After an exhaustive investigation, Icon has selected the best six installations at the new London Design Biennale for your pleasure – all dissent welcome
Behind its exquisite, Pentagram-designed facade, the new London Design Biennale, titled Utopia by Design (it’s a Thomas More reference, please keep up ... ) is a highly mixed bag. And that turns out to be perfect. If you’re into immersive installations, there’s something here for you. Or retro socialist chic. Or worthy causes. Or people-centered products. Or sustainable design. Or VR headsets. Or just plain whimsy. In fact, amid the 37 offerings scattered engagingly around the corridors and courtyards of Somerset House, you’re pretty much bound to find something to provide pleasure or arouse righteous indignation. Here, with honourable omissions too many to mention, are the top six, chosen by Icon’s editors, who didn’t always see eye to eye themselves ...
If you’re going to do design as art, and art as message, then please do it with gusto. More’s Utopia was originally published in Leuven, just east of Brussels, and, for Exactly 500 Years Utopia, artist Benoît van Innis reacts to the fragmentation of the European dream, and also to the terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 30 (destroying his own murals for Maalbeek metro station in the process). The result is a biblical stone slab, from which 50 prints have been pulled, depicting a new map of Utopia, referencing More’s skull-shaped original. This new, cartoon-like EUtopia is a landmass composed of a variety countries and cities, including China, Wales, Brussels, with a landmass dedicated to cult singer Dalida too, but excluding France and, of course, England.
Benjamin Loyaute is premiering an 18-minute film that depicts displaced Syrians in refugee camps and in cities around Europe, exploring the collective memories that have survived the Syrian war and that bind them together. Part of the installation is a vending machine selling a pink damask sugar candy, shaped like a Assyrian archaeological object – the proceeds of which go directly towards helping Syrian refugees.
An impressive mix of artwork and archive, Indonesia’s offering is inspired by the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, a gathering of 29 Asian and African countries that positioned itself as the first conference of a postcolonial world order, proclaiming an idealistic set of ten global principles to match. One room is dedicated to Freedome, an installation of 576 rotating coir balls mimicking Borobudur, topped by a decagonal information satellite – a fictional 1960s outcome of the meeting if all had proceeded as planned. The other provides engaging photography and design from the original conference as an encouragement to dig further.
Fernando Romero’s dark, underground room for Mexico is one of the more topical pavilions – at a time when a US presidential candidate has proposed building a wall between the two countries, a series of digital infographics in this space depict the their interconnectedness and envisage the creation of a ‘Border City’, based on principals of equality, freedom and sustainability, that straddles the two nations.
Karachi-based Coalesce Design Studio’s installation Daalaan explores the utopian worlds we create as children through play. A series of fabrics printed with illustrations depicting traditional games hang from the ceiling and items of furniture below resemble spinning tops. Visitors are encourages to sit and spin on the stools, rediscovering their playful side, loosing their inhibitions and interacting with strangers – like children do.
It may be ripe for accusations of bandwagon jumping, but the Russian offering is Soviet design porn of the highest quality. And Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design, curated by Alexandra Sankova, is also backed by palpable scholarship and an urgent mission to recover a rich history that was largely forgotten until the establishment of the Moscow Design Museum in 2012. The advanced products and prototypes created by Soviet design bureaus under a single institute – VNIITE – are explored in a futuristic white installation with an accompanying film, including British connections in the 1960s.
And, finally, when it’s up and running, Annabel Karim Kassar’s slice of Lebanese street life running alongside the Somerset House’s Riverside Terrace should make a lively meeting point.
Installation image: Ed Reeve