First look: London Design Biennale 2021

The third edition of the festival – themed around resonance – puts a spotlight on materiality, racial issues and designing in an age of crisis.

Es Devlin breaks a founding rule at Somerset House this summer, as the stage designer builds a forest of over 400 trees at the central London venue. Forest for Change – which is the centrepiece of this year’s London Design Biennale (LDB) – counters the founders’ ban on trees in the building’s courtyard. Devlin believes the trees subvert the rules set by Somerset House’s Enlightenment-era designers and show how we can “counter this attitude of human dominance over nature”.

Devlin is artistic director of LDB’s third edition which, like many events, was supposed to take place last year. The delayed exhibition is now open throughout June. International designers and studios – from Argentina to Indonesia – have been invited to respond to this year’s theme of resonance. “We live in an age of hyper resonance, the consequences of which are both exhilarating and devastating,” says Devlin about the theme. “Everything we design and everything we produce resonates.”

Photo courtesy of Es Devlin

Forest for Change is not just a forest. Signposted throughout the fragrant firs and eucalyptus trees are ideals taken from the UN’s 17 Global Goals which raise awareness of problems such as gender inequality and clean water. At the centre is a circular soundscape, where recorded voices project their hopes for these goals, from ending world hunger to education equality. Devlin and her team have added an 18th podium where visitors can record their own hopes and have it projected into the forest. Together, these set the stage for the biennale where projects repond to the 2021 theme, often with an idealistic bent. When the exhibition is over, the trees will be transferred to London boroughs in a replanting initiative honouring the Queen’s Jubilee.

Though Covid is a prevalent theme of the exhibition, many of the 38 pavilions touch on the climate crisis and racial issues exposed by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Filmmaker Richard Curtis – a co-founder of Project Everyone, a non-profit organisation supporting Forest for Change – said at the biennale opening that he hopes people have “revelations” at the exhibition, pointing out that G7 is taking place in the UK shortly.

“Mother nature offers us everything”

Spoon Archaeology. Photo courtesy of ER

The exhibition theme has allowed countries to take a conceptual route into contemporary design. The Chilean pavilion, for example, presents a series of rocks from the Andes and encourages visitors to play them like a musical instrument. The designers behind the piece hope that the sound interaction prompts people to consider the material consequences of extractivism (the process of extracting natural resources from the Earth) in the global south.

For Argentina’s display, designer Cristián Mohaded also examines materials by looking at the Simbol, a plant that grows in the provinces in the northwest of the country. Over the summer, the Simbol produces brightly-hued fibres which the designer has woven into traditional baskets. “Mother nature offers us everything,” Mohaded says. “We just have to go to the fields and work with out hands.”

Materials are a common thread among the pavilions. Germany’s installation presents colourful plastic spoons as archaeological artefacts. Spoon Archaeology is prompted by the EU’s ban on plastic cutlery, which came into effect at the start of this year. Designed by Peter Eckhart and Kai Linke, the installation hopes to make people consider the effects of a throwaway society. Describing the objects as “anthropological witnesses of an era that is about to end” (the UK currently has no plans to effect a similar ban), the installation is accompanied by video which shows how other cultures eat – such as countries where people consume food with their hands.

Argentina’s pavilion. Photo courtesy of ER

The Design in an age of Crisis gallery tackles the design response to Covid-19, by exploring existing problems that the pandemic has worsened, from health to social inequality. Submissions include Belgium’s Guy Bastijns’ bicycle trailers made from reclaimed materials, which aim to side-step the energy-intensive process of recycling. Meanwhile, Waste into value, from Portuguese studio Matter, hopes to provide alternative furniture and packaging material by reusing waste. A shortlist is on view at the exhibition, though all projects are featured in an online gallery.

More conceptual projects include Finland’s Empathy Echo Chamber which seeks to challenge the polarisation and isolation, fuelled by the information age. Inside Enni-Kukka Tuomala’s inflatable and reflective installation, visitors are encouraged to share their perspectives and step outside their viewpoints. Metronome, from Servaire & Co and Alter-Projects, is a multi-sensory exhibition which uses sound and smell as a way to prompt visitors’ memories with a sleek, swinging metronome.

Metronome, from Servaire & Co and Alter-Projects

A tribute to the African diaspora

Ini Archibong’s design. Photo courtesy of ER

One of the most show-stopping installations is the pavilion for the African diaspora, created by multidisciplinary designer Ini Archibong. The sail-life structure is inspired by the mythology of the conch and cowrie shells, sea snails that are used for decoration and are sourced along the African coast and used as a tool for trade. “This is the first time my identity had anything to do with the project overtly,” Archibong said at the opening. “I was being asked to represent a country or a flag or a group of people. It caused me to reflect on who I am in this world.”

Archibong, who has Nigerian parents, grew up in California, and has lived in Singapore and Switzerland explains that the question of where he’s from has always been a difficult one to answer. Describing the education structure as a “gathering place for the people of the diaspora living in London”, Archibong dedicated it to all those people he feels kinship with.

“This was the first project that wasn’t about me as a designer,” he adds. “It was about everyone else that made it possible for me to create this, and that is the people of the diaspora.”

London Design Biennale takes place at London’s Somerset House, from 1-27 June. More information is available on the festival’s website and you can check out our guide here

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