LDF could lose “global audience” without trade shows

As 100% Design (now Design London) migrates from London Design Festival to Clerkenwell Design Week, former LDF deputy director William Knight reflects on whether LDF will still be able to attract visitors from overseas.

So, farewell 100% Design. The fair, re-badged as Design London in 2021 by owners Media 10, once defined contemporary UK design and shaped London’s creative reputation after its debut in September 1995. Now the show has been folded into Clerkenwell Design Week 2023 (CDW), the London Design Festival (LDF) will not have a cornerstone trade event for the first time in its twenty years. Having run both the LDF as deputy director and, for five years, 100% Design as show director, I see this as a pivotal moment for design trade promotion in the capital.

This latest cancellation follows a trend; the LDF has lost several trade events over recent years; Designersblock, once the edgy counterbalance to the more brand-led 100% Design, floundered on the contraction of generosity and meanwhile-use following the 2008 financial crisis. The fair that shone brightest in the 2010s, Designjunction, has yet to be seen again following patchy pre-pandemic appearances under the ownership of mega-organiser UBM/Informa. Even the long-running and well-attended Decorex moved out of the festival period some time ago. The London Design Fair (previously Tent London, and before that 100% East) returns to the festival this year after a three-year hiatus but, we’re told, in scaled-down form.

Instead of committing to LDF in September, Media 10 is adding the name Design London to its well-established three-day May event on the City fringe, CDW (which I also ran for three years). By scraping its once flagship show and boosting its focus on securing the eyeballs of architects and specifiers in May, the CDW team can now legitimately claim to be running the capital’s most significant design trade event.

Clerkenwell “does not have the global audience”

The problem for London, as it seeks a new place in a Brexited world, is Clerkenwell Design Week does not have the global audience that LDF does: just Google “London design stories” or anything similar to witness the Festival’s domination of coverage and therefore the perception of when international audiences should be in London seeking the latest in what designers here and the UK are thinking, doing and making.

The capital’s hard-won reputation as a global hub for design has relied on the broad brush strokes of trends meets culture meets ideas. Still, commerce and fairs that attract architects and designers have helped sustain it. As told now by the LDF, London’s design narrative has diverted to the plethora of neighbourhoods and communities that each strive to have their own creative identities (the rise and rise of design districts). Paradoxically, Clerkenwell has always been one of the most challenging areas to activate in September, despite the overwhelming number of ‘design’ showrooms in EC1.

The LDF is in good shape, spread across the city, accessing spaces and places others cannot and continuing to enjoy the support of the Mayor’s Office as part of the capital’s cultural season – alongside Frieze, London Fashion Week and the Film Festival. But a new trade promotion strategy needs to be included. Those other events in the autumn have programmed identifiable international business opportunities at their core. For this, they’re valued by the industries they reflect – and the city’s economists for contributions to turnover and reputation.

Over the twenty-plus years of the Mayor’s coordinated approach to supporting creative industries, the capital has done a much better job of promoting this prized asset. However, exhibition organisers in the capital need help with underlying challenges such as the scarcity and cost of venues, the need for a buying/ordering culture at UK trade fairs and a free-entry culture for trade visitors.

“There is appetite for commercial events in September”

Having launched the Material Matters fair at last year’s London Design Festival, I’m convinced there is still a significant appetite for commercial events in September. However, they need to be adaptable, relevant to a range of interests and committed to exploring new thinking that reflects industry issues, concerns and opportunities. In contrast to the first edition in 2003, LDF now has a large decerning, plugged-in and well-travelled audience base. The key to future success is returning international visitors and this is made more difficult without a ‘big trade fair’ visit to justify expenses.

We should mourn the loss of what was 100% Design; it forged a new sense of the brilliance and potential of UK design and provided a launchpad for luminaries such as Tom Dixon, Inflate, Michael Young and Ella Doran, to mention just a few. But also because its demise is a loss to our design promotion infrastructure. Characteristically, I’m sure London will re-invent its international trade offering for design. For now, we have a polarised landscape; a strengthened domestic offering in one postcode for the commercial world in May and a diffused culture-led offering for wider audiences in September. Let’s hope we can come back together again.

William Knight is co-founder of Material Matters and director of The Renew Consultancy. 

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