts of publishers of architectural magazines such as Al Emara, published between 1939 and 1959. Quite rightly, this won the London Design Biennale 2018 Medal for the most outstanding contribution overall.
For Poland, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute brought together a selection of ten objects including manhole covers, radios and toilet rolls that had deep meanings within 20th century Polish history and its struggles against communism, while Norway, who always does something different at the Biennale, brings design back down to practical applications, such as how robots can positively enable children who are in hospital to maintain their education, and Germany unexpectedly focusses on up-cycling, with a wide range of designers showing how it can be done and setting an example for other countries to follow.
And, what about the host nation, the UK? Building on the relationship with Venice, it is curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum which has collaborated with Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London whose multi-disciplinary team of investigators, filmmakers, software developers, archaeologists, lawyers, journalists and architects explore areas of conflict to see how cultural heritage can be documented and preserved, recognising that heritage is part the soul of a nation, and its loss can be irreplaceable.
This is only the second year of London’s Design Biennale. What does the future hold? If the example of Venice is anything to go by, the Biennale should have the ambition to grow (indeed double) in size as the number of countries and project increases, though some, such as Korea, will be represented at other Design Fairs later in the month. Apart from Dundee, where, for example was Scotland? This looks like a project that could grow with partnerships with, for example, King’s College London and 180 Strand, which has a huge amount of space, plus hopefully a new external space planned for the Strand, though London’s reputation for such projects is not good with the delay to Crossrail and the loss of the Garden Bridge and Oxford Street’s pedestrianisation, lack of progress on the last placing London consigning Oxford Street back into second-class shopping street, when it should be world class showcasing fashion and design from around the globe.
(The Venice Art Biennale will be in its 58th year in 2019, so you do need to plan for the long term).