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September 25, 2015

Why is London so unlike any other Western city? From Moscow to Manhattan, the pattern is strikingly similar: tight pre-modern core, rational 19th-century outgrowth, technocratic 20th-century interventions. London, however, is pretty much all the first, with odd chunks of the others tossed higgledy-piggledy throughout. Getting lost is easy, and covering large distances at speed is nigh on impossible.

Good thing, then, that the London Design Festival follows such a handy neighborhood-by-neighborhood schedule. Tuesday the focus was on the Shoreditch area, with its highly walk-able side lanes and bustling high street. In the old Rochelle School, the Irish Design Council sponsored a group exhibition on the theme of souvenirs: designers produced tongue-in-cheek yet evocative meditations on national trinket culture, including Makers & Brothers’ gold-plated potato and Tom dePoar’s petrified peat figurines.

Upstairs, Brixton-based outfit Pinch—who’ve risen to quasi-cult status on the strength of their washed-out-nostalgic wooden furniture—showed a different side of the practice, debuting a big fat millstone of a table called NIM. “In some respects it does seem like a departure,” said Russell Pinch, who runs the office with wife Oona Bannon. “But for us it feels quite natural. We’ve always just chosen the material that worked for whatever we were designing.” The mottled sides of the piece looks make it look as though were fashioned from a rough husk of quartz; it’s actually jesmonite, a material that might be described as cement with a Cambridge degree.

The English atmosphere has a way of affecting one’s perception of the work on view in London, especially that of familiar designers. Designer’s Lee Broom’s Flower Shop, a boutique-sized installation of his finely foppish work, wasn’t too far a cry from a similar meta-retail environment he set up during Milan Salone in April. “I wanted it to be like an oasis from all the insanity,” said Broom; in London, however, the subdued gray walls and abundant floral arrangements seemed almost an extension of the London landscape, with its manicured garden squares under gun-metal skies.

“It’s certainly a bit more slick here,” said Jasper Morrison, standing in the basement showroom of retailer Atrium. Superloon, his latest standing lamp for lighting specialists Flos, had its first public outing in an Italian palazzo last spring; in its current, more reserved London setting, the slender tripod with its searchlight-head looked less glam, more poise. Also launching a new product at LDF under his Punkt brand (the retro-techno DP01 phone, with no functionality except for calls and texts), Morrison was charmingly diffident as he stared into his cell (a standard iPhone 5, notably). “I think it would look just as good in castle,” he said, looking back to his lamp and its swishy surrounds. “In fact it might look better.”

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