London Design Festival (LDF) director Ben Evans launched this year's nine-day programme with the optimistic declaration: "This is probably the first year that we're properly back to normal."
He was referring to the post-pandemic revival of energy and participation witnessed by other major design weeks this year in places like Milan, New York and Copenhagen. And while an abundance of exhibitions, installations and talks were vying for attention this year, there was a noticeable casualty of the pandemic that has struggled to return to the capital: trade fairs.
Cast your mind back to 2019 and LDF was celebrating four key "design destinations" in the city: Design London, Designjunction, Focus, and London Design Fair. Each with their own identity and raison d'etre, these hub events acted as the commercial backbone of the festival and, in many cases, would have provided the business incentive for many international visitors to London. Competition between them was fierce, as they each fought to attract design brands to exhibit across their vast square meterage and strived to carve out a distinct offering from each other.
There was a noticeable casualty of the pandemic that has struggled to return
With the arrival of Covid-19, all shows were forcibly halted in 2020. In the years since then, Designjunction has ceased, Design London soldiered on in 2021 and 2022 but not this year (the show will merge into Clerkenwell Design Week in May 2024). Focus, a week-long focal event for the permanent showrooms located at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, continued but is no longer listed as part of the LDF programme. London Design Fair halted for three years before resuming this year without any competition.
As confidence returns to the market, the opportunity was prime for London Design Fair to commandeer the foremost trade fair position during LDF. London still needs a strong commercial hub. Despite mostly filling the cavernous Truman Brewery halls in Brick Lane, what emerged was a show that lacked a clear point of view and failed to lure in a concentration of the leading British furniture and lighting brands or their international counterparts.
On my visit, the experience of meandering through the aisles felt rather lacklustre and predictable. Exhibitors, some of questionable quality, were confined within the standard booth format and illuminated with stark, cold light. This was temporarily brightened by the cheerful You Can Sit With Us showcase, curated by 2LG Studio, which invited a selection of the studio's design friends to "bring their unique voices together around a large table" by contributing a characterful dining-chair design "to represent their identity". For a more established studio to use its platform to extend a hand to emerging designers felt generous and supportive of the wider community in which it operates.
An altogether more enticing and energetic celebration of materiality took place on the South Bank with Material Matters returning for its second year. Intimate in scale thanks to its relatively small roomscapes spread across five floors, the show brought together a well-edited mix of independent designers and emerging brands alongside more established companies with one thing in common: material exploration.
Refreshingly, the show embodied a growing urgency across the design industry to take greater responsibility when adding new products to the market, as part of our wider duty to reduce our ecological impact. This story was told by all exhibitors, and the products on display acted as a physical manifestation of positive change that is burgeoning in design. Just making more stuff for the sake of it now feels truly redundant – purpose is everything.
Material Matters dares to rattle the status quo by creating an optimistic forum for new material experimentations to be showcased and for learnings to be discussed. Gone are the days when designers create new products from whichever globally-traded material they fancy, focussed only on form, function and user experience. Or at least that's what it felt like here.
Just making more stuff for the sake of it now feels truly redundant
To some extent, the exhibition symbolises a much broader movement that is placing strong emphasis on the provenance of raw materials, the methods and conditions by which they are grown, mined or processed, the transparency of the supply chain, working conditions and distribution models, as well as the processes of reuse, repair and recycling.
All of these concerns were embodied by the Material Change showcase, staged at Material Matters by London-based design studio PearsonLloyd. The studio positioned its commitment to a new set of design principles by presenting "ongoing research to improve the circularity of the mass-produced products for which we are responsible". It displayed some of its products as case studies, each representing the areas of research it has undertaken, informed by data, waste materials, new technologies, bio-based materials, self-assembly, mono-materials, repair, and longevity, with the aim to reduce the planetary burden of its designs. As the circular economy enters the mainstream, considering what happens to a product at the end of its usable life is no longer a nicety but a necessity.
And while hard-hitting talks about the future trajectory of design and wider society took place in multiple venues across the city, not everything on show came with an existential question. LDF has always acted as a platform for experimentation and, while nowhere near the extent of Milan design week, pockets of young design talent could still find space to show, with more than 10 "design districts" acting as hotspots for displays in showrooms and studios across the capital.
The longest-standing and a particular favourite is Brompton Design District, which continued to champion experimental design across its pop-up programme dotted around various spaces in the affluent South Kensington area. Particular highlights included The Farm Shop, curated by Marco Campardo, Guan Lee and Luca Lo Pinto for Fels Gallery, wherein invited designers were asked to collaborate on elements of a dining tableau, made during a residency at Grymsdyke Farm in nearby Buckinghamshire. Emerging designer Rio Kobayashi presented his first solo exhibition Manus Manum Lavat (One Hand Washes the Other), and Royal College of Art design products masters graduates displayed their recent work.
With events spread far and wide across London, it remains impossible to find the time to see everything. The geography of the city is sprawling and travel distances are frustrating. How LDF can make its mark on the city is a perpetual challenge – does the festival aim to serve those already in the know, or can it attract the broader population of London? It can never dominate the city in the same way that design weeks in smaller, more concentrated cities such as Milan and Copenhagen manage. Its solution has been to insert site-specific installations in public and often iconic spaces to attract as many people as possible, a route pursued since LDF's inception in 2003.
I finished the week feeling like Evans' opening remark was probably correct
With sponsorship for such activities less forthcoming since the pandemic, the festival should be applauded for commissioning the mesmerising Aura by Spanish artist Pablo Valbuena (pictured), which transformed the ambient sounds in St Paul's Cathedral into a pulsating line of light. Similarly hypnotic was Moritz Waldemeyer's Halo installation in the historic St Stephen Walbrook church. Both projects would have put "design" in the path of a wider audience, perhaps unexpectedly. However, it was notable that no such grand interventions graced the festival's traditional hub venue of the V&A this year.
And while the commercial side of the design industry might have approached LDF with caution this year – with several European brands seemingly regurgitating presentations originally shown at Milan in April and international visitors noticeably missing – I finished the week feeling like Evans' opening remark was probably correct. This year's LDF generally felt energetic and optimistic and, dare I say, on the path to something resembling normality.
The photography is by Ed Reeve.
London Design Festival took place from 16 to 24 September. See our LDF 2023 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks that took place throughout the festival.
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