How the London Design Biennale 2021 Proposes Answers for a Better World

Installation view of “Forest for Change”, The Global Goals Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
London Design Biennale 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of “Metronome” by Servaire&Co & Alter-Projects at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Latvia’s exhibit “Confession to an In3* writer” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Ghana’s exhibit “Amplify” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Finland’s exhibit “Empathy Echo Chamber” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Greece’s exhibit “Together” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Germany’s exhibit “Spoon Archaeology” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
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The moment you enter the central courtyard of Somerset House, the historic venue of the 3rd London Design Biennale, you encounter a flourishing woodland. Artistic director Es Devlin has placed sustainability literally centre stage through the curation of some 30 diverse exhibitors under the theme “Resonance”, which draws upon the premise “everything we design and everything we produce resonates”.

 

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of London Design Biennale

Es Devlin’s background is in stage design, with clients ranging from Kanye West to the Royal Shakespeare Company, so she knows how to set the stage and that’s exactly what the ”Forest for Change” does for the 3rd London Design Biennale (LDB). Occupying the courtyard of its venue, the stately Somerset House, are hundreds of plants including 23 species of trees, with a central clearing where the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are each explained on a coloured slab. These trees and slabs constitute the “Global Goals Pavilion”, the largest element of the biennale. Admittedly, shipping greenery in—and then out—for a temporary event could be dismissed as greenwashing, but every LDB tree, currently in a buried pot, has a guaranteed home in London after the Biennale is over. Until then, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful and direct statement for sustainability in the heart of London.

 

Installation view of “Forest for Change”, The Global Goals Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
London Design Biennale 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.

 

The other pavilions are in rooms inside the 18th century building, and not every participant directly addresses sustainability. Devlin’s overarching theme is “Resonance”, which is interpreted literally in Chile’s show, “Tectonic Resonances” by Macarena Irarrázaval, Sistema Simple Studio, Design Systems International and Valentina Aliaga. A selection of large stones from Chilean quarries make a resounding “bong!” when you hit them with a long lithophone stick. This drummer-like experience is strangely satisfying, and the idea is to connect us to the ancient stone technologies that mark the start of the Anthropocene. No less than two pavilions are centred on metronomes. Taiwan’s pavilion, “Swingphony” (curated by Bito) is beautifully lined with Chinese lanterns, and metronomes mark rhythm to a merry soundtrack to suggest collective resonance. Meanwhile “Metronome” is the name of an installation by Paris-based trans-sensory designers Servaire & Co and London-based curators Alter-Projects, in which a giant metronome is dispersing evocative natural smells into the room. It’s a shame that compulsory wearing of face masks may mean not all pick up the scent.

 

Installation view of “Metronome” by Servaire&Co & Alter-Projects at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Latvia’s exhibit “Confession to an In3* writer” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.

 

Japan’s “Reinventing Texture” is based on designer Toshiki Hirano’s exploration into the textures of urban objects in Tokyo, from vending machines to high-rise buildings conducted during lockdown. In the LDB installation, Hirano’s digital scans of various surfaces are presented in a 3D montage made of traditional Washi paper. Despite its high-res data source, the projected colours reveals the montage’s objects as if they’re rendered in watercolours, which is the effect Hirano sought after. Finland offers the “Empathy Echo Chamber” by Enni-Kukka Tuomala, an inflatable bubble into which two people can enter and spend two minutes staring at each other in silence before talking is allowed. Depending on the company, this futuristic isolation space may not generate empathy, but it’s an extraordinary experience. Distinctly low-tech is Latvia’s mysteriously-titled “Confession to an In3* Writer”, curated by Latvian Literature Platform. A distinctly early 20th century-style horn invites you to speak a question into it. A WAIT notice pops up, then a paper slip printed with a Latvian literary quote comes out. Walk around the structure and you’ll find that at the back is a woman at a desk silently handling the questions. The whole experience is surreal, almost like being in a painting by Magritte, and it’s perhaps the most charming presentation in the whole biennale.

Nonetheless LDB is not short on memorable experiences. In the black room of “Together” by Greece’s HRH Prince Nikolaos, you will find two olive trees photographed and glowing on one wall. It is powerful and mesmerising. You will feel the warmth and craftsmanship of Ghana’s “Amplify” by textile designer Chrissa Amuah and architect Alice Asafu-Adjaye, comprised of a wall of metal disks each worked with African patterns. Or you may find yourself shovelling sand in the “Sandtable” room, curated by Hong Kong Design History Network, while you wonder how it connects with its background story of two British sailors shown around Hong Kong island two centuries ago by the legendary Ah Kwan.

 

Installation view of Ghana’s exhibit “Amplify” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Finland’s exhibit “Empathy Echo Chamber” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Greece’s exhibit “Together” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.
Installation view of Germany’s exhibit “Spoon Archaeology” at the London Design Biennale 2021, Somerset House, London, 2021. Photo by: Ed Reeve. Image courtesy of London Design Biennale.

 

But what about that thread of sustainability? There’s plenty. No less than 300 ideas for a sustainable future, selected from submissions from over 50 countries, are presented in a dense section called “Design in the Age of Crisis”, which could take hours to study if one felt inclined to. In “Small is Beautiful”, Bengaluru-based architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh has gathered examples of projects that collectively aspire towards an “ecologically resilient India”. Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis prevented the shipment of its centrepiece, a machine to harvest wind with dyed bamboo feather-like blades, but the pavilion remains inspiring.

Issues of sustainability are everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. For example, “Spoon Archeology” by German designers Peter Eckart and Kai Linke, is an examination of personal disposable food transfer tools, starting with banana leaves, and a field of vitrines displaying wasteful single-use cutlery is beautiful. The work is timely, as the EU will soon ban plastic cutlery in July. Poland’s “The Clothed Home: Tuning In to the Seasonal Imagination”, conceived by Warsaw-based architects Centrala, shows artisan textiles which moderate home temperature all year round, creating interiors less dependent on heating and cooling systems. Such mechanical systems are the subject of Canada’s “DUCkT” by Revery Architecture, in which two shiny pipes crossing the way from wall to wall are so large you have to duck under them. The question Revery asks is, “How much are we willing to bend to the increasing demands of heating and cooling systems in buildings?”

LDB has a randomness about it, the capacity to surprise both visually and conceptually. Often, it’s the pavilions with the minimum words and graphics, such as the Greek, Finnish and Canadian ones, which leave the greatest impression. LDB’s branding asks the question “Can we design a better world?”, and at Somerset House there plenty of ideas that suggest we can.

 

London Design Biennale 2021
1 – 27 June 2021
Somerset House, London

 

 

 
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