Eclectic collection of design projects at London Design Biennale

37 design visions on utopia

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While the Lebanese contribution to the first London Design Biennale was awarded the medal for best entry, the entry from France was certainly the most moving; and the Dutch among the most incomprehensible.

Utopia by Design was the theme for this first London Design Biennale, which ends tomorrow, presenting mostly newly commissioned works from 37 countries, curated by leading museums and design organisations in each them. Set in Somerset House in the centre of London the exhibition explored ‘big questions and ideas about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities, and social equality.’

Some countries used the opportunity for straightforward self-promotion (India), while for instance The Netherlands contributed a highly cerebral, inward looking installation by Studio Makkink & Bey administered by Het Nieuwe Instituut.

The sound of sweets

Much more impressive was the contribution from France, consisting of a film made by design critic and exhibition maker Benjamin Loyauté, called le bruit des bonbons — The Astounding Eyes of Syria. The film collects sweet memories of Syrian refugees of their beloved country by taking a local candy as metaphor. The stories of refugees are intertwined by images of the factory where the sweets are made. In London, visitors could buy packets of the candies from a vending machine, the proceeds of which will be used to help educate children of displaced families and refugees.

Several countries did relate to the Utopia theme – chosen to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia – by showing design projects for a better world. Israel presented Yaniv Kadosh’s AIDrop, a first-aid distribution system that employs self-rotating units to drop 3kg cartons of supplies over disaster zones, and Sharona Merlin’s Louder, an installation of that translates sounds into visual textures and floor vibrations for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Designer Brodie Neill represented Australia with a project to raise awareness for plastic pollution of the oceans. Using small plastic particles harvested from the ocean, Neill produced a terrazzo-like composite for a large Gyro table.

Fragile balance

Both Croatia and Sweden approached the theme by stressing the values of collectivity, while Austrian mischer’traxler studio produced a more poetic reflection of ‘the fragile balance of utopia’ with their beautiful kinetic light sculpture LeveL. A large mobile of connected lights, illuminates the room at its brightest when it is perfectly still, but the slightest movement of air sets the thing in motion, which makes the lights dim.

An impressive digital presentation from Mexico elaborates on the idea of creating a newly built Border City right on the border of the US and Mexico. This integrated masterplan by Fernando Romero ‘is conducive to both sides of the border, drawing upon industrial, employment and trade opportunities, while recognising shortcomings in urban planning.’

However, a jury of twelve leading creative experts including WDCD alumni Paola Anonelli, Adelia Borges and Paula Scher decided to award the first London Design Biennale Medal to the Lebanes contribution, a recreation of a Beirut street ‘celebrating utopia through the everyday designs’ of street vendors and local craftsmen of Lebanon. A majestic installation indeed, celebrating the design ingenuity of ordinary people. But somehow I couldn’t suppress the idea that there is something cynical in presenting such vernacular design as a utopian world at a highbrow design exhibition.

Top image: a slice of Beirut’s street life (all images by Ed Reeve for London Design Biennale)

Still from le bruit des bonbons — The Astounding Eyes of Syria by Benjamin Loyauté

Still from le bruit des bonbons — The Astounding Eyes of Syria by Benjamin Loyauté

Level by mischer'traxler studio from Austria

Level by mischer'traxler studio from Austria

Louder by Sharona Merlin (Israel) helps the deaf experience music

Louder by Sharona Merlin (Israel) helps the deaf experience music

AIDrop by Yaniv Kadosh isa self-rotating device for first aid droppings

AIDrop by Yaniv Kadosh isa self-rotating device for first aid droppings

Recycled plastics table from Brodie Neill (Australia)

Recycled plastics table from Brodie Neill (Australia)

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