Each year the London Design Festival takes place, a citywide event that runs for around 9 days every September. Conceived in 2003, the concept of the annual event was to promote the creativity of the city by drawing in the country’s designers, practitioners, thinkers, retailers and educators to deliver a diverse span of design.
The programme for the festival is vast, each year has around 400 events and exhibitions staged by over 300 partner organisations from around the world as well as the festival itself commissioning multiple projects.
It is as much a commercial event as it is a cultural event which is apparent in the spectrum of work; from major international exhibitions and installations to important trade events and product launches to smaller private views and parties. Despite this level of commercialisation the majority of the events are free, enabling visitors to participate, engage and learn but also with the intention of purchasing.
The 2017 edition was my first experience of the festival first-hand, I happened to be in London when it was taking place — there for the final weekend; me and my girlfriend tried to see as much stuff as we could in the small time-frame in which we had — feel like we succeeded despite a few failures, set-backs and getting lost. Here I can share some of my experiences of what we saw — a small (but well curated) selection of the festival’s events — in chronological order with a little history and context.
Our first venture out was to London Bridge and on to Bermondsey to the Ground Floor Space: a gallery owned and ran by dn&co for an exhibition of the work by German graphic designer Otl Aicher. It’s not unfair to say that Aicher is best known for his work for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich for which he designed the identity and pictograms a perfect example of his structural visual systems and typography. The pictogram system developed here has since become the standard throughout the world.
As well as this, he helped the found of the Hochschule für Gestating Ulm/Ulm School of Design (HfG) in 1953 with Inge Scholl and Max Bill. A highly influential school, based somewhat on the principles of the Bauhaus, where he and his students were involved in iconic identity projects such as Braun and Lufthansa whilst being taught by the likes of Josef Müller-Brockmann, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Charles and Ray Eames, Herbert Bayer and many more industry leading figures of the time.
This exhibition however uncovers a body of work by Aicher that shows how ahead of his time he really was. 40 years ago the small town in southern Germany, Isny, approached the graphic designer to create a graphic identity for their tourist board in which Aicher replied with 128 monochrome pictograms. Patrick Eley (the creative director of dn&co) considers the work to be miles ahead of its time and decided to show this work at the Design Festival.
Aicher’s identity pushed the boundaries of how a small town could represent itself through design 40 years ago by using abstract iconography and pictograms to illustrate aspects of town life. The icons could be combined and rearranged allowing the town to depict a range of narratives through images of forests, sports, animals, churches and foods. I loved the stark contrast of the black and white and the reduction to simplicity but also (surprisingly for me, a man of order and OCD) the variety of styles used across the pictograms; it adds to the idea of the town being diverse and different.
Despite all the nice words here, Aicher’s branding programme wasn’t accepted in the town and after 10 years there was an outcry from people within the town who felt they didn’t identify with the black and white portrayal. Surrounding towns were all employing identical tourism campaigns — blue skies and the Alpine idea so the Isny system was pulled in favour of something more generic; but lately the town has been reintroducing and embracing Aicher’s work.
Next on the list was less of a design exhibition and more of an experience exhibition: London in Seven Scents, a curated selection and olfactory map of London.
Scent is known as possibly the most powerful sense known to man as it can instantly alert you of something, it can disgust you and transport you around the world.
It took place at the BEAST shop in the Seven Dials.
Nirvana Creative Production House collaborated with Amy Radcliffe and International Flavours and Fragrances whose research explores in situ scent capture, also known as Scentography. The exhibition invited you to smell 7 individual vials, and along with a visual prompt, decipher from where the scent is from in London.
A difficult exhibition for me as I don’t know London that well, especially not its smells, but we were in the space with 2 very ‘London people’ who were arguing between themselves the whereabouts of the scents. One that smelt distinctly of paint and oils: “Yeah that’s definitely the RCA, it smells just like it!”, “No it’s not, that’s the Goldsmiths college are you stupid?”. My girlfriend and I were flummoxed by their conversation and the smell of this one although we were able to work out a strong coal smell to be Battersea Power Station which we were pleased with ourselves for.
It was a unique experience and something that I would never have thought of as ‘design’ before but the perfumes and fragrances had been ‘designed’ to be reminant of each location — wherever it may be.
Finally on Saturday amongst other things (not going to the V&A because of a huge queue, seeing the latest Serpentine Pavillion, plenty of shopping around Covent Garden) we made it to the Wellcome Collection for their exhibition that was opening as part of the festival: ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’.
Taking place at the Wellcome Collection, a museum focusing on medical history and antiquities, the exhibition explored the role that graphic design plays in saving peoples lives in terms of medical education, hospital designs, medical packaging, making people aware of diseases and more. I chose to cover this exhibition in its own writeup since it was such a wealth of information and content with over 200 individual pieces exhibited spanning decades of work, styles and designers.
What did stick with me was the smart layout of the exhibition space itself; each section was designed specifically for the content in which it was displaying. The section for cigarettes was a single row — like a cigarette, education — a question mark for learning, hospitalisation — a ‘H’ made from traditional hospital screens, medication — a ‘+’ symbol to reference packaging symbols, contagion — a triangle to reference danger and provocation — a ‘!’ symbol to show action. The exhibition was not directly a part of the London Design Festival but it opened around the same time and therefore was included in the catalogue.
On Sunday we had planned to go to the Barbican for the new Basquiat exhibition (which also deserves its own writeup) before heading to one of the ‘landmark projects’ of the festival, the Villa Walala by the artist Camille Walala. This was a giant inflatable castle situated behind Liverpool Street underground station with the idea to help city workers de-stress.
The location, Broadgate’s Exchange Square is a popular place for commuters and city workers to relax at lunch time, or to just walk past during their commute. Walala’s aim was to inject some fun into these peoples lives.
I just imagined people working in the city maybe they are a bit stressed so the idea was to do something where they can just come and hang out.
Walala’s design is reminiscent of a children’s bouncy castle although it doesn’t have a base to bounce on, instead visitors are invited to walk through the arches and touch, hear and smell the inflatable soft shapes. The structure uses Walala’s distinct style of decoration through geometric shapes, circles, stripes and colour blocks; not only is the structure itself decorated like this but the entire square area is covered with vinyl patterns (1200 sqm to be precise).
We embraced the artist’s idea and ate our lunch here, admiring the bold patterns and watching multiple children run into the bouncy structure, we both thought it was a nice way to decorate a usually drab and grey square despite it only being a temporary structure it was a great initiative. I am a fan of when artists embrace these graphic shapes in their work; similar artists like Sol Lewitt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and somewhat, Josef Albers. They proved that art doesn’t have to be painted fancifully or traditionally, it can be graphic and bold through simple shapes.
Next we ventured onwards to Clerkenwell in London and to the stationery store, Present & Correct for their small exhibition: Cliptomania (no relation to Kleptomania). This exhibition was a typology of 150 clips “a gripping celebration of form and function”. This was an interesting but slightly disappointing part of the festival, a nice idea but it was in the middle of nowhere and the actual display was tiny.
Despite this, the stationery store was fascinating, never had I thought there would be a market for bespoke and artisan paper clips as well as a big collection of ‘vintage clips’.
I knew paper clips could be different from the standard office paper clips but I didn’t think they could or would be as intricate as some for sale here.
I probably wouldn’t go back there again as I have no need for fancy paper clips but for a certain person I’m sure it’s a gold mine.
Our final destination was Devonshire House for the ‘Letterform Archive: Graphic Design Process’ pop-up exhibition. This was a really exciting exhibition that covered a range of typographic archival ephemera of not nicely finished products but sketches, paste-ups and mock-ups of typography: the process work, which is incredibly important and often goes un-seen.
The Letterform Archive is a San Francisco based organisation that promotes and celebrates typography and lettering, this exhibition for the design festival is the first UK exhibition of the organisation’s archive.
The example that stood out for me here, by a mile, was a small selection of work by the type foundry: Emigre. Emigre magazine was published 69 times from 1984 to 2005. It was one of the first publications to use Macintosh computers, Emigre influenced the move towards desktop publishing within the graphic design community. One of our tutors at university would often show us his copies of Emigre that inspired us massively, exploring the classic example of how type can be used as image.
Overall the London Design Festival 2017 was a good experience, I’m glad I was in London whilst it was on and I was able to experience what was on show.
It is very different however to the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven; in that London is much bigger than Eindhoven so you can’t experience everything unless you go to everyday, its impossible to see it all.
I also feel like the London Design Festival was more about money, selling and sponsors as opposed to celebrating art and design – I didn’t feel a personal connection to any real artists or designers; they were all just nice. Either way it was a good experience and I’m sure I will visit again.