Friday, 19 December 2014
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Capital haunts

Do you know, I think this is just about the best tenner’s worth available in design right now. Max Fraser’s London Design Guide is detailed, catholic in its tastes, properly designed in itself, well written, undoubtedly a labour of love…. shall I go on?

This is surely the definitive guide to (broadly) retail design in the capital. Fraser does not bother us with insider detail on closed-door London-based designers’ studios or appointment-only emporia. He sticks to those places where the public can go to buy - or, in the case of museums and galleries, look at - the best in contemporary design and design media. It’s divided up into ten design districts - Notting Hill, Clerkenwell, Soho, Islington and so on - plus Elsewhere for further-flung examples.

Every section (apart from Elsewhere) also features a walking guide to the district by a design-industry local plus guest comments - short essays - on one of several unrelated, but salient topics by a thoroughly knowledgeable roster of other contributors, including Fraser himself. And I’m not just saying that because one of them happens to be Lynda Relph-Knight, editor of Design Week. This book is that rare thing: a true ensemble effort with a strong sense of purpose.

You want more? You get not just the design outlets, but also a selection of the best places to eat, drink, shop and stay, district by district. I’ve tried to catch it out, but it’s not easy. You’ll find there’s the odd good pub and restaurant they overlook, but this isn’t a comprehensive foodie guide, it’s just making your ramblings more pleasant by steering you towards the key watering holes. There’s life outside design, it’s saying, and it’s called London. In its way, this book is as much a celebration of Londonness as it is a directory of design-related places to go. Though that aspect really is comprehensive.

Possibly the concluding section on ‘design tribes’ is less essential. Here you get what’s pleasingly absent from the rest of the book: isms. The five tribes so identified - by excellent design journalists over many a bottle of wine, Fraser admits - are New Modernists, Escapists, Reactivists, Digitalists and Revivalists. Uh - OK, but you could come up with any number of others that would be just as plausible, surely? This is the only part of the book where I sensed a slight loss of focus. An impossible task, bravely attempted.

I tut loudly at the use of ‘vibrant’ in the back cover blurb. For me that’s a banned, degraded word, like ‘vision’. But I really am getting picky now. In almost every respect this is an excellent book. It looks somehow effortless, but it most certainly isn’t, it’s the product of a massive amount of work and dedication. Best of all, it has avoided tricksiness in its own design, so let’s name the designers: Richard Ardagh of Elephantsgraveyard.co.uk for the body of the book, and a collaborative cover design by Alistair Hall, David Pearson and Paul Finn.

It’s a thread-sewn paperback, made for thumbing, with maps you can understand, good typography, a proper index, top-notch contributors, and a list of design media resources - really, it’s a joy. It’s stuffed with places I know are good, and places I know absolutely nothing about and now badly want to seek out. It’s produced by enthusiasts for everyone - there’s hardly a trace of design-geekery. All in all, this is a thoroughly admirable enterprise. It deserves to be bought in bulk and to justify its ambition to be updated annually. If there’s any justice, Fraser has got himself a job for life.

London Design Guide, edited by Max Fraser, is published by Spotlight Press later this month, priced £10

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