Given London’s reputation as an international centre of design creativity, it is surprisingly that it has not held a biennale until now. The first Design Biennale has arrived, at last, at Somerset House with designers from 37 counties presenting a wide variety of views on the world, and of utopia and sustainability, from the need for people to talk more together, to conserving water and considering how to deal with increasing urban populations.
London has sensibly learnt lessons from other Biennale, the most successful being in Venice which has country pavilions and concentrates primarily on the one location, the Arsenal, while others, such as Liverpool and Berlin, are spread too thinly across their cities though, like the London one, they do connect with other events and exhibitions taking place at the same time – Liverpool’s Biennale for example ties in with exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and the Walker Gallery. London is connected into the London Design Festival, which takes place this week and brings many international visitors to the city.
The great courtyard is dominated by the United Kingdom’s contribution – “Forecast” by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby which is reminiscent both of wind vanes on buildings and ships and also radar installations scanning the horizon while, for Albania, Helidon Xhixha’s “Bliss” creates a concentric series of mirrored stainless steel columns and benches to encourage people to look at themselves in different ways and converse with their neighbours, while at the core is an outline map of Europe’s borders drawing attention to one of the most difficult issues of the modern world, while the Embankment terrace has become a street market from the Lebanon. Somewhere Nigeria has disappeared – its wooden structure was here last week but has vanished.
Designers from different counties have filled the wings of Somerset House with a variety of design installations linked to utopia; this variety and creativity is a major contribution of the Biennale and it is difficult to select just a few as there is so much to see. For the Netherlands, Studio & Bey have created a diorama from the home of architect Rianne Makkink and designer Jurgen Bey which has stripped everything back to a blue/white colour, reminiscent of Delft porcelain, but also exploring what designers collect to inspire them, and also what museums collect to represent our history.
In the Indonesian exhibition, the Freedome represents the ongoing search for independence, equality, humanity and peace, while there is a water theme with Saudi Arabia’s “Water Machine” considering when water will be so scarce that we will have to buy it like chewing gum and Australia drawing attention to the plastics which pollute the oceans and kill the fish and organisms in them.
Turkey’s “Wish Machine” asks us to explore our dreams for a better future; while Austria’s ever-changing kinetic light sculpture responds in unexpected ways to our movement and even our breath – representing the way the world will always throw up the unexpected.
For Pakistan, a playful installation with stools like spinning tops and hanging screen prints aims to break down barriers and share ideas, while India celebrates the integration of ancient culture and modern design.
China explores proposals for “sustainable megastructures” to support its fast-growing young-professional population, which hark back to the architectural proposals by Archigram in the 1960’s, and, entirely different - but historically fascinating, Russia, the Utopian Medal 2016 Winner, provides an archive of the work of post-war Soviet designers searching, in that optimistic time, for new design and innovation – a good example for the theme of utopia.
If the first year is so good, expectations are high for the next Biennale.