The Well-Designed Signs of Exploration and Innovation

Throughout London last week and through the weekend, red and yellow signs were standing outside of stores, galleries, warehouses and even construction sites.  The signs were confirmations that you correctly read the map while following the London Design Festival or the ICON Design Trail guides.  There are not many chances one has to walk “aimlessly” through a city and catch so much design, sights and inspiration, and in its 9th year of existence, the London Design Festival is truly one of those gems.

Where arts or culture festivals oft-times go wrong in not allowing broader participation by presenters or visitors or trying to keep the events too centralized, this festival truly captured the breadth of the design community – ranging from the institutions like the Victoria & Albert Museum, to the design retail establishment like Conran’s Shop and, fortunately, to the various pop-up groups that appeared sometimes in sub-basements with only one of those red or yellow signs to signify that the location is even there.  Some of the most fascinating, or memorable, items were discovered in those “found” locations.  Another welcome byproduct of spreading it out is that hundreds of thousands of visitors can work there way through without much clutter.

While the V&A was the the official hub of the festival, the more compelling “counter-hub” was placed on the East side at TENT London.  Where I ended my festival experience there during last year’s festival, I began it there this time.  The existence of this other major location fits nicely with the seeming concept that the city is in it together – as seen by the fact that each location had two signs and also two books to track the locations.  There was both the official design festival book and the ICON Design Trail book that was published by the design magazine, ICON.  What that alternate source provided was a different perspective on the festivities that was a little hipper and more welcoming of a crowd that might not have otherwise cared.

Of course, if the design talent was not prevalent in the city, this festival would be weak.  After spending just a few minutes on the trail, or more specifically within TENT, it is clear that there is far too much good stuff to be able to take in properly.  While it could be as daunting as attending an auto show or even Comic-Con, it is much more rewarding – especially due to the sheer sense of discovery.  All forms and executions of design were represented and there was surprisingly little duplication. As suggested before, there were many places you might not have thought to go before nor were allowed to see, that was reward enough for traversing the city.  On of those places was in the Southwest Tower at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Architect, John Pawson, teamed with Swarofsky for an installation called “Perspectives.”  It was a rare chance for people to even visit within the towers with the dramatic spiral staircases.  Photos were not allowed, but I was able to sneak this one to give an idea, though it in no way captures how cool it was…

There were a couple of specifics that were quirky or worth noting for the festival:

  • The City subsidized a large portion of the festival and much of that went to large public installations.  The benefit of those being all over the city enabled more people to be drawn in.  No matter what part of town you were in, there were opportunities to participate.
  • While many galleries and institutions participated, it was interesting that the Tate Modern didn’t even have a show going.  It was a missed opportunity of sorts.
  • In something I’ve never seen before, Designersblock ran an auction where every part of the auction from the gavel to the lighting was auctioned off.  But, you couldn’t give money for it.  Everything was bid on with barter.  The artists would then decide what they wanted.  I could not make it to the auction, so I put a nice bid in for Paul Bishop’s Made In China set.  Unfortunately, I lost to someone who was there…
  • There were some locations that left me wondering whether they would have been able to get approval from a US city to be able to exhibit as the footing in some was sketchy at best with broken tile, minimal headroom, weird scaffolding and other sundry challenges that effectively added to the fun.
  • At the V&A, there was a grand hall that was filled with a synthetic meadow made of cushioned fabric panels.  The lights were low, people were hanging out and kids were frolicking all around.  It was a little bizarre to have something of this scale in a space like this.  I walked across it and snapped some pictures.  When I had walked across the easily 50 meter pitch and was walking out the door, a security guy came up and told me I was an idiot for not realizing that we were supposed to take off our shoes to experience it.  It was funny only because he was telling me so long after I was already off of it.  And when I checked, there weren’t a lot of shoes on the sides, there were no signs and it was so dark, it wasn’t even clear that people weren’t wearing shoes.
  • There really were no instances of misguided employees, volunteers or visitors.  It was surprising how simple and clear everything was.  If there was anything that was a drag, it was the POWER OF MAKING exhibit at the V&A.  The exhibit layout was such that it had no easy flow and was claustrophobic.  perhaps they never thought they would get that many people to go through it.  It’s too bad as it seemed like it could have been interesting if there were a chance to read everything.
  • One of the coolest exhibits in a weird place was ARCO OKAY.  The site doesn’t really do justice to the whole vibe and interplay with some of the pieces, but it was one of the highlights.
It was certainly a festival that was packed with opportunity to explore and be inspired.  Definitely something I’m eager to repeat in the future.
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