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Beyond objects: London Design Festival vs Kanye West

An attention to the culture, rather than objects, of design underpinning the London Design Festival characterised a progressive celebration of British innovation

Design has a curious relationship with time. Often is it a lens we adopt to interpret the past – typically by arranging objects into contrived timelines of ‘progress’. Design can serve as the screen onto which we project our imagined views of the future, Jetson-style. Most intriguing though is when we try to curate contemporary objects as a testament of the present. As history shows, temporary festivals and exhibitions offer compelling attempts to present material culture in this way. Not only do these formats boast the potential to capture unique cultural snapshots, their intrinsic transience also often necessitates extreme and innovative solutions. From the hastily assembled stucco and wood façades of the 1893 Chicago World Fair to Joseph Paxton’s radically modular Crystal Palace for the 1851Great Exhibition, they speak of the attitudes and ambitions of their moment.

Such spectacles have always had a commercial aspect, but in the last generation we’ve looked to design as an engine to power economic change on an entirely new scale.


Joeseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace

Despite a dearth of statistical evidence beyond Frank Gehry’s original project, the allure of the ‘Bilbao Effect’ continues to grip planners. The city of Dundee, for example, is currently trying to reverse its fortunes with a new showpiece Victoria & Albert Museum outpost designed by Kengo Kuma.

In fact, our questionable faith in cultural capital as vehicle for regeneration is being increasingly codified by an ever-multiplying list of competitive accolades. Marseilles recently unveiled a glinting new pavilion by Foster + Partners as well as an arts centre, again by Kuma, under its title as EU Capital of Culture 2013. UNESCO endorses various ‘Cities of Design’ as well as managing the Creative Cities Network, stretching from Nagoya, Japan to Graz, Austria.

The sheer volume of these accolades can only lead to questioning their value. This uncertainty extends to the growing number of cities that have opted to brand their own neighborhoods as ‘design districts’, including Dubai, Helsinki, Dallas, and Cape Town. How do these places earn or justify assigning such lofty titles? Too often it’s still by evangelising about the transformative power that apparently accompanies injections of special funding and starchitect glamour. There are exceptions to the rule of course, projects that have succeeded in repurposing existing structures, but for the most part there’s been a failure to consider any long-term strategy for the buildings in these promotional schemes. Whether intended as permanent or temporary features, too little attention is paid to afterlife or disposal.

The problem isn’t as much bad architecture as bad planning, yet the process of dereliction moves quickly and offers no special treatment. Following the closing of Hanover’s Expo 2000, for example, organisers pledged to save a number of the national pavilions from demolition. Yet a lack of commitment has allowed these structures to fall into bad disrepair in little over a decade. These crumbling examples are sadly widespread, but the most surreal of all must surely be the McBarge created for Expo 1986 in Vancouver. This floating McDonalds restaurant was originally anchored within the fair’s grounds. Intended as a showcase of future technologies, today the dilapidated vessel is moored amongst industrial barges and an oil refinery.


The McBarge now floats forlornly next to an oil rig

In light of such historical models, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the long-term success of this string of new international design destinations. Yet there’s one city bucking the trend: London. While the rest of the world is gorging itself on unsustainable wow-factor designs, Britain’s capital has reached a point of maturity. Rather than looking to major projects as catalysts for change, London is working to foster an environment attractive to design in the long term.

Included as part of the strategic approach, this year’s London Design Festival proved itself up to the challenge of meshing its fleeting energies with the realisation of long-term innovation. How? By focusing on an ideological rather than physical legacy. Instead of proffering relics for the future, it promoted London as a design hub both creatively and commercially. The Initial figures look very good. In addition to strong attendance numbers, projections suggest the festival contributed around £40m to the London economy alone. Moreover, while its projects may have strayed towards faddish superficiality in the past, this year’s programme emerged refined and refocused. Even the main temporary commission, dRMM’s Endless Stair, included a gentle environmental focus with its sustainable material sourcing and reconfigurable design.


LDF’s centerpiece, dRMM’s Endless Stair, despite flaws, retained an admirable attention to environmental design

Looking towards the future, we might borrow from the Olympic Games’ much-contested assessment rubric to consider the festival’s legacy. How, for example, did LDF engender inclusiveness and encourage a new generation of British designers? Since organisers began making announcements earlier in the year, they opened a call for project proposals, allowing anyone to become part of the official programme. The roster of events also concentrated on bringing emerging talent together with old masters, both historic and contemporary, against a backdrop of established collections, thus making the industry more accessible for young designers as well as the public.

However, we must not become complacent. To some extent, this year’s success arrived on the back of wave of expanding, but superficial, popular interest. Currently tastemakers from the music and fashion worlds are endorsing design for its ‘cool’ associations, but it’s worth interrogating the rigour of their message. In a recent BBC interview rapper Kanye West announced an interest in designing, among other things, water bottles and buildings, claiming that he ‘shouldn’t be limited to once place of creativity’. Last year actor Brad Pitt launched a fairly horrific line of furniture. While it’s easy to titter about these offerings, they signal a troubling new trend. Democratisation and public engagement should remain our goal, but we must not encourage such trivialised offerings. While interdisciplinary innovation has a long tradition, it seems unlikely that Mr. Pitt is our new renaissance man.

Instead, for London Design Festival to triumph again it must work to communicate the true scope of the industry’s remit – not everyone can be an industrial designer at Apple. Unfortunately it’s in this area that organisers are currently being let down. Their attitude towards accessibility is strong but is only as good as what’s carried out by the press. This year’s festival got a fraction of the column inches that London Fashion Week is seasonally gifted, despite its far broader relevance. Moreover, its programme received very little critical analysis from the mainstream media. All this will have to change if the event is to sustain its value in the coming years. The payoff, however, could be immense. As others continue to be swayed by fads and frippery, British designers have the potential to excel as voices of innovation and eloquence.

James Haldane



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