words Anna Bates and Marcus Fairs
Brick Lane was the big story at this year’s London Design Festival.
The vibrant east London street – traditionally home to the Bangladeshi community but increasingly inhabited by young creative types – was the location for a cluster of design shows that, for the first time in London, had a buzz comparable to Milan’s Zona Tortona, New York’s Wooster Street or Tokyo’s Aoyama district.
This year’s much-expanded festival – enhanced, if we say so ourselves, by the merging of the festival programme with the icon design trail – nonetheless struggled to create much of a sense of citywide festivity: London is simply too big and too hard to navigate for that.
For seasoned design-watchers, much of the work on show around town was familiar from Milan and the sense of gloom enveloping the retail sector permeated into the halls of 100% Design, which seemed smaller than in previous years and lacked many of the big brands.
The mood was also soured by chancellor Gordon Brown’s speech at the festival’s opening party, which only proved that he was oblivious to design by failing to mention any designers or any of the people responsible for making the 150-plus events happen.
But London isn’t about product launches or speeches – it’s about the city’s design community, which is the greatest in the world. In Brick Lane this year, they finally got to show what they could do. On the following pages we showcase the best events and speak to the organisers who made them happen. We hope Gordon Brown takes note of their names and mentions them next year.
Rory Dodd and Piers Roberts of designersblock pioneered the edgy, low-fi approach to design curation in 1998 when they held a show in the disused Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, thereby helping to put the area on the map. The brewery has gone on to become London’s premier venue for non-corporate events and designersblock have gone on to mount shows around the world that are the antithesis to glitzy trade shows.
“We wanted to present a genuinely curated design show that is not dictated by purely financial outcomes,” says Dodd.
Their show this year was their best yet: held in a damp and labyrinthine former warehouse on Shoreditch High Street, a stone’s throw from Brick Lane, it proved that the venue is as important as the work on show.
The event was a kind of homecoming for Dodd and Roberts. “We think of the east of London as our spiritual homeland – it’s our first choice in London and it is where we work,” says Dodd. “It is also extremely tolerant, and there is a diversity of people and trades that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
He is uninterested by Gordon Brown’s speech: “If you ask the chancellor to give a speech he’s going to talk about the economy. That’s his job.”
Nese Halil, Deborah Spencer and Louisa Pacifico are the organisers of New Designers Selection, an exhibiton of graduate work that shared space with Max Fraser’s show.
New Designers is a major exhibition held each July that showcases the work of graduates around the country, and this is the second year they have exhibited the pick of student work during the London Design Festival.
“As the largest graduate show in the UK, it would be strange if we didn’t have a presence during the festival,” says the team. “British design is the big subject at the moment, and by curating [this show] we can exhibit a sample of the excellent design produced by UK graduates.”
“Whatever people think about the London Design Festival it has provoked curators to come out of the woodwork and do great things,” she continues. “Gordon Brown didn’t mention the organisers, but I would never expect him to. It’s the designers that are important.
We provide the platforms and opportunities for them – that’s our job.”
Max Fraser, 25, is an author and curator. A design school dropout, he made his name in 2001 with Design UK, a guidebook to the country’s leading contemporary retailers.
In 2003 he branched out into exhibitions, holding the first Design UK Selection show, which presented a personal selection of young designers’ work.
“I try to act as an unbiased voice within the industry, selecting designs on an editorial level rather than strictly commercial,” he says, adding that he keeps overheads low: “Most exhibition organisers charge a fortune.”
This year, Fraser took over a warehouse at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, presenting the work of 55 designers in a raw, industrial setting. “There was a distinct creative buzz around Brick Lane this year, with 100% East, Designersblock, and [re]design within close proximity.”
Fraser is sceptical of Gordon Brown’s speech. “It is well-intentioned to tell us that government support is available [to designers] but not many people seem to know how to access it,” he says. “A bridge needs to be formed between the street-level creatives and the powers above. Support for real projects that affect real people should be at the top of the agenda for government agencies.”
Thorsten van Elten is a London-based manufacturer, distributor and retailer. He has a shop in Warren Street in central London but he also decided to showcase the work of a clutch of young designers alongside the Design UK Selection in Brick Lane. “As a manufacturer you have to do trade shows,” he says. “I wanted to show not only the work that I manufacture but also work by designers that I like and respect.”
He chose east London to help create a focal point that would draw in other designers. “It also helps that east London seems to have a lot of space,” he says, “and the area has a great vibe, especially on weekends.”
On Gordon Brown’s speech Van Elten says: “It’s just another one of those ‘Oh how marvellous we are’ speeches. I’m not entirely sure that London Design Festival has a worldwide reputation. But 100% Design has been going for 11 years and does have a worldwide reputation. Designers Block has also been going since way before LDF. But I’ve never been one for talking too much about things … I just get on with things.”
Sarah Alcock was one of 34 students who graduated from Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in July. Alcock and other students decided to show their work during the design festival, taking a space at the Truman Brewery and raising the money themselves.
“We wanted to promote ourselves as a group of young professional designers,” she says. “As other big exhibitions were taking place around the Truman Brewery we knew the area would be a thriving, fresh environment – and that lots of people who passed by on their way to Brick Lane would be enticed by our window display.”
Alcock felt that Gordon Brown failed to notice the hard work from people who put together the shows in his speech. “He needed to talk more about the people behind the scenes,” she says, “because without them, the [festival] would not have been as successful.”
Sarah Johnson is a director of [re]design, a design show that promotes, in her words, “friendly, sustainable design”. “We do it to support and promote designers who don’t want to make landfill,” she says. The show featured a wide range of furniture made from recycled materials.
She chose Brick Lane to show because, she says, “There is a buzz in the area, a receptiveness to new ideas, and some gorgeous, raw, inexpensive spaces.”
Johnson was pleased to see smaller events being held this year, and says she was heartened to hear Gordon Brown recognise the importance of design to the UK economy. “But it would be nice to see him put some money where his mouth is,” she says.
Based Upon was one of the most atmospheric shows we saw. Held in the dank backyard and basement of a Victorian terraced house, it showcased the work of Based Upon, a company run by Ian Abell.
“It’s an amazing, rambling old space,” says Abell. “The basement feels like a crypt, whose history could be one of monasticism or debauchery.”
Abell has licensed a coating process that makes objects appear to be made of metal, and the show was full of objects such as gold urinals and copper cardboard boxes.
“The word on the street seems to be ‘send it to China’, but Based Upon is all about making individual pieces, by hand, in London,” says Ian. “If there is a disconnection between the idea and making it happen, its essence somehow gets lost.”
He adds: “We wanted to avoid anything that felt like a showroom. So many shows lacked passion, theatre and narrative.” They chose to exhibit in Brick Lane because a friend had offered them her house.
Ian was pleased to hear Gordon Brown recognising the value of the “ideas” economy. “But intellectual property is very easily transferred, replaced, and therefore copied,” he says. “The government needs to recognise that the further we ship ideas, the less able we are to protect them.”
Jimmy MacDonald is the organiser of 100% East, a sister show to 100% Design – the Earl’s Court-based trade show that is now in its 11th year and is the lynchpin of London’s September design binge.
New this year, 100% East is 100% Design’s funkier eastern outpost and aims to show the work of smaller, younger design companies.
He enjoys showing the work of people that haven’t exhibited before: “I am often designers’ first point of contact with the industry – this is a privilege. Their success stories are exciting – we often have relationships with the exhibitors way past our exhibitions.”
He located his exhibition in the East End because, he says, it is the heart of London’s creative industries: “I felt there needed to be an East End hub during the festival.”
MacDonald is sceptical of Gordon Brown’s speech. “We’ve heard all this before and not really felt the results. It would have been more interesting if he was making investors and big businesses aware of what was taking place.”