Holly Allen Cooper had brought a little bit of New York City river mud to the opening yesterday of the London Design Festival’s independent-designer showcase, The Tent. “It’s not like I have to go in with waders on,” said Cooper, who collects washed-up slabs from the Brooklyn shoreline and uses them in the decorative panels that she’d paired with her intricately formed, brass-and-steel miniature axes, hammers and other hardware. Tent was the right place for offbeat work like hers—“not big corporate names,” as Cooper observed, most of the exhibitors being under 30, under-slept and over-caffeinated.
Together with the adjoining the Super Brands preview, Tent was arguably LDF’s most vital and diverse function of the week, with a heady mix of nationally-themed presenters (fine porcelain work from Poland’s Culture.pl group, new furniture from southern Italy courtesy of the Italian Trade Agency) and student work that ventured into conceptual territory (Denmark’s KADK NOW! show, where “if you look close enough, you might find a chair,” quipped a representative from the Danish Embassy). All of Thursday’s debuts, in fact, showed a more adventurous side of the festival: at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a series of temporary pieces created for LDF filled the grand galleries of the building with experimental pieces like Kim Thomé’s looming Zotem, a 60-foot shaft rising through two floors of the vestibule. “I wanted it be an exploration of the museum’s architecture,” explained the designer; uncanny as the Swarovski jewel-incrusted monoligth was, it seemed oddly at home there, a contemporary cousin to the nearby replica of Trajan’s Column.
Getting a little dose of the speculative and the architectural was a refreshing tonic to cap off the week. Even the best design shows are, after all, mostly just one chair after another, and the visitors who hauls themselves exhaustedly from event to event face the added frustration that most of these chairs are not really supposed to be sat upon. (A special thanks to Vancouver-based Molo, whose recycled-paper banquettes are as comfortable as they are ingenious.) At an event on Monday, Sunday Times architecture critic Hugh Pearman admitted, “I don’t really do LDF”: the frenzied rush of this sort of design programming is not for everyone. And on a week where bigger debates about the future of design in the city were making headlines—in particular Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed $265 million Garden Bridge—sometimes the fair’s fare could seem, well, square.
But there were always moments that reminded one what the stakes really are in contemporary design. Earlier in the week, a screening of a short documentary feature called Inclusive highlighted the ways that digital designers are not only finding new ways to reach the disabled, but importing those techniques back into the tech field at large to help fuel innovation. For a few days out of the year, an event like LDF can make it seem like designers are almost everywhere. But all it really does is remind us that they already are.