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Barbara’s Blog #6: Real Beats Virtual Any Day

So says our resident blogger, brand ambassador Barbara Chandler, who relishes her time out and about whilst in between lockdowns:

We are still cooped up, and not likely to be much off-leash for months – and this makes my memories and pictures from the autumn all the more precious. Something to nourish the possible design desert in the months ahead. Mid-September, we London design junkies were thrilled to find the London Design Festival (the 18th edition!) went ahead with at least some “real” events to balance on-line expos and seminars.  Festival director Ben Evans was up-front and typically bullish: “London needs a platform for our brilliant design more than ever,” he said firmly, introducing an in-your-face printed guide that was more than double the page dimensions of previous years – although not perhaps as thick as it could have been. And the Mayor, too, was totally on board: “We are the design capital of the world.” So let’s hope 18-26 September 2021 will be back to normal.

Kings Cross was the epicentre, thanks to some welcome support from the property developers of that huge site adjacent to the Eurostar terminal and stretching well beyond the other side of the Regent’s Canal – did you realise it even has its own post code – N1C?  And that Granary Square, with its gorgeous dancing fountains, is the largest in London after Trafalgar Square?

The focal point was a large, whitish and rather unsettling inflatable sculpture made of recycled fabric like some strange sea creature animated by a ring of foot pumps, to express the idea that people should work in harmony. Sadly its French designer, Marlène Huissoud couldn’t get to London. But how inspirational is this statement: “Art can give you a new vision, and offer you a new future. You can escape from reality with art, that’s why it can bring people together. Art gives us hope.” Something there for us all.

Tom Dixon’s showroom in a series of brick-lined arched caverns abutting the canal is fun to visit at any time and I loved seeing the story of his now-iconic snake-like S chair – it’s 30 years since he made the first one! (I’m starting to feel older and older as this piece progresses….)

And I must mention Store Store who had a small display of crafts for sale, which are now also on the Store Projects website. I’ve watched this project grow over the past couple of years or so. A doughty volunteer band of London designers and architects are giving lessons in design to local kids after school, with code-writing and advanced tech. They feel there is an “imbalance” in art, design and architecture education which they are trying to correct. They are encouraging young people into applied creative courses – “especially those who might not have considered that pathway at all.” During lockdown kits and online courses have gone to state schools in other cities such as Leeds and Leicester. And I’ve just heard from my main contact, Kevin Green, that they have funding for a “sister Store Store” in Rotterdam in the spring. (So there will be some shared life for design in Europe after Brexit….)

At the Design Museum designers from nine studios at home and abroad had managed to beat travel restrictions to launch their show Connected: Made Together Apart. The designers had been asked to “make a table/seating for personal use to suit new ways of living and working from home”. We were there to see the beautifully-crafted results on press day, with fine weather and a general feeling of being let out of school, as journos turned up to do the rounds. The pieces had been made by ace joinery outfit Benchmark – of necessity “apart” from the designers who delivered drawings/briefings and checked production entirely by phone and internet. The beauty of the woodworking was undeniably breathtaking. But everything seemed on rather a large scale for any home, with not many neat notions for working IRL. Where do you store stuff? What about cables? Charger? Lighting? Monitor? Printer? Stationery? What if you have to share? The emphasis seemed to be on sculpture and “concepts” rather than function. Check it out online, with designer interviews.

It was exciting though, to meet Thomas Heatherwick and chat about his Stem table. He was celebrating “biophilia” (currently something of a cult term) and the inspiring influences of nature. “Let’s have beautiful surfaces surrounded by greenery and craft – creativity will surely surge.” Supporting legs and plant pots are simply clamped onto the table top. They are CNC-machined from American maple. Thomas’s mother had a collection of African carved spoons and that inspired the somewhat tribal shapes.

Sitting outside at a rather lovely green resin-coated table (by Ini Archibong, raised in California and based in Switzerland) was Sean Sutcliffe, the co-founder/director of Benchmark itself. Wood (when “properly managed”) has good eco-cred, he told me – “It’s renewable and recyclable – and working remotely with no extra travel certainly cuts additional carbon.”  He was chatting to Tim Marlow, the new director of the Design Museum (known for his radio and TV documentaries; he’s come from the Royal Academy).

I got on my perennial and very personal hobbyhorse and asked these head honchos why the Design Museum does not have more shows about colour and in particular pattern in interiors (wallpaper! cushions! sofas! curtains!) but disappointingly got the same unenthusiastic response I’ve had for the past 20 odd years. Strange, when arguably we lead the world in textile/wallpaper/pattern design.

In Mayfair, designer Paul Cocksedge talked me though his magnificent new tables called SLUMP at  Carpenters Workshops Gallery. Thick pristine glass tops seem to have collapsed onto great chunks of rock, timber or metal, now hugging them tight. It’s a secret process taking place in a workshop in Brighton with specially-invented tools.

Normally the V&A is a buzzy hub for the festival. But COVID had quashed all that. You can still listen to their engrossing Global Design Forum seminars. Nevertheless eco-activist Jane Withers had curated Brompton Design District nearby, as she has been doing since 2007. The highlight was a joint show of graduates old and new from London Metropolitan Uni, brought together by tutor Peter Marigold. He invented FORMcard five years ago, and it’s become a nice little earner. This is a mouldable bio-plastic, sold in credit-card size bites, that lets you “make, fix or modify the world around you”.  Peter showed off his material with his own huge bowls, cast against wood for a grainy effect. Also in wood was the single mould Moe Redish had used for a series of glasses, burning away a bit more before each casting, to reveal progressively dramatic forms.

Across the way, RCA graduates, cheated of their degree show, showed how they’d been influenced by lockdown. Lea Randebrock was working recycled textiles around a spindle she’d made herself, and Andrew Scott had fashioned a neat little chair out of materials from around SE17, even building his own “spring pole lathe” from pallet wood. I love going to design events because you meet people you otherwise might miss.

Moving on to London Craft Week, 300 Objects was one of the finest craft shows I have ever been to. Why? Well, firstly the venue, a series of interconnecting rooms on three floors directly on Regent Street, putting the kind of consumer spotlight usually reserved for fashion onto the whole affair. Then there was the abundance of the work, a gloriously lavish spread by 40 makers, chosen by several “guest” curators. All for sale, and much at modest prices. And the arrangement, by themes and even colours – I loved the “black” room for example. And the clever QR codes with all details of makers, work and prices coming up on your phone, cutting out word-clutter in the show itself, and very easy to read. Find all details on the website. And a special mention for Design-Nation graduate member Darren Appiagyei, an innovative young wood turner crafting vessels from the timber he finds in South East London.

Notes on Images

Sculpture by Marlène Huissoud
Tom Dixon: the story of the S chair
Thomas Heatherwick and his Stem Table
Tim Marlow of the Design Museum and Sean Sutcliffe of Benchmark, seated on table by Ini Archibong
Paul Cocksedge and his SLUMP table
Lea Randebrock at work
Darren Appiagyei with a selection of his hand-turned vessels

Porrait of Darren Appiagyei by Jermaine Miller and courtesy Darren. All other photos taken by Barbara Chandler.

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Liz Cooper


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