By Ian David Volner
September 23, 2015
Mark Cocksedge / Swarovski

Tel Aviv-born, Parisian-based designer Arik Levy was at a luncheon in the dowdy-chic restaurant of Somerset House, fending off meat dishes from the solicitous wait staff—“I don’t eat anything with eyes”—and mulling the relative situation of London in the global design landscape. LA’s great, but literal: “I’m friends with the people who did [recently-opened downtown gallery] Do Not Enter,” he said. “UPS kept saying they couldn’t get in.” New York? Also great, but the city’s design week is “bellybutton.” The word had probably never been used as an adjective before, but everyone knew exactly what he meant.

London’s design scene is definitely not bellybutton. The meagerness and insularity of Manhattan’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair; the hector and blur of Milan in April; the pervasive meh­-ness of Paris’ diluted design schedule: London has the drop on all these, with a thriving local design culture, proximity to European buyers, and a merciful sense of logistics among the participants during the yearly London Design Festival (LDF), going on now through the end of the week.

Luke Hayes / Hem Pop-Up

As proof, yesterday saw a convenient concentration of events in and around the central Strand, with Somerset House as the main venue. Levy was one member of a ten-designer showcase appearing in the stately 18th-century complex, alongside local heroes (and this year’s LDF Design Award winners) Barber Osgerby as well as Santa Barbara-based Alex Rasmussen, whose big blue sheet-metal installation brought a bit of the beach to a very rainy day in London. Admitting his debt to finish-fetish artists of the SoCal school—“Ken Price, Peter Alexander, if you know those guys”—Rasmussen nervously inspected the shimmering azure floor for any dings or screktches, as visitors ritually de-shod themselves at the door.

On the opposite end of the artificiality spectrum, designer Max Lamb had filled a cavernous vault downstairs with the dissected remains of a once-towering tree removed from his grandfather’s farm in northern England. Cut into sections, the unvarnished remains of the half-rotted ash were transformed into pretty much whatever one wanted them to be. “This could be a coffee table,” said Lamb, “this could be a side table. This could be a children’s cave.” The family back-story gave the installation a whiff of personal archaeology—though sometimes a stump is just a stump. “They’re first and foremost logs,” said Lamb.

The evening action comprised a party at nearby design retailer Aram, a jam-packed cocktail function back at Somerset, and—a little further afield—an event hosted by Wallpaper* in the sales office of a giant new development in the city’s Docklands section. The twin-towered Wardian is the latest project from the team behind the dramatic suspended-swimming-pool-in-the-sky building that lit up the UK media when it was unveiled last month. Both projects certainly suggest that London’s designers have the city looking up. Could that be the opposite of “bellybutton”?