Design Week’s guide to London Design Biennale 2021

Initially postponed last year due to the pandemic, the month-long event is returning to the capital in June – here’s what we think you need to see.

From 1 June, designers from around the world will descend on the capital for the London Design Biennale, hosted at Somerset House.

Festivities come a year later than planned, with the event postponed in 2020 because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

However, the biennale’s offering is now set to open from next month, with those involved responding to artistic director Es Devlin’s theme of “resonance”. Here are the pavilions, exhibitions and installations we think are not to be missed.

© Ben Cullen Williams

Pavilion: Antarctica

Highlighting the “peril of our global icecaps”, the Antarctica pavilion has been spearheaded by installation artist and designer Ben Cullen Williams.

Williams’ installation, Cold Flux, is an immersive AI generated video made up on three screens, which has been created from footage he filmed while on an expedition to Antarctica. The video features the Larsen-B ice shelf, which splintered off from the Antarctic peninsula in 2002 and has been disintegrating ever since.

The footage has been manipulated in collaboration with creative technologist Bryce Cronkite-Ratcliff. Cronkite-Ratcliff has trained machine learning algorithms to generate the video landscapes found in the pavilion, which “seemingly exists within a state of melting and freezing, forming and un-forming”. The experience is accompanied by a “haunting” audio track from British musician Gaika.

© Helena Reinsch

Pavilion: Germany

Since the beginning of this year, disposable plastic cutlery has been banned in the European Union. The single-use utensils, much like straws, have become a symbol for the need to rethink our behaviour in the fight against pollution and climate crisis.

Germany’s pavilion, designed by Peter Eckart and Kai Linke, will chart the aesthetic and functional history of disposable cutlery. Spoon Archaeology is a multimedia installation which will stage a curated collection of the utensils as “artefacts, design curiosities and anthropological witnesses of an era that is about to end”.

The installation will encourage visitors to interrogate the “cultural heritage of the past and present”, since the objects ultimately represent “centuries” of history as well as “today’s throwaway society”. It will invite them to think up new, more sustainable solutions to disposable utensils. Alongside the artefacts themselves, visitors will be greeted with videos in a loop, a double-sided poster and a website offering further information.

© Ini Archibong and drafted by Ebony Lerandy of L.M.N.O

Outdoor pavilion: Pavilion of the African Diaspora (PoAD)

Born from “the need for a space on the global stage centred on the voice and contributions” of people born of the Africa Diaspora, the PoAD has been designed by Ini Archibong. Archibong says he was inspired by the mythology surrounding conch and cowrie shells – the outdoor space mirrors some of these stories with a structure that emerges from the ground like a shell from the sand. Archibong refers to it as The Sail.

Throughout the month of the biennale the PoAD will serve as an “innovative, multi-use” educational and event facility, as well as a sanctuary in which to tell stories. Archibong says the structure is a “symbolic gateway” to the past, present and future.

While functional as a standalone piece, Archibong adds that the structure is actually part of a three-piece project. The Sail will appear in London in June, followed by The Wave in New York City in autumn 2021, and The Shell in December 2021 in Miami. The three together will serve as “a mobile destination” spotlighting the work of people from the Africa Diaspora.

@ Render by Es Devlin Studio, Photo credit: Somerset House / Kevin Meredith

Installation: Forest for Change

Previously covered on Design Week, Es Devlin’s Forest for Change: Global Goals Pavilion will see 400 trees installed in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House. The pavilion aims to drive awareness of the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The idea of bringing trees to Somerset House was to protest the idea of humans domineering over nature, Devlin says. Some 23 different varieties of tree from around the UK and Europe will make up the installation, which promises to offer “a journey of discovery and interaction”.

A central clearing within the “forest” will offer visitors information on the Global Goals, and how they might encourage and engage with them.

Exhibition: Design in an Age of Crisis

Also previously covered here on Design Week, the upcoming Design in an Age of Crisis exhibition will showcase the winning ideas from the biennale’s 2020 competition for the first time. Last year, biennale organisers put out a call to the world’s designers, asking for “radical design thinking”. The response was more than 500 submissions, across 50 countries and six continents.

Visitors will be able to see these projects in an installation designed by Juliet Quintero of architecture and design studio Dallas-Pierce-Quintero. Graphics accompanying the exhibition have been designed by Pentagram.

Some of the projects to watch out for here are Pop-Up Ecosystems from AirLab and MUDD Architects, Pillow Talk by Stephanie Kneissl and The Alley Project by TCA Think Tank.


Also check out:

  • Design in an Age of Crisis talks series – a digital series of talks in collaboration with Chatham House. These sessions will investigate how radical design ideas can shape health, work the environment and society.
  • Unfolding installation – presented by the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge, the installation will explore the “evolving relationship between nature and the city”. The project focuses on the use of engineered timber for the production of “flexible” housing.
  • Environmental Protest Piece – designed by artist Beatie Wolfe, this “re-engineered music video” uses 800,000 years of climate data for the Earth to show the effects of humans.
  • Metronome special project – from Servaire & Co and Alter Projects, Metronome aims to create a “time bubble” in which visitors can “reconnect with themselves”. The multi-sensory experience is intended to trigger a combination of visual, olfactory and sound emotions.

There is plenty more on offer from the biennale which we haven’t covered here, including pavilions from countries like Chile, Indonesia, Greece and Norway. Head to the London Design Biennale website to learn more, and to book tickets. 

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