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Is Design Everywhere? The London Design Festival themes under scrutiny

Will this year’s inauspicious premise set the London Design Festival on a more democratic trajectory back to its humble beginnings, asks the AR’s new LDF blogger?

With glowing Olympic memories still fresh in our minds, the British public perhaps feels more confident in its design knowledge than ever before. Having provided stories on everything from stadium development to Heatherwick’s cauldron of controversy, the media has built up the design industry to nothing short of a badge of national pride. Speaking at the Classifying Design event in July, however, deputy director of the London Design Festival Max Fraser recalled the festival’s modest beginnings in a very different cultural climate

Fraser painted a romantic image of a time when design occupied rather less space in the collective consciousness and its promotion was left to a troupe of energetic but non-institutional practitioners. How times change. Since those heady days in the early 2000’s, London Design Festival has established itself as both an industry calendar staple and a key vehicle for public engagement in the arts. But it has also secured large corporate sponsorship deals, official mayoral funding, and the endorsement of large public museums, all with strings attached. So, has this growth in numbers and support come at a cost?

Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick’s olympic cauldron was one of many high profile examples of outstanding British design that have nurtured national pride in the UK’s design scene

By Fraser’s own admission, operating at this new level has certainly demanded a move away from the casual ad hoc approach of yesteryear. In particular, an ever-increasing effort to court media attention has forced the festival to reshape its self-presentation. “We have to produce the glossy rendering,” as Fraser put it.

While it is impossible to dismiss this ongoing development in quantitative terms, it would not be unreasonable to wonder if something of the original integrity has been lost in the LDF rebrand. In its pursuit of coverage, has the festival been forced to pander to common denominators of intellectual accessibility or front-page prettiness? And, if so, should we feel so assured in the design literacy of our population? This is a question far broader than the loss of that original radicalism – has there been a more systemic underselling of the truth?

Design must be understood as truly pervasive – a vital human activity – and about much more than cyclone hoovers and 3D printing. Yet, for many outside the industry, this very one-dimensional image is all that is typically conveyed. Identifying the sources of such a condescending portrayal is not a simple task, but it’s clear that blame largely lies with the elements of the industry unwilling to recognise the natural democracy of design activities. In acts of self-aggrandising sophistry, they prefer to segregate their output as exclusively for connoisseurial consumption, leaving the general public with what remains, generic as it may (ironically) be. The festival seems to have suffered the cost of this division to varying degrees in recent years.

As for the matter of corporate money, no one can claim it’s an easy territory to negotiate. Admirably, the festival wants to expand its geography and outreach, but money is tight right now and it’s hard to stick rigidly to your morals in a recession. Fraser touched on the challenge of balancing these interests, acknowledging that organisers are frequently approached by blue chip companies with an interest in sponsored collaborations. Strict governance is required to ensure that these projects maintain a focus as something more than the superficial marketing of a ‘cool’ brand association.

Although Fraser shied away from connecting the dots between the festival’s past development and its contemporary politics, it seems clear that organisers have picked up on these fundamental questions and are working to respond to them. This year’s theme, Design is Everywhere, has been billed as a manifesto for a more comprehensive and democratic reading of the festival’s promotional mission.

How will this be manifest? Unsurprisingly, the big name landmark projects will still be there – perhaps they must be accepted as crowd-pleasing ‘entry points’. Organisers also claim their presence will galvanise this year’s true innovation – a number of independent ‘guerilla’ making projects beyond the official programme of events. It’s an exciting idea that would mark a return to the festival’s original spirit and agitate its recent predictability – though it seems risky if not rather cheeky to place such expectations upon this strategy. Still, after years of theatrics, there’s a gratifying circularity to this effort to restore credit to the individual and focus on the everyday.

James

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