The first edition of the London Design Biennial brought together explorative concepts of work around a single topic: Utopia by Design.
Set within Somerset House, there were an array of pavilions holding work curated by leading museums and design organisations around the world.
The Biennale asked big questions around sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities and social equality. This was represented by various pieces of work, some conceptual and some commissioned pieces. It invited guests to become part of an immersive, fragmented world.
The exhibition by Norway featured inclusive and sustainable economic designs, which permeated business and art to deliver something that’s economically viable and useful. I've recently stayed in Bergen and Oslo, and I really felt the people-first design. It’s recognised as one of the happiest populations on the planet, and with this kind of design thinking, it seems that’s no accident.
Not all of the ambitious installations defined a clear solution to a problem such as Norway; there was plenty of work that addressed questions where perhaps currently, no answer exists. But it managed to start a provocative conversation, thinking through conceptual and abstract ideas to try and encourage a fresh perspective on old issues.
Out of the 37 installations, there were some personal highlights, which I wanted to share.
Reaching for Utopia — Inclusive Design in Practice.
The Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture’s installation was comprised of projects that demonstrate how Norway’s people-centric approach to design permeates business and society. The work shown in the exhibition was all picked from the public sector across a wide range of disciplines and represented the accessible Scandinavian design at its best.
This installation was impressive, in thinking and in execution: immersive LED walls around a projection-mapped centrepiece presented a fascinating vision for a bi-national city on one of the world’s most important borders, USA and Mexico. The urban prototype consisted of a hexagonal plan, which might offer a new model for cities globally as populations grow, migration increases, and economies continue to globalise.
The concept is rooted in the long history of places where frontiers meet, where cultures both clash and blend. This integrated masterplan is conducive to both sides, drawing upon industrial, employment and trade opportunities while recognising shortcomings in urban planning.
Again, one of the most visually striking installations (says a lot about my attention span) was Indonesia’s Freedome, Inspired by the spirit of world peace and co-operation from the 1955 Asian-African conference where …
The dome itself has a floating bowl at its peak, seemingly defying gravity, hovering over the dome to suggest an ‘open satellite’, a hub free of political standpoints and territorial boundaries.
Welcome to Weden.
I love this sentiment personally - starting with the name, all the way through to the idea and execution. The name emphasises the ‘we’ in Sweden, and points towards a more inclusive future society — a ‘wetopia’, in case you were confused.
The Embassy of Sweden brought together 15 pairs of manufacturers and designers to present ‘Welcome to Weden’, which promotes the strength of collaboration and the influence collective input has on design. The participating pairs worked with one another to produce items and object on 'more equal terms' and the installation showcased the future-thinking results of the collaborations.
The design projects were smaller scale and non-hierarchical local productions, with room for the artistic process. With collaborative design, all involved share the rewards as well as the risks. It presents an intriguing counter-strategy to the existing model of unethical, large-scale mass production.
Le bruit des bonbons
The French pavilion took a unique position on what Utopia looks like. It’s not so much a Utopia but a kind of 'other space'.
Benjamin Loyaute visited displaced Syrians and refugees to produce a moving film that tells the tragedy of the war and the memories that survive. It’s a haunting film where families share fond memories of sweets when they were at home and at peace, a part of daily life once taken for granted.
For Syrians, the sweet becomes a sculpture which they can buy, take home and keep. In a small way, they help to ease the tragedy that is Syria and thus, the sweet becomes art with a purpose. Loyaute calls it ‘semantic design’.
'We can destroy people or buildings but we cannot destroy this collective memory'.
VRPolis, Diving into the Future
A commissioned work for the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, VRPolis dived straight into the future, inviting me to take a step inside the ‘smart-city’ which we can expect to see 100 years from now. I was most excited for this installation and plugging myself into an HTC Vive to explore the opportunities of a city fused by innovative technologies.
Unfortunately, I left unsatisfied. While the interactive world was enjoyable and exciting, the ‘nodes’ I visited were less than imaginative, a ‘smart-bin’ that opens its lid for you, holograph-esque basketball hoops built over contained water and ‘smart-trees’? I hope it’s my ignorance but I left with a lot of questions unanswered which begun with both ‘why’ and ‘what if’?
Top marks for technology, however, the vision left a lot for the imagination, literally. If the Spanish Ministry happens to read this, I'd love to be invited to the next creative planning session.
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