Last Friday, September 22, UK Prime Minister Theresa May described the June 2016 "Brexit" referendum as an opportunity for “imaginative and creative” solutions for the European Union. In the context of London Design Festival, the euphemism is equally coincidental and ironic. Central Saint Martins, for one, explicitly addressed Brexit—and subsequent geopolitical upheaval—in the expository text for its exhibition Creative Unions: “Creativity by necessity and inclination has to operate across borders, and there was a sense that borders (cultural geographic, racial) were now going to get more fixed, and so creativity was in danger of being stifled.”
Given the breadth of the works on view—not only within the college's Lethaby Gallery but across the city's design districts—LDF is as much an occasion to reflect on design as an expression of greater social, economic, and political forces as it is a celebration of its many forms. If May's conciliatory tone reduced the sense of urgency, it has become all the more imperative for designers to take responsibility for their actions since the publication of Victor Papanek's oft-cited Design for the Real World in 1971. And what better way to illustrate the “imaginative and creative” potential of design than with chairs?
Chairs for All Occasions
Following last year’s inaugural London Design Biennial, the cultural institution Somerset House framed its sundry LDF exhibition in terms of “Design Frontiers”—an oblique reference to a kind of border, perhaps—to encompass everything from fashion (Jijibaba, a joint effort by Jaime Hayon and Jasper Morrison) to textiles (Kvadrat, of course) automotive design (Jaguar being the banner sponsor). Among the innovators, Benjamin Hubert unveiled his new “Axyl” collection for the UK furniture brand Allermuir. Alongside a barstool and cafe table, the stackable chair is characterized by its die-cast A-frame aluminum legs, which, like its MCM-inspired plastic shell, is made from recycled materials. An exemplar of industrial design today, “Axyl” also nods to sustainability as a selling point—the legs account for "significant" cost and energy savings—though a cynic might question the point of creating new chairs in the first place.
Case in point, Yinka Ilori has made a name for himself precisely by doing the opposite, refurbishing chairs—often gathered from the curb—and reappropriating furniture as a canvas for storytelling. Known for his vibrant aesthetic, the British-Nigerian straddles the line between art and design, citing Martino Gamper's “100 Chairs in 100 Days” project as his inspiration to pursue the latter. For his LDF exhibition at the Africa Centre, A Large Chair Does Not Make a King, he challenges visitors to “leave their ego at the door” of the installation, featuring four chairs on scalable plinths, intended to level the height of the sitters and arranged to face the center, like points on a compass.
The chair-fest continued elsewhere with another take on the symbolism of a chair, in this case as an object of trade. In Brompton Design District, Faye Toogood returned to the South Kensington space where she launched her first collection in 2010 to stage Trade Show, featuring 50 of her friends in the UK creative community. From household name Tom Dixon to rush weaver Felicity Irons Bem, each participant received one of Toogood’s iconic “Spade” chairs, created in a special edition of sand-cast aluminum, in exchange for an original work of his or her choice, on view in the exhibition. But given the context of the star designer's enviable personal network, the utopian notion of a exchange-based economy remains aspirational at best, since the $500–2,500 retail price of the “Spade” chair (depending on materials and finish) undermines the premise of using objects as currency.
Makers Gon' Make
Meanwhile, yet another chair embodied an alternative to the designer-as-author approach. Whereas Hubert's “Axyl” collection incorporates recycled material, Ilori specializes in upcycled materials, and Toogood’s collective skewed toward craft, a humble armchair dating back to 2015 blends these undercurrents in the context of the maker movement.
Smile Plastics has been refining its eye-catching decorative panels—recycled from waste such as yogurt cups, confiscated CDs, Wellington boots, dashboards, etc.— since its launch at LDF two years ago. The materials company had a strong presence at LDF this year, from displays at London Design Fair to Michael Marriott's stools for the Ace Hotel, as well as hosting a panel discussion on circular design. A bit further afield, at the maker-centric exhibition A New Normal, the “Dapple” chair, made from Smile's plastic product of the same name, epitomized plastic as a craft material; flecked like terrazzo in custom colors, recycled plastic may well rival jesmonite as the material du jour (see also: Dave Hakkens’ “Precious Plastic”; James Shaw's “Plastic Baroque”).
Beyond DIY aesthetics, the maker movement continues to hum along, like a [insert your machine tool of choice] in the workshop downstairs. A collaboration between RCA research group Distributed Everything and fab lab Machines Room, A New Normal posed the question “Who is making products for a world beyond mass-production?” In addition to Smile Plastics, the exhibition highlighted startups such as made-to-measure furniture service Kobble and open-source fashion platform Kniterate as exemplars of emerging business models for decentralized production.
For all of its near-future optimism, the exhibition guide for A New Normal—a skeuomorphic moleskine, each page a facsimile of a near-future diary — dated itself by the end of the week, when news broke that Transport for London had revoked Uber's license to operate in the UK capital. Ironically enough, the fictional protagonist of the journal, presumably an upstanding member of the sharing economy, mentions “passengers I was taxiing.” Thus, while Uber has appealed the decision, the announcement came as a timely reminder that the social, cultural, and economic impact of design often remains subject to legislation and policy. (Incidentally, I personally found the bikeshare to be the best way to get around London.)
Good Design Is...
Which brings us back to Papanek’s cause—and the fact that his outspoken position may well have been eroded if not altogether obsolesced by the neoliberal economic policies and globalization of manufacturing in the late 20th century. To that point, it was an exhibition not of new things but old ones that highlighted just how design speaks to higher principles: a selection of objects from Braun geek Tom Strong's personal collection. Easily a highlight of LDF, the Strong Collection made its debut in May at Vitsoe’s New York showroom, as part of NYCxDesign, before making its way to the company’s London flagship; after the exhibition ends on October 6, it will travel to its permanent location at the company headquarters at Royal Leamington Spa. More than a mere survey of products designed by the much-hagiographized Dieter Rams, these artifacts were actually used by Strong and his family for upwards of four decades and are still in remarkably good condition.
As Peter Kapos, director of Das Programm, noted in a panel discussion at the V&A, “there was a strong connection between the social orientation of Braun design [in the 1960's and] the rational relationship between the products that make up the program.” Taken as a whole, the collection presents a “utopian image,” one that represents “a kind of ideal social form of rational, law-governed, regular, conflict-free, harmonious society.”
Kapos relates the sentiment with an air of nostalgia for a bygone modernist era of such unbridled optimism. If that perspective was ambitious then, it seems altogether quaint now. After all, chairs and other products make up an infinitesimally small fraction of things in the real world. Down the hall from Hubert's presentations in “Design Frontiers,” Pentagram partner Domenic Lippa presented 250 Facts & Figures, a typographic tome of precisely that, as a comment on the greater social responsibility of graphic design.
Stripping the information down to black Caslon Pro bold text, Lippa's project is at once a provocative—and perhaps even imaginative and creative—critique of contemporary media as well as a refreshing sight amidst the visual overload of design week. Unsurprisingly, most of the factoids spell doom and gloom on a larger scale than Papanek himself would have dared to imagine, so we’ll end on a positive note: “78% of people feel happier when they see a stranger smile.”
Image at top: “Seating” by Soojin Kang, from Trade Show
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