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London Design Festival 2016 Review

The annual week-long showcase of London’s lauded pool of design talent revealed works utilising cutting-edge technology, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.  We attended discussion panels, masterclasses and presentations on topics ranging from architecture and furniture design for small, urban spaces to a hybrid of Swedish and British avant-gardism. In somewhat of a juxtaposition, the swing from practicality and functionality all the way to pure art form and avant-garde aesthetics showed the London Design Festival spanned the spectrum of design.

MADE.COM: Designing for Small, Urban Spaces, Panel Discussion

The panel discussion was facilitated by Suzanne Imre, Editor in Chief at Livingetc magazine and Ruth Wassermann, Head of Design at MADE.COM, Jo McCafferty, Director at Levitt Bernstein, and Jesper Henriksson, Co-Founder of Hesselbrand joined in for a conversation surrounding the challenges facing urban dwellings and design for the space-hungry.  Both architects on the panel, the speakers from Levitt Bernstein and Hesselbrand, were proponents of shared spaces and the flexible model for housing, elaborated on the benefits of multi-use spaces, the importance of proportions within the home, and materiality.

The panel addressed architectural, planning and design concepts for urban dwellers, constantly seeking ways to make the most of every square meter, visual cues to trick the eye, the interaction of elements and colours, and more sustainable solutions such as integrating storage cleverly throughout the home.  More broadly, questions were raised such as ‘How do we combat the housing crisis?’ and ‘How do high-rise residential buildings alter our relationship with the city?’.  In contrast with other cosmopolitan cities, London’s general building topography is somewhat more low-lying compared to that of New York’s imposing vertical presence.

The main theme from this discussion touched on the democratic nature of design and its paradoxical ability to simultaneously unite people while also carve out personalised space in an increasingly crowded environment.  Interestingly, the denser the population, the harder it is to reach out and connect to one another. Could the solution to limited space be a sharing economy? The success of Airbnb, WeWork and RelayRides facilitate sharing through business, but communal spaces such as gardens or common rooms could also help mend fragmented communities.  Past, present, and future innovative design solutions have helped and will help millions of people make a home in a metropolis.

Masterclass with Fredrikson Stallard: The Inevitability of Design

“Design has a client; art has a patron.”  In contrast to the concepts of design utilised by and made for the masses discussed by the MADE.COM panel, Fredrikson Stallard does not design for the public at large.  Their pieces are limited edition, created from complex processes by skilled craftsmen, and admittedly, too unusual for the common taste. They described it as “selfish design” in that they singularly focus on the form rather than the consumer; not out of haughtiness, but out of an intense focus on and respect for the form. Their furniture designs are art; their sofas are sculptural; their vases, chandeliers, and coffee tables are elegant, exciting, and distinct.

Designers Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard are the Swedish and British duo behind the designs.  Their partnership is largely a success due to their similar instincts and their symbiotic relationship; Ian is the heart, utilising his background in ceramics, he counter’s Patrik’s exactitude with a messiness and honours the human touch throughout the process of making, whereas Patrik is the mind, with a background in product design, he brings a sense of precision and architectural exactness to the projects.  As evidenced in their Species series, they push the established boundaries in what’s considered the norm in furniture design, delighting with their contradictory utilisation of a uniquely comprised material constructed through a process of ‘brute force’ which in the end, is just a comfy sofa.  The King Bonk armchair and ottoman also show off their style, evidenced in their unique way of working.  The story of how this design came about is just as fascinating as the finished product: they tied elastic bands around a bathroom sponge to extract the distorted shape.  The highlight is the human touch and craft inherent in the process.

Masterclass with Alison Brooks Architects: The Smile

The Smile is the landmark project for this year’s London Design Festival.  A feat in structural engineering and architecture, The Smile demonstrates the potential of cross-laminated timber (CLT), and is the largest structure in existence of tulipwood CLT. The structure is a four-sided tube that curves upwards towards the sky with open ends that act as viewing platforms and allow for sunlight to spill down onto the curved floor.  This pavilion demanded such precision in its engineering due to the physical forces on the cantilevered design.

The client, The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), wanted to show off the possibilities of working with timber and Alison Brooks Architects was the firm to deliver a project with a structure so advanced, yet simple in its display.  Intended to show off the possibilities of working with timber, it is a culmination of a decade’s research into ‘structural timber innovations’ conducted by the AHEC and Brooks’ design “[stretches] the material to the limit.” Part of what Brooks calls a “timber revolution”, the benefits of the cross-laminated material are what allowed Brooks to push the boundaries in utilising timber; it’s incredibly strong and light as tiny slabs are glued together in a perpendicular arrangement, resulting in large panels.

It’s a segment of a 100m diameter circle which looks like a giant see-saw.  Part of the awe of The Smile is the complex engineering required in constructing such a design for the public. Keeping the pavilion from tilting to either side, as each end is suspended 3 metres above the ground, is a foundation anchored by 20 tonnes of steel.  Another advantage to using CLT is that it can be ‘machined’ or cut by computer-operated mechanics, creating pre-fabricated elements prior to reaching building sites, making the pieces easy to assemble on-site and hassle-free.  Once assembled, windows were added close to the open ends and dissipate the closer to the centre where greater amounts of stress are placed on the timber due to the laws of gravity, wind force, and weight of visitors.

Finally, in addition to the multiplicity of challenges facing this unique pavilion, Brooks succeeded in making The Smile a playful space, which at face value looks unassumingly simple.   The title not only alludes to the emotive aspect of her design but also is what she hopes people feel when experiencing her landmark at this year’s London Design Festival.



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