First look at the V&A’s London Design Festival installations

This year’s set pieces explore the future of sustainable materials, the possibilities of AI and how climate anxiety can be channelled into something more positive.

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Kengo Kuma’s Weaving into Lightness

The V&A — the “hub” of London Design Festival (LDF) — has launched its series of 12 installations, which cover multiple sectors of design, from immersive experience to AI.

Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director, said on the opening morning that the festival “promotes London as a capital of culture, at an important time”. Stressing the V&A’s strong links with the festival, he also said that the museum’s aim is to “democratise access to design” and “inspire the next generation” of designers.

A positive spin on sustainability

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Sam Jacob Studio’s Sea Things

It seems likely that the next generation of designers will be exploring similar issues as the ones featured this year. From the opening piece, Sam Jacob Studio’s Sea Things, which hangs an animated screen of ocean plastic over the ornate Victorian hallway, this year’s message of sustainability in the light of the ongoing climate crisis is clear.

Jacob’s animated film lasts three minutes, and charts 150 years of ocean history, developing from an unspoiled picture of sea life to an even 50/50 split between waste and natural life, a visual based on estimations that there will soon be as much waste in the ocean as there will be natural life.

The colourful visual is a reworking from an Eames pattern from the V&A archives, chosen because it was created when people might have had a “more innocent” view of consumerism, Jacob says. It is encased in a 4x4x4m clear box, which contrasts with the Victorian surroundings. It also means that the images are reflected throughout, almost endlessly, as a comment on the vastness of the oceans and the problems they face.

Despite this, Jacob hopes that the parting message is hopeful and that viewers will feel like they are “not fated” to a world where oceans are doomed to end up like this.

Virtual reality

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Non-Pavilion

That message of hope is continued in other installations focused on global issues. Sub-Pavilion takes place in the newest area of the V&A — the Sackler courtyard on Exhibition Road where Studio Micat, There Project and Proud Studio have created a setting for digital platforms. There is no physical installation, only rods that create a three-dimensional canvas for augmented reality (AR) projections.

One playful digital design by Dutch artist Arne Hendricks imagines a world where humans are only 50cm small and therefore need less space. It fills the Sackler Courtyard with a terraced Victorian house, and as users walk forwards, it shrinks, as a way to evoke the idea of these smaller humans. Eventually there is an entire terrace of typical London houses in the courtyard. Adding to the surreal experience, a giant fox strolls through the projection.

It is a criticism of consumer culture and an attempt to highlight the surplus amount of goods in the world, particularly of relevance to the design industry. You do need an iPad to see the virtual installations though — and there will be three assistants on hand with the Apple devices. Or you can use a smartphone and download an app.

Apart from needing the correct technological devices, virtual installations present other issues. On the launch day, one of the six especially-designed applications wasn’t working.
A more seamless presentation of technology was Affinity in Autonomy by Sony Design. Using artificial intelligence, the installation sets out “to show whether robots are capable of emotion and if humans will one day begin to feel an affinity toward them.”

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Sony Design’s Affinity in Autonomy

Two robotic arms swing in cages in a dimly-lit room. Where an eye might be, there is a torch. The robots come to life and swing in an almost monkey-like rhythm, picking one of the visitors who stand around the spherical cages.

Once the robot picks someone, they mimic the person’s movements, following their hands or body as they walk around the cage. As an attempt to show our complex relationship with AI, it works. Visitors were pleased to be picked by the robot and disappointed when it slunk back to “sleep”, resting in the middle of the cage.

The studio encourages this personification of the robots; when there were too many people standing around, and the robotic arm did nothing, the assistants called them “shy”.

Storytelling in design

At the heart of the museum in the central Madejski Garden is Kengo Kuma’s Bamboo Ring: Weaving into Lightness. The structure, made from bamboo and poly-fibre, represents the Japanese architect’s heritage as well as a forward-look into sustainable materials of the future.

Kuma, who recently celebrated the anniversary of V&A Dundee — Scotland’s first design museum, and a building he designed — is also giving a keynote speech about sustainable materials. The doughnut-like structure is technically impressive and the ornate surroundings of the garden contrast nicely with the surprisingly minimal piece.

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The bench that Kwame Kwei-Armah commissioned

Just as emotionally engaging are the smaller pieces of design. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic, has worked with Tomoko Azumi on a garden bench which is a prime example of story-telling in design.

It is made from curved wood slats which recall the slave ships that brought Kwei-Armah’s ancestors from Africa to the UK. Design details, such as a hole in the bench so that rainwater doesn’t pool, and an X, as a nod to Malcolm X, blends moving story-telling with functional design.

New materials

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Rony Plesl’s Sacred Geometry

Kuma is not the only exhibitor with a focus on new materials. Rony Plesl’s Sacred Geometry features tree branches fashioned from uranium glass which emit an ethereal green glow when illuminated with UV light, appropriate as it is surrounded by religious iconography in an altar-like space at the Medieval and Renaissance galleries. The Czech designer’s installation explores his native country’s history of glass with technological advances: larger tree trunk sculptures are made from melted glass developed by Czech company Bolety.

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Avalanche

Avalanche, from Canadian design Matthew McCormick, is primarily made from Barrisol, a versatile — and crucially sustainable — material which can be shaped into organic forms. Walking into the box — a “deceptively reflective space” — visitors experience confusion, in an attempt to show “the human instinct” to escape.

It is also one of the only installations to feature sound design; recordings of the Vancouver mountains, normally out of human hearing range, have been “stretched out” to create a ghostly sound — fitting for the installation’s evocation of the climate crisis.

The installations run from 13-22 September 2019 at The V&A, Cromwell Road, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL.

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